By Stephanie Chase
Guest Columnist
New York, NY, USA

Although we have many friends in common, I first met Yeou-Cheng Ma about ten years ago when she invited me to perform as soloist with the Children’s Orchestra Society, an educational music program and orchestra founded by her father, Dr. Hiao-Tsiun Ma. Since then we have met quite regularly for informal chamber music readings – she is an accomplished violinist, violist and pianist – and she has performed on my own chamber music series in New York. Her brother is the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Yeou-Cheng and Yo-Yo Ma

Dr. Ma is a Developmental Pediatrician and a graduate of Radcliffe College and Harvard Medical School. She works with children with developmental disorders at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx, often performs as a chamber musician, and teaches violin, viola, and chamber music for The Children's Orchestra Society. Her recent interests include optimizing communication in all children, exploring the relationship of music to young children's temperament, and using music as a means to find the "inner language" of children who have difficulties in verbal communication. Her work as Executive Director of the Children's Orchestra Society has been recognized by multiple awards. 

Dr. Ma was a child prodigy who has studied violin with Dr. H. T. Ma, Firmin Touche, Arthur Grumiaux, Koji Toyoda and Sheila Reinhold, piano with Germaine Mounier and Rose Simon, and chamber music with Leon Kirchner. She gave her first recital on violin and piano at age seven, was the winner of a French National Competition, Royaume de la Musique, at age ten, and played Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at age eleven with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. In more recent years she has performed regularly in chamber music groups with COS faculty and friends.

Stephanie Chase: What is your earliest musical memory and when did you begin to play an instrument?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I remember hearing my mother singing, and my father playing the violin. There was always music in our modest home in Paris. I got a plywood violin with painted strings, pegs and f holes when I was a few months old. I heard my father listening to a Beethoven Symphony and learning conducting. So I tried to go conduct the chestnut trees in the Jardin Luxembourg, singing “do la sib do la fa, do fa fa mi mi fa sol la sib” expecting the trees to sing back “sib sol la sib si do, sib la do fa sol sol la,” like the clarinet responds; but they didn’t, of course! I think that was before I started playing the violin at age two and a half and piano at three. Of course, I did not know which Beethoven Symphony it was, or what instruments were playing. I remember hearing a joke that my father told about an exam at the conservatory: “How many symphonies did Beethoven write?” – “Three.” – “What are they?” – “The Eroica, the Fifth and the Ninth,” and I wondered why that was funny.

I also remember being impressed at the music that came out of our enormous radio, and I thought that there was a tiny orchestra inside the radio and tried to peer into it. My very first orchestral experience was at age six, when my father could not find a baby-sitter, so he brought me to his orchestra rehearsal and sat me in the last seat of second violins. The piece was Bach’s B minor Suite for Orchestra. I started playing the first note, and immediately got lost, and finally caught on the last note of the movement. In subsequent rehearsals I played a few more notes each time, and when I heard the piece on the radio, I excitedly said: “Papa, they are playing OUR piece!”

Stephanie Chase: What delightful memories! And being included in the orchestra as such a small child must have been a thrilling experience. When I was very young my mother would occasionally have me sit in while she led the high school orchestra where she taught – it’s now called New Trier West – and I was so excited to be there with the older kids.

How did you come to study with the Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux, who was also my teacher, at the age of five?

Yeou-Cheng with Clara Haskil and Arthur Grumiaux

Yeou-Cheng Ma: My father was my first teacher, and I had daily lessons of five minutes each day, as he taught me “a new trick” every day, so I was always excited to find out what new exciting thing I could learn each day. Later I studied with Firmin Touche, who was also the teacher of Ginette Neveu. He used to call me “my little Ginette Neveu.” I found out that she died at a young age, so I thought that I too would die young. He was very methodical, and was very annoyed that my left hand pinky could not stay curved, but always stuck up in the air. Later, as a Developmental Pediatrician I found out that young children’s nerves are not fully myelinated, so that they cannot control the independence of fingers. One day, he brought a pen knife and slapped it down on the table at my lesson, and I thought to myself “oh, but I really need my pinky!” I learned a lot from Maître Touche, even though I was a bit intimidated by him.

