Tim Mikulski

Tim Mikulski

As I have been sitting back at my desk at Americans for the Arts this afternoon, I’ve had a hard time coming up with a way to describe what I experienced last night at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It could be the lack of sleep, the lack of coffee, or the abundance of Twizzlers and Clif Bars I’ve eaten during and before Arts Advocacy Day 2013; but, I’m not convinced of that.

Watching Yo-Yo Ma’s combined lecture and performance of a speech called “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician” as our 26th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy last night was priceless.

Not only did it feature eloquent points about the power of arts education and being a citizen musician, but it also featured memorable performances by jooker Lil’ Buck, bagpiper Cristina Pato, MusiCorps, and teaching artist Greg Loman and founder Arthur Bloom—two of which brought tears to the eyes of those around me in the Concert Hall.

Before I get too involved in describing it, I guess I should provide you with a chance to watch the entire event below or you can continue reading and click on the links to see the specific parts I point out as I attempt to capture the night to the best of my ability.

I’ll wait here while you watch…

Speaking of arts education, Ma explained that experts say there are four qualities needed in students and inside the current workforce: collaborative, flexible, imaginative, and innovative.

Ma said, “We know that our present educational system encourages knowledge acquisition and critical thinking, but what about these other qualities? How do we develop them?” He thinks the answers are in the arts through its integration into the entire school curricula.

Bringing a little science to the mix, Ma said that the “edge effect” is the point in ecology where “two eco-systems meet” and “in that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

He then went on to explain that this effect impacted his life as he initially balanced his immigration from Paris to New York City at the age of seven and then again in examples like the fact that he played at one of the first fundraisers for what would eventually become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a young child, too.

It was at that event that he met Danny Kaye who literally came down to his level in order to speak with the young cellist “in order to be an equal.” Ma said Kaye came to the edge of a child who was probably fairly uncomfortable and won him over.

Ma explained that since then he “subliminally internalized this gesture and attitude today” and has tried to apply that concept to everything he does—to meet people at eye level, at their edge that decides one person from another.”

Ma, Parto, & Lil' Buck perform "The Swan"

Ma, Parto, & Lil’ Buck perform “The Swan”

At this point that he turned to his cello, invited dancer Lil’ Buck and pianist Cristina Pato to the stage for a performance that left the audience smiling and nodding in silence (minus a “wow!” or two that I could hear from my back row orchestra seat…Lil’ Buck formed a swan with his body to end the performance named after the bird!).

Ma returned to the main topic of “Arts for Life’s Sake” as he set up a performance that may stick with me for the rest of my life.

He began by saying that “musicians spend years learning technique, but the point of art is always to transcend technique. That’s when we get to meaning. We transcend technique in order to seek out the truths in our world in a way that gives meaning and sustenance to individuals and communities—that’s art for life’s sake.”

From there, Ma said he wanted to share with the audience an example of an artist responding to need in the form of Arthur Bloom, who developed MusiCorps which is a program that works with injured service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

I just had a chill even thinking about the stirring rendition of Levon Helm’s “Wide River to Cross” that followed. The song was emotionally performed by Specialist Nathan Kalwicki, Lance Corporal Josh Cawthorn, Sergeant Rex Tharp, Corporal Marcus Dandrea, Lance Corporal Tim Donley, and MusiCorps teaching artists Greg Loman and Arthur Bloom.

Lance Corporal Tim Donley raises his arm to the crowd after singing "Wide River to Cross."

Lance Corporal Tim Donley raises his arm to the crowd after singing “Wide River to Cross.”

After the performance Ma returned to the “edge effect” stating that “as music therapists know, by combining two things many don’t usually associate (music and healthcare), Arthur has discovered a new path for healing for these veterans. And, as Arthur explains, this real work, discipline, and rigor. You can see for yourselves the transformative power of what the veterans are doing when Lance Corporal Tim Donley, who says so beautifully at age 21 that he feels blessed to have found two great loves in his life. First, the marines and now, music.”

Ma went on to discuss his arts education work through his own Silk Road Project and the Turnaround Arts initiative, and the importance of including the arts in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning.

He concluded with a performance of Sarabande by Bach from the Sixth Suite for Solo Cello.

While the event came at the end of our training sessions for Arts Advocacy Day the next day, everyone in the Hall felt that the impact of Yo-Yo Ma’s lecture will likely live on well beyond as more of us take the time to appreciate, participate in, and cherish “Art for Life’s Sake.”

5 Responses to “Yo-Yo Ma Spins an Emotional Tale of “Art for Life’s Sake””

  1. Ruth Catchen says:

    Being an advocate of the arts, a former performer, and currently an implementor of STEAM education, I found this video very powerful. I shared, tweeted and wrote. The same for the google hangout which followed. Honestly, nothing was said that I don’t know or believe or have said myself. Hearing it put together in one place by so many celebrated people was emotional for me, giving it the depth of meaning that it deserves. It is my hope that when notables come together for a cause, it will have legs. To all of you out there who can write or talk, do it. Tell your community, parents, educators and citizens to speak up. I know from my work that teaching the arts and integrating it into mainstream education works. I have seen that light in student’s eyes. Please pass it on.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0lUQF4EA7U&feature=plcp

    http://bcove.me/5opigvw2

  2. [...] Internationally-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma incorporated interdisciplinary performances and thoughtful commentary into his presentation, entitled “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician.”  [...]

  3. [...] have already blogged excellent summaries about this. After watching I wanted to see more dancing by Charles “Lil’Buck” [...]

  4. [...] As I have been sitting back at my desk at Americans for the Arts this afternoon, I've had a hard time coming up with a way to describe what I experienced last night at The John F. Kennedy Center fo…  [...]

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