FIRST/PERSON: Finding Yo-Yo Ma playing cello in the West Virginia hills

Colorized screen grab from video (below) of Yo-Yo performing, leaned up against a tree in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. | October 2022

By Michael Tierney | November, 2022 |

Our Step by Step crew had spent 90 minutes on an occasionally challenging trail at New River Gorge, 12 students from Kanawha, Lincoln and Logan counties and a handful of staff, when we heard the sweet sounds of the “Simple Gifts” theme from “Appalachian Spring.” And that is how we came upon Yo-Yo Ma, leaning against a tree playing his cello. The chattering of new friends from across county lines, and the occasional puffing from less-fit adult chaperones, ceased as he segued into “Amazing Grace,” closing with the “Going Home” theme from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.”

Our students knew they were coming to New River and would meet Yo-Yo Ma as part of his dedication to bringing music to natural settings and to learning from people across the world. In America, his outdoor sojourns have taken him from the Grand Canyon, to playing cello at the Mexican-US border to demonstrate that culture builds bridges not walls.

VIDEO/CLIP: Yo-Yo Ma’s up-against-a-tree West Virginia solo

CLICK VIDEO TO VIEW: Yo-Yo Ma plays cell in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. | October 2022

We had expected great music. We could not have anticipated his gentle, but persistent curiosity about the students and their lives. The afternoon moved into Yo-Yo white water rafting with the students (encouraging everyone to growl like pirates because the more you screamed the less likely you were to tip over). And there was an easy-going dinner at a picnic shelter across from Thurman, where we passed out dry socks to the shivering but happy crowd.

We were joined by poet and media entrepreneur Crystal Good; banjo/guitar impressario Don Flemons; and Kathy Mattea, who spent 45 minutes talking with an excited ninth grader from Man High School over dinner. They each shared a poem, a song, and jammed with Yo-Yo, with Kathy leading us in “Country Roads” to close the evening.

Appalachian meal sharing at Lost Creek Farms with Yo-Yo Ma. | PHOTO BY AUSTIN MANN from Yo-Yo Ma’s website

My Step by Step Co-Director Michael Farmer and I experienced the performer’s close-in attention first hand the evening before with 20 others at Lost Creek Farm over dinner. Yo Yo wanted to know how we had connected and what had brought us to our life’s work with youth and families. He made connections between our lives and affirmed our “crossing borders” in ways that “benefit us all.”

At New River, despite the star-packed entourage, Yo-Yo focused on the students. It was all about his desire to learn about and from them. Of all the activities on his whirlwind tour of West Virginia, this was the one that had no cameras, no press releases, no capturing the moment for later publicity.

In closing, Yo-Yo made a commitment to do ZOOM meet-ups with the students once per year until they graduate from high school (a five-year commitment since the youngest is in eighth grade). He reveled in the fun they all had together, competing on the river (which brought a round of pirate ‘AAAA-aarrghs ….!!!’ from the crowd).

FROM LEFT: Don Flemons, Kathy Mattea, Michael Farmer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Michael Tierney | New River Gorge in WV | October 2022

“One of the things I’ve learned from being in West Virginia is the kind of trust that you have toward one another that creates the kind of community that you treasure.

~ Yo-Yo Ma

He left us with these words:

“I came as a stranger and leave feeling so welcomed with your hearts, with your minds, with your hands, and with all that you represent. I leave with a certain amount of pride in who we are.

“You let me know your humanity and that’s what we are. We are in this together. One of the things I hold so dear as a value in music, in culture, in cultural relationships, is that once you start in a relationship you never break it.

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“And one of the things I’ve learned from being in West Virginia is the kind of trust that you have toward one another that creates the kind of community that you treasure. That, in fact, is a treasure that we all across the country can learn from you. And that kind of trust becomes pride, becomes the strong traditions that you know you have that you own. And the more you make that apparent and external, the more the world around you can appreciate what you already have.

“I leave no longer a stranger. I hope you feel you know me a little better. But I hope you know that commitment I feel toward all of you. My new community, my new friends — I for one will never forget this moment.”

Yo-Yo Ma with some of the Step by Step crew in the New River Gorge in West Virginia.

My favorite moment came when Yo Yo ended his short forest concert. He went immediately to the students to ask about their lives. What instruments did they play? What music did they love? He set them at ease.

One high school senior from the state’s coalfields had something to say to the cellist, a young man who will be the first in his family to attend college. His trumpet playing has helped him through the rough patches of the pandemic, during which he lost a beloved grandfather.

“My band teacher told me you are the best cello player in the world,” he said to the musician.

Yo Yo smiled, and replied:

“There are no bests in music. Musicians never stop exploring. It’s like being here in nature— there are infinite things to learn so no one can be the best. We are all unique. No two of us is alike.”

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