Stephanie Chase: What an appropriate name, “Master Touch!” That business with the pen knife sounds a bit cruel, but my mother’s teacher, Scott Willits, told her about master classes with the great pedagogue Sevcik, who, in trying to get someone to not use his upper arm excessively while bowing, eventually stood next to him with an open pen knife. Every time the student drew his right arm back too much it ran into the knife. By the time he was done, his suit jacket was torn and he was bleeding. Times have really changed in teaching, maybe for the better in a few ways!

After Grumiaux’s death [in 1986], I asked his widow which violinists he had admired and was slightly surprised that it was Ginette Neveu, whose playing was very visceral and impassioned, whereas Grumiaux was generally lauded for his refinement. [Her tragic death occurred in a plane crash while she was touring, and she had just turned thirty.]

Maitre Touche must have been a great teacher, how long were you with him?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Maître Touche passed away when I was four and a half and, at that time, my parents asked people’s advice as to who was the greatest violinist in Europe. When they heard about Arthur Grumiaux, they asked our luthier [violin expert] Etienne Vatelot to make the introduction. I auditioned for him with the Preludium from the 3rd Bach Partita. He was not sure that he wanted to take on such a young child. His experience was teaching students at the Brussels Conservatory, with a minimum entry age of ten. Somehow my parents persuaded him to guide my studies, although I had infrequent lessons – about once every six months – with my father and one of Maître Grumiaux’s students Koji Toyoda supervising my progress more regularly. My lessons were either when Maître Grumiaux had a concert in Paris, or occasionally my father and I would take the train to Brussels for a lesson.

Stephanie Chase: I still can’t get over your taking lessons with these masters at age four and five! Do you have specific memories of Grumiaux?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I remember him as a jovial person, who loved food, and especially desserts. But most of all, I remember his rich, pure and gorgeous sound especially in his renditions of Bach and Mozart. And it was the memory of his sound that was my guide in the many decades following our departure from Europe, for me to practice until I approached it. One of the highest compliments I have received was my daughter commenting on a CD of Grumiaux’s performance: “Mommy, this guy sounds like you!” and I replied, “He was my teacher, so technically I sound like him!” I found you through the internet in the late 1990’s, but felt that our orchestra needed to grow before they deserved to play with you, and we were thrilled when you accepted our invitation to be our distinguished guest soloist in 2007, our first year at Carnegie Hall during the renovations at Alice Tully Hall, where we gave our annual Discovery Concert.

Stephanie Chase: I cannot tell you how much I still appreciate this. We have many friends in common. But not only did I have an opportunity to play again in Carnegie Hall with your talented kids, I am grateful to now count you as well among my friends. And your violin playing has a beautifully expressive quality, especially in the sound production and the vibrato, that is reminiscent of Grumiaux.

As someone who has both a musical and medical background, why do you think it’s important for children to be exposed to classical music, as opposed to popular music?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Let me start by talking about exposure of young infants to music in general. One of the pioneers in the field is Sandra Trehub. She is one of the first neuroscientists who went around the world studying the songs that mothers sing to their infants and young children. She said that all mothers sing to their infants, even the ones that say they don’t… It is only in war-torn countries, in the war zones, that the music disappears. So in a way, music is a barometer of peace!

Stephanie Chase: That’s very interesting.

Yeou-Cheng Ma: And studies have shown that children who learn several languages from an early age have different brain structure from children who only know one language. These changes include difference increase in size of certain areas of the brain (this is attributed, in part, to increased number and complexity of neural synapses), increased oxygen supply to the language area, and also generalization to both sides of the brain, versus a single side. In Europe, where I grew up, the neighboring countries are smaller than most states in the United States, and most children speak at least two or three languages.

