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Yo-Yo Ma’s Scoliosis Story

yo yo ma scoliosis

Yo-Yo Ma is a French-born American cellist, virtuoso, orchestral composer. He was born in Paris in 1955 to Chinese parents. When he was four he began to study the cello with his father and moved with his family to New York. He was mentored by Leonard Rose at The Julliard School and graduated from Harvard University in 1976.


Ma has received numerous awards; multiple Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. He serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. He has performed for eight American presidents, most recently at the invitation of President Obama on the occasion of the 56th Inaugural Ceremony.

Ma is one of the most famous cellists today and currently plays with his own Silk Road Ensemble, which has the goal of bringing together musicians from diverse countries all of which are historically linked via the Silk Road. He has also made appearances on “Arthur,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street.

When Yo-Yo Ma was 25 he had scoliosis surgery. The condition was undoubtedly aggravated by playing the cello.

"In one way, it was a most wonderful thing to go through, because you think about what's important--you may come out being able to play the cello but if not, you realize you can still go on and lead a productive life. Music also deals with life-and-death questions, sickness, overcoming tragedy. So those things you've gone through add to your life experience and therefore your understanding of the music, and there's more depth to your communicating of the music."

Ma was 24 and had developed a “s” curvature with one 63 degree curve and one 67 degree curve that reduced the volume and space in his lungs. He had avoided surgery because he didn’t want to halt his career for months of down time required by surgery.

There are tremendous risks involved with spinal surgery as there are numerous nerves connected to the spinal that risk of being damaged. Most severe is the risk of PARALYSIS or DEATH..

“Jill (his wife) knew the risk before we were married, and she had faith in me even if it turned out that I couldn’t continue playing.”
“I had to decide that there’s more to life than cello.”

After surgery Ma had to be  in a upper body cast for 6 months.

“Playing any acoustic instrument in a large hall is strenuous. A lot of cellists end up with bad backs or tendonitis. I do aerobics, lift weights, all that stuff to insulate against the short nights and cramped airplanes.”

Sources: Yo-Yo Ma: A Biography By Jim Whiting (ch 7, pgs 57-60) & [1,2]

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