Thursday, March 5, 2009

Yo-Yo Ma and Ethical Obligations

In Howard Gardner’s most recent book, Five Minds for the Future, Gardner considers what we will need for the future. He has five minds – the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind and the ethical mind. Much of Gardner’s writing on the ethical mind is from a previous book of his, Good Work, which I found to be a fascinating read.
In Five Minds, Gardner reflects on a conversation with Yo-Yo Ma. Ma presents three duties, if you will, for musicians. It suggests a simple yet persuasive personal code of ethics. Here’s what Gardner wrote about Ma.

In June 2005, I asked the cellist Yo-Yo Ma what he considered to be good work in his role as a leading musical performer. Based on much previous reflection, Ma outlined three distinct obligations: (1) to perform the repertoire as excellently as possible; (2) to be able to work together with other musicians, particularly under conditions where one has to proceed rapidly, and develop the necessary common understandings and trust: and (3) to pass on one’s knowledge, skills, understanding and orientation to succeeding generations, so that music he cherishes can endure. (pg 151).

I admire this very much because it is clear and yet encompassing. The first obligation is quite inspirational and encourages one to work at the top of their game and pursue excellence. This has real possibility for us in arts education. What if we all shared a value for ourselves and our students to perform or create as excellently as possible? Our accomplishment of excellence would of course vary greatly but isn’t the effort to reach towards excellence an important ethical attribute?

The second emphasizes the collaborative nature of performance. It does not guide us in how we should specifically behave towards other musicians (i.e. respectfully) but perhaps that is not the point. The third obligation particularly resonates in that it relates not only to future musicians but also to future musical audiences and appreciators.

I also like how these three obligations broaden in scope as you progress through them. The first is quite personal about the relationship between musician and music. The second obligation opens up the lens and considers other musicians, who may vary over the course of a career. The last obligation is very large in its consideration of the future and the larger society. Lovely.

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