Classical music

At Yo-Yo Ma China music camp, classical musicians learn improv, how to try new things, and trust 

Nine days of classes in Guangzhou take students out of their comfort zone – and Ma, the event’s musical director, is always on hand to encourage, advise and inspire them to experiment and try the unknown 

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 9:17am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 5:44pm

Nervous and excited, 65 young musicians gather in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra Rehearsal Hall for their first day of a nine-day music camp. Aged 18 to 35, most are from China, with a few from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the United States and France.

They all wear sweatshirts bearing the letters YMCG, which stand for “Youth Music Culture Guangdong”. Amid the sea of black shirts it is difficult to spot the music camp’s artistic director, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, until he stands up on the conductor’s podium.

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The aim of the music camp is “deep learning”, Ma says, in which the students make connections with the people they meet, but also discovering what links classical music composers such as Beethoven and the improvisational Silk Road Ensemble that Ma founded in 1998.

It is the second such annual musical camp hosted by Ma in the southern Chinese metropolis. Participation is free for those who pass video auditions, as is food and accommodation. Students’ only expense is the cost of their travel to Guangzhou.

Once on board, they are asked to reflect on what it means to be a musician today and how they respond to events as artists. Ma wants them to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, the “Eroica”, because 2020 will see the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth and because his works are reflections of events both personal and political.

The students do a run-through of the symphony – and Ma sits in the back of the cello section. For Australian Chinese cellist Rachel Siu, 20, it is a thrill having him sitting two seats behind her as they play the first movement. It will be the first of many such interactions during the camp. 

“You’d think someone as famous as Yo-Yo would not have the time and energy to speak to all these students who admire him, but he’s always checking in on us, making sure we’re happy. He is so full of life and has so much to say about music,” she says.


Ma’s infectious enthusiasm convinces Siu that she has chosen the right career path. Before she was even five years old, Siu wanted to learn to play the biggest instrument she had seen – the cello. Her father, a classical music enthusiast, played a recording of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and she was drawn to the instrument.

“When I was around 15, my parents started pressuring me to focus on my academic studies because they were worried that music wouldn’t be able to provide for me. I complied for quite a while, studying a lot more, but at one point it made me really upset that I couldn’t play music as much as I used to,” she says. 

Her parents agreed she could continue playing the cello if was accepted by The Juilliard School in New York and earned a scholarship. With only weeks until the application deadline, she met both criteria and is now in her third year at the prestigious music school.

While Siu and the other students excel at playing classical music, usually by reading scores, YMCG places a great deal of emphasis on learning improvisation – uncharted territory for many.

“I’ve never pushed myself to improvise before because I’ve always been so anxious about it. I’m worried I’m going to play the wrong note, I’m going to sound bad, and I’m just going to humiliate myself in front of people,” Siu says.

But Mike Block, also a cellist and member of the Silk Road Ensemble, eases the students’ fears. “Something that makes you uncomfortable is a good thing,” he tells them.

Music builds trust. I think there’s a huge lack of trust in our world, so how do you build it? Do we just get smaller and smaller so you only trust a few people?
Yo-Yo Ma

Block, from the United States, started teaching them a West African song by ear. He sings one phrase, which they sing back to him and repeat on their instruments. Eventually, they learn four melodic parts of the song, repeating them over and over. He then divides the students into four groups, each of which plays one of the melodies. Instant results are seen.

“I went into it really scared because I didn’t know what to expect,” Siu recalls of splitting into smaller groups. “I forced myself to sit at the front, where I made myself as uncomfortable as possible, but at the same time I got really excited and more familiar with it really quickly. I had the time of my life and that was the first time I had done that. It wasn’t intimidating at all.”

This is the reaction Ma is looking for. “If we don’t know something, we sometimes attribute horrible things to it. I’m going to be a disaster! I don’t know how to do this,” says Ma. “So Mike [Block] is saying, ‘Hey, try one note, try two notes, just fool around with it’, and then you’re in. 

“He gave Rachel the opportunity to jump into the water, but you have to start from the inside. You can’t sit outside and say, ‘maybe I’ll learn something’. You have to actually go and do it. And once you’re in there the water isn’t hurting you. Now a whole world will open up to her.”

You’d think someone as famous as Yo-Yo would not have the time and energy to speak to all these students who admire him, but he’s always checking in on us, making sure we’re happy
Rachael Siu, cellist

A few days later, Block explains the connection between improvisation and Beethoven. “Improvising was part of the classical skill set. Composers like him, Bach and Haydn wrote concertos with cadenzas for the soloist to improvise,” he says.

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So when did improvising stop? “It’s a fascinating history where improvisation got lost along the way; ironically it was around Beethoven’s time, because somehow we put the composer first and foremost, and tried to follow exactly what the composer had in mind,” Block says. 

“When Beethoven was young he was known as an improviser … they used to have improvisation competitions and he was a star,” he adds. “We’re trying to reintroduce improvisation into the classical community, reconnecting the ear and head, back to the hand.” 

Block says that through improvisation, classical musicians can learn different musical cultures; at YMCG, students learned American, Scottish, Chinese and Arabic tunes.

YMCG was established last year after Ma and Yu Long, a conductor and the music director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, discussed working with young musicians in China. Yu persuaded the Guangdong government to provide financial support and venues for the music camp, and got sponsors on board to offer students hotel rooms, meals and transport. 

Ma encouraged a team of musicians, including American bassist Edgar Meyer, Block and conductor Michael Stern – the late violinist Isaac Stern’s son – to come to the Chinese city.

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Yu hopes the camp will open students’ eyes to new possibilities. “I don’t expect everyone to become a musician in the future, but maybe they can become a teacher or a leader of a music institution, or become a supporter or a sponsor,” he says. 

The last day of YMCG is crunch time. Students have to perform their pieces – including improvised ones – in front of an audience at Guangzhou’s Xinghai Concert Hall. Siu is thrilled to have not only her paternal grandparents from the city watching, but also her mother, who flew in from Sydney. 

Reflecting on her time at YMCG, Siu is enthusiastic about improvisation, and will look into signing up for violin workshops. And she has learned much about Beethoven. The camp has reaffirmed her love of music – and of Yo-Yo Ma, who gave her a high five immortalised in a photograph.

Ma says music is a way for him to understand the world and how people feel about things. And one of the issues – or lack of it – is trust. 

“Music builds trust. I think there’s a huge lack of trust in our world, so how do you build it? Do we just get smaller and smaller so you only trust a few people? Or can you actually open up and say, it’s OK, we’ll commit. I think those are the things music tries to examine, and when the trust is there, everybody feels it.”

Ma hopes that the nine-day camp has established a certain level of trust among the participants, so that “when they meet one another at various times throughout life, that trust is going to be there – oh yeah, I know so-and-so from YMCG. That’s the kind of thing we want to build, just a little microcosm of a microcosm in musical form.”