The Who2 Blog

Why Is Ma Named ‘Yo-Yo’?

How did cellist Yo-Yo Ma get his name?

Some years ago, he told interviewer David Blum that “Yo,” which in Chinese means “friendship,” was the generational character chosen for him and his sister, Yeou-Cheng ’73, M.D. ’77, now a violinist and pediatrician, who is four years older than he. “With me,” he said, “[my parents] seem to have got lazy and been unable to think of anything else, so they added another Yo.”

So call him “Friend-Friend Ma.”

That tidbit is from Yo-Yo Ma’s Journeys, a swell Harvard Magazine profile from 2000. Yo-Yo Ma graduated from Harvard in 1976, so the magazine lays on the love. (“‘People are always bringing babies to him to be kissed, and pushing folks in wheelchairs. I asked him once if he was planning to raise the dead.'”) Still, it has tons of great Yo-Yo detail, especially on his youth.

Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese emigrants, moved to New York City at age 7, played for John and Jacqueline Kennedy in Washington, and yet somehow managed to escape the usual child-prodigy blues.

He passes on the secret:

“Often,” he continues, “I meet young people getting really involved in music early. You know, the child-prodigy syndrome. Based on my own experience, I tell these kids and their parents: ‘Remember that what you do between the ages of, say, 12 and 21 is creating your emotional bank account. You’ll be withdrawing from that account the rest of your life, so make sure you put in stuff that really counts. If you do nothing but tour during those years, if you are center stage from concert hall to hotel to limo rides to the airport, that is what you will be withdrawing from because that is all you’ll know.'”

Great stuff. Also, where else are you going to find lines like this?

“I used to tell him, ‘Yo-Yo, you have one of the greatest medulla oblongatas in the world.'”

Read the full piece, or visit our Yo-Yo Ma biography »


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