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Classical Sprouts: Yo-Yo Ma and that one Bach cello suite

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing outdoors and smiling
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing outdoors

Yo-Yo Ma is a cello legend.

He was a child prodigy who started performing classical cello at age 4, and he’s since appeared on over 120 albums and received 19 Grammy Awards!

He also plays in a ton of genres, and has done a lot of work advocating for peace and the environment, and is known as a really humble and kind guy, not just an amazing musician.

We’re getting to know all about the amazing cellist, Yo-Yo Ma through his connection to that one Bach Cello suite he’s famous for playing this week on Classical Sprouts.

Born in Paris to Chinese parents in 1955, Ma started learning cello at the age of four.

Each day, he learned one line of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, until he knew the whole piece!

When he was 7, he and his parents moved to New York City, and he studied at Juilliard, and then went to Harvard for college! Not only was he great at cello, he was one smart cookie!

As he grew up and started playing professionally and getting famous, he also started recording Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites.

Bach actually wrote a total of 6 suites for unaccompanied cello, and they are some of the most frequently performed solo compositions ever written for cello.

Yo-Yo Ma has recorded all 6 of them three different times, sometimes waiting between 15 and 20 years between the next time he recorded them. And these recordings are some of the most famous versions of these already famous pieces.

Although he’s recorded all 6 in his lifetime, he is most famous for playing the first one, and specifically the first movement from the first one.

Almost 65 years after he first started learning That first movement of the first suite, Ma is STILL performing and recording versions of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.

And in doing so, he’s also using the fact that he’s a well-known and well-regarded musician, to fight for what he believes in.

In 2023, he recorded just THAT cello suite live in the Great Smoky Mountains on an album called “Nature At Play.” You can even hear the birds and stream in the background!

Any money that this album earns goes to a charity called EarthPercent, that helps artists and the music industry support the most impactful organizations currently addressing climate change.

How cool!

He appeared as a guest on "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" in 1985 where he described how he uses playing the cello to express big emotions!

See the episode here!

What can we learn from the amazing Yo-Yo Ma? Work hard, play well, and strive to make a difference for good in the world.

And maybe that the things we learn as kids end up sticking with us for our whole lives!

Be sure to subscribe to Classical Sprouts wherever you get your podcasts and follow @classicalsprouts on Instagram to join our inclusive community.

Support IPR to help Sprouts grow, just tell us in the comments that your donation is for Classical Sprouts.

Classical Sprouts is produced by Emily Duncan Wilson.

What happens when you combine classical music with bluegrass? A goat rodeo! This week on Classical Sprouts, join Producer Emily as she shares some of the music from The Goat Rodeo Sessions, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.
Emily Duncan Wilson is IPR's digital content manager and is the producer of "Classical Sprouts" and "Kids Commute".