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‘Head, Heart and Hands’: Praemium Imperiale Laureate Yo-Yo Ma on Inspirations in his Music

The globally renowned and beloved 2021 Music Laureate says, ‘My mixed up cultural background has both confused me, but it's also given me an incredible richness of different realities to draw from.’




The arts enrich our lives and express where we are as humanity at any given moment, help us understand where we’ve been, and give us hints at where we might be going. 

In this first year of the resumption of the Praemium Imperiale awards after the COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the globe, the Japan Arts Association has selected laureates in the fields of art, sculpture, architecture and music, whose individual achievements, and impact on the arts internationally, have played a role in enriching the global community.

This year’s laureate in music is cellist Yo-Yo Ma (U.S.), recognized by the Japan Arts Association as “one of the greatest musicians of our time” and a “passionate advocate for culture and its power to generate trust and understanding”. 

In an interview upon being named the 2021 Praemium Imperiale Laureate in the field of music, the artist reflected on his musical journey. Excerpts of his comments follow.

Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello.

On early influences:

In a way role models in life, in career, in music, in [any] sector, obviously early role models are people who do the same thing. You know, my cello teacher, Leonard Rose. And Pablo Casals, whom I loved because he had his value system of saying I'm a human being first, a musician second, a cellist third.

On respected composers:

For me, Bach epitomizes the idea of a musical scientist who is trying to describe nature and human nature.

And I say musical scientist with care, because I think the way he composed and wrote music was with such attention to so many layers of detail that all fit together in both a logical and transcendent way. [It’s] the way a scientist may pursue knowledge, extracting knowledge from nature as a form of truth. And I think Bach achieves the same result, in sound.


I think cellists are so gifted by Bach in that he wrote magnificent pieces for cello alone. But the one aspect of Bach that I usually never talk about is that I think Bach was able to do something impossible ー that he tried to write for the cello in a way that the cello can't do.

Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello (Praemium Imperiale interview)

On the mixing of cultures:

My mixed up cultural background has both confused me, but it's also given me an incredible richness of different realities to draw from.

In ecology you have something called the edge effect, where you have two different ecosystems meet at the edge, at the border. You have the least density of life, but you have the most new life created.

On playing for an audience:

If I'm visiting a community, I'm always a guest in the community – until I perform. And then everything I've learned about the community [comes out] when I'm on stage, 

I'm the host. So I'm actually communicating back to the people that are there what I know about them. But they're here as my guests, and that creates a kind of binary system that flips over and over again.

On what matters most in life:

I believe truly that the best thinking comes out of combining three things: head, heart and hands.

Because the hands are part of our brain. The heart is also part of our brain. And so often school teaches us just to use analytical thinking.

We know the best decisions come from people who can use both analytical thinking, and their heart and intuition, and listen to that alongside the analysis. 

But making things puts theory into practice, into one slot. 

And so head, heart, and hands.

Yo-Yo Ma leaving the interview with Praemium Imperiale.


Author: JAPAN Forward

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