By the age of 30, Yo-Yo Ma was widely regarded as one of the world’s finest classical cellists, both onstage and in the studio. A child prodigy, by the time he was seven years old he was performing at the John F. Kennedy Library for President Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy. Later Ma would hone his craft in graduating from The Juilliard School and Harvard University, which prepared him to perform as a soloist with orchestras around the world. A prolific musician, Ma has recorded more than 100 albums and received 18 Grammy Awards.
In addition to recordings of the standard classical repertoire, he has recorded a wide variety of folk music, such as American bluegrass, traditional Chinese melodies, Argentinean tangos, and Brazilian music. As one of the most sought-after cellists in the world, Ma has received numerous awards, including the National Medal of the Arts (2001), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2010), and Kennedy Center Honors (2011). Notably, he has performed for eight American presidents, most recently at the invitation of President Obama on the occasion of the 56th Inaugural Ceremony. Since 2006, Ma has also served as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 2020, Ma was included in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of the year.
Ma's connection with Harvard goes back to 1972, having just graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School. Instead of attending a conservatory like many of his peers, he decided to enroll at Harvard University at age 16. Determined to experience college life, Ma limited his performances at Harvard and took courses in everything from anthropology to German literature.
"Harvard has everything to do with my trying to stretch boundaries," Ma said about his student days in Cambridge. "My Harvard experience informs my life to this day. As a kid, I had lived in different places, but still I was fairly protected. Harvard was the first place in my life where I was systematically introduced to different worlds and ways of thinking.”
His hard work paid off too when in 1976, Ma graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology. As much as Harvard left an impression on Ma, the same could be said for his alma mater. In fact, after graduating, Ma spent the next three years on Harvard's campus as artist-in-residence at Leverett House. Since leaving, however, Ma has repeatedly found reason to return to his alma mater over the years, including to receive awards. In 2009, Harvard gave Ma an honorary doctorate degree, later adding a Harvard Arts Medal in 2004 for Ma's unequivocal achievements in the arts.
Naturally, Ma has also been happy to return to Cambridge to perform at different school functions. Among many examples, Ma joined university leaders onstage in 2011 to celebrate Harvard's 375th anniversary. He also created the nonprofit organization, Silk Road Ensemble, which has been affiliated with Harvard since 2005.