Stephanie Chase: It’s really unfortunate that some American parents want their children to be “normal” and not necessarily excel – this was apparently true of my husband’s father – but it seems to me that, up until about age four or five, there is a tremendous learning potential in most children, especially in taking on additional languages without an accent. I’ve known musicians who have started to study quite late, but it appears that ten is about the latest age for most, because playing music well requires such a complex set of skills. The young kids are like sponges but the older ones can feel more self-conscious, especially among their peers. I wish I had learned foreign languages when I was very young, because I am terribly insecure about making mistakes.

Why did you not continue in music as your principal career?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: This is not an easy question to answer. As a young child, I thought all that I wanted was to be the best violinist in the world. But then, the child of a policeman at age five will say that he wants to be a police officer, or the child of a fireman will say that she wants to be a fireman. I remember watching an interview of Joshua Bell, who said that when he was five, he thought that his mother felt whatever he felt. The interruption of lessons with our move from Paris to New York certainly contributed to this decision.

Stephanie Chase: I know that Grumiaux was not a fan of American violin teaching, which must have had an impact.

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Yes, but temperament and luck also played a great part. By temperament I was a shy and non-demonstrative child. A young child playing difficult pieces is impressive. Then comes the tricky part of the teen years, when children are expected to develop their own style, and find their own voice. My personal development took an inordinately long time, and by the time I found my voice, the critical period for developing as a performing musician had passed. However, I was very lucky to participate in my brother’s lessons with Janos Scholz and Leonard Rose as a collaborative pianist, and had the opportunity to learn so much music without the additional pressure of having to “perform.” His other collaborative pianists were very kind to give me their fingerings, which helped so much in some of the virtuosic pieces; for instance, Sam Sanders helped me with Chopin’s Polonaise Brillante.

Stephanie Chase: I had the honor of encountering Scholz in France and still vividly recall his generous spirit and absolute love for music, including a Bach Suite that he played for me, and a few others. And if Sam Sanders [who was the top collaborative pianist in the United States for many years] gave you fingerings, then you got one for every note!

What you say about finding a musical voice is critically important; I remember feeling concerned about this as a teen and when I first studied with Grumiaux, when I was 18, it was especially a challenge to rework my technique and develop my own interpretive ideas at the same time. But you have mentioned his wonderfully expressive sound, and that is what also struck me during my lessons. In terms of temperament, I tell my students that sometimes we need to be actors in order to project the character of a musical work, even when it does not mesh that well with our own.

Was relocating from Paris to New York very difficult?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Learning English was difficult for me after five years of home schooling in French, but I was fortunate that Math and Science were not difficult for
Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma
me, so I went on to study Chemistry in College and then went on to Medical School. Amazingly, I learned a lot about the nervous system and was ever so excited to read in an article in Science about how the brain lights up in different patterns with different musical key signatures. I use this illustration to show my students, telling them “See, your brain knows what key you are in. How come you don’t?”

Stephanie Chase: Without knowing exactly how to read this data, it is clear that there are true distinctions in responses. And the question of pitch standard should be addressed, as what we now generally regard as a1 – which is the tuning ‘a’ of the orchestra – is usually vibrating at between 440 and 445 cycles per second, depending on whether you are in the US or, with the higher pitch, Vienna or Israel. I just played a concert in Houston on original instruments and we tuned to a = 430 cps. But up until fairly recent times pitch was an extremely regional issue, and often based upon local units of measurements. There were also pitch standards that varied, such as for religious and secular music. So the c3 used may have been an e3 elsewhere, in another era, and what we have settled at is somewhat arbitrary. For the higher pitch standards, the ultimate test is what pitch or tension causes a string to break on a keyboard or stringed instrument.

I want to note that there is a local Lyndon LaRouche following in Houston whose members sometimes attend our performances, because part of his political platform has been to advocate for a pitch standard at a = 432 cps! And before the metronome was perfected in Beethoven’s era, a musical pulse was related to either dance or the human heartbeat. It’s interesting how we can use science in order to understand nature.

Over the past few decades, Western-style classical music has blossomed in China. What allowed this to happen, especially in view of its being banned, not so many years ago, during the Cultural Revolution?   
Yeou-Cheng Ma: Having grown up abroad in a particularly non-political family, I do not really feel qualified to answer this question.

Stephanie Chase: I am clearly not, either, but at NYU we now have a number of Chinese-born music students. Incidentally, a few years back I had a Taiwanese student who fell for a charming young man from China, and her parents were very dismayed because of the longstanding dispute between the two countries over Taiwan’s independence. And at Vassar College I am currently teaching a delightful student, who is very accomplished on the erhu [Chinese two-string violin], to play violin. Her goal is to play Csardas!

What was it like for your father as young man, and why did he choose to study at the Sorbonne?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I never met my grandfather. I heard he was a businessman, who mortgaged his lands to send his children to institutes of higher learning. I was told that there were two branches to the Ma family. One branch went on to business, and was perplexed at my grandfather’s sacrifice to send his children to higher education, and of all things, to study music! My grandmother had bound feet, and never went to school, but listened in on her brother’s lessons. She was a very wise woman who said that “life is to live,” and that “you do not need to be rich to be happy; you just need to have enough money so that when you are in the store, you can buy everything that you want.” She was my playmate until my brother was born, and she passed away when I was five.

My father was the quiet and silent type of man, so I know very little of his youth, and could not tell you how he chose to study at the Sorbonne. His thesis was on the history of Chinese Music, and he wrote the encyclopedia entry of Les Pleiades on that topic. It has recently been posted online by someone, and I was happy to see that his work continues online.

Stephanie Chase: Your grandmother sounds like a truly remarkable woman, and your father was also quite courageous to study music abroad at a time that the cultural differences must have been pronounced.

Based on what I know of him, for much of his career he was principally a music educator, and evidently a very successful one. In your own teaching at the Children’s Orchestra Society, what are the principals of your methodology?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I follow the methodology of my father, who started both my brother and me on the simple principles of dividing any piece of music into tiny digestible chunks, as in “couper la difficulté en quatre” [“cut the difficulty into four”]. We both learned pieces 2-4 measures a day, and were not allowed to go on until that was perfected. We were also taught to recognize patterns, which made it easier to see how a piece is put together.

In teaching, I give heavy emphasis on scales, arpeggios and double stops. I give double stops even to rank beginners, because they automatically correct the left hand position of young violinists and violists. It is virtually impossible to play double stops with “pancake hands.” In the European tradition, a lesson starts with scales, exercises, etudes, Bach, and THEN the “pièce de résistance.” the concerto or sonata.

Stephanie Chase: “Pancake hands” – what a great expression! I agree with you completely about the left hand form being corrected nearly automatically by learning to play double stops, plus playing two notes at once forces the brain to work differently as opposed to playing single notes at a time. How about the bow, which is an entirely separate skill set but critical for creating expression?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: In addition to left hand technique, control of the bow is very important. I jokingly say that one should be able to play long bows with as many seconds as their age in years…which works for young kids! A flexible right wrist and curved thumb helps a lot in fast passages and string crossings.

Stephanie Chase: At this point I’d be up to a VERY long sustained sound! What about practicing?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I try to instill the concept of smart practicing, which is to start practicing the most difficult and troublesome passages first, since we run of practicing time so easily in the modern child’s over-scheduled routine. If a passage is played incorrectly, repeat it three times. If it still is troublesome, then repeat it five times. If that fails, repeat it ten times. The next unit is 100, and we sincerely hope that it gets fixed with ten times. If it does not, repeating it 100 times should do it!

Stephanie Chase: I tell my students that properly identifying a problem – starting with whether something is a left hand or bow issue, or both – and figuring out a correction is very important, otherwise they may just practice a “mistake” or faulty technique and make it truly embedded. By the way, I have a violin student with a pretty severe case of dyslexia, and she has figured out a process involving first playing the music on a piano and recording herself playing, and then applying it to the violin. It sounds arduous, but it is working for her as she needs to essentially memorize what she plays because her music reading is affected, and she must be careful that she is memorizing it correctly for notes, bowings, fingerings and rhythms.

What is the best age to start a child on music lessons?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: A child could start music lessons as soon as he or she can correctly identify colors. At first, a child names all colors as the first color he or she learns; surprisingly, when asked “What color is this?” the child would not say cold, or soft, or sticky, but would name a color. This usually happens between the ages of two to four. It makes sense that the child needs to know the concept of different colors with the correct labels before attempting to teach a child the names of distinct notes.

Stephanie Chase: I learned by ear when I started and played that way for a couple of years, with a very unorthodox bow bold. When my mother began to teach me at four she figured I wouldn’t enjoy the training aspect, as in learning to read notes and correct my form, but fortunately she was wrong! This correlation with the ability to identify colors is new to me, but it sounds appropriate.

The Children’s Orchestra Society was founded by your father in 1962. Despite your own enormous obligations, you took over as its executive director in 1984. What led to this?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: When my father was getting ready to retire in 1977, he asked my brother if he wanted to take over the orchestra, but he was already touring and said that he could not take it on. So he turned to me, and asked, “Daughter, would you like an orchestra?” I replied, “Yes, but this is not a good year,“ since I was about to start my internship in Pediatrics at Bellevue. It was not until I met and subsequently married Michael (Dadap), when he said that his life dream was to have a school, that we decided to revitalize the Children’s Orchestra after seven years of dormancy.

Stephanie Chase: So we have Michael to thank as well! I know that, in addition to conducting the orchestra, he has been an inspiring and tireless supporter and educator at COS, and he is an excellent guitarist. Would you please describe the program and activities that it offers?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Our programs developed out the needs of the children within our orchestral program. Musicianship classes, which include ear training, rhythmic articulation, sight reading, chord progressions, were developed to help students who learned as young students increasingly difficult pieces without necessarily knowing any of the musical elements of their pieces. We have chamber music classes from beginner level to advanced. The beginners learn to rotate leadership positions, and that they cannot be effective leaders if the followers are inattentive. The more advanced students develop a love for the classic pieces, as well as develop lifelong friendships through their groupings. One violinist took her role so seriously that she called all members of the group to make sure they practiced every night. That group went out for pizza, ice-skating, movies as a group, and when one of them graduated, everyone cried!

Stephanie Chase: This is an aspect that is often overlooked, that in learning to play chamber music kids learn to be leaders as well as followers, and that for the ensemble to succeed, they all must pull their weight towards a common goal. I wish more adults had this kind of cooperative training, and would guess that many school sports teams need to operate on a similar basis. The strong personal ties that often come from playing chamber music can, as you said, turn into a lifelong relationship, as it has for me. Those kids will always cherish these memories.

The COS program already offers so much, but does it function as a real college preparatory program, such as what Juilliard Pre-College offers on Saturdays?

The Children's Orchestra Society Orchestra in Concert

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Yes, some of our advanced students want more than the orchestra, musicianship and chamber music classes, so we developed an instrumental major’s program, similar to those offered by the pre-college programs in Manhattan. Our requirements of major and minor scales along with their arpeggios actually exceed the requirements of the NYSSMA [New York State School Music Association] auditions. We are sometimes stunned by students who audition into our programs who respond to our request for an arpeggio with “I don’t do that!” One of our violists came back from college auditions and said, “They actually required minor scales and arpeggios!”

Stephanie Chase: I wish that some of my own college students had this kind of background, because many of them arrive with major deficits in their music education. In addition to these classes, which are already very impressive, are there other activities?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: We also have a concerto competition for our members, with two divisions, Junior and Senior. The winner of the Senior Discovery gets to share the stage with a world-class soloist, as each plays a concerto of their choice with our senior orchestra, the Young Symphonic Ensemble. We sometimes go on tour, and are very excited to go this July to China, to visit three cities, Shanghai, Hangzhou and my father’s hometown, Ningbo