Yo-Yo Ma has been known for doing the unexpected throughout his cello career, which spans the past three decades. His ongoing goal of connecting with audiences has led him beyond the concert hall and into multi-genre collaborations, popular film scores and viral YouTube videos.
Over the past several months, some lucky Toronto middle school students have had the chance to connect with Yo-Yo Ma in a very 21st century way: using Skype, an online video-conference service.
On two occasions, students at Alexander Muir/Gladstone Public School assembled tightly into their school library in front of a webcam. Projected onto the front wall was the friendly face of perhaps the most well known living figure in music. Ma visited the students first from his office outside of Boston, then a hotel room between rehearsal and a concert.
The Skyping is part of Ma’s residency with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, one that began months before his arrival on Canadian soil this week. The purpose of this educational initiative is to inspire students to think creatively about the arts and the world around them.
“They have contemplated the power of their imaginations, and the way their emotions affect their learning," describes Julie Grierson, a teacher at Alexander Muir/Gladstone Public School, as she reflects on the conversation between the students and Ma.
The conversations centred around the Toronto Music Garden, designed by Ma and inspired by the movements of Bach’s Cello Suites. By the end of the two Skype sessions, students were able to make connections between different parts of the world by using the arts. The project wraps with a visit from Ma this week, this time face to face.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal double bassist Jeffrey Beecher, who has also visited and worked with the students throughout the project, believes that more classrooms can benefit from using online video-conference technology such as Skype. Beecher recently gave a masterclass for the Manhattan School of Music from Toronto. He notes that, “while Skype can’t replace the quality of face to face interactions, I do expect to see more.” In a country as spread out as Canada, perhaps Skype can open many doors for prospective musicians across the country.
“They were surprised at how much they enjoyed the conversations with him [Ma],” says Grierson, about the lucky students in Toronto. "And the fact that they have been invited to be part of a project with such a special person has made them feel special themselves.”
As one student wrote in his journal, “this is the best and most special thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Do you think online video-conferencing will catch on in the classical music world? Would you participate in a virtual lesson or do you prefer face to face? Have your say in the comments below.
CBC News: Yo-Yo Ma fosters Toronto students' creativity
Montreal International Musical Competition on CBC Music
CBC Radio 2 Tempo
Q&A: Behind the scenes with the violinist James Ehnes
Winona Zelenka plays J.S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 5
on May 28, 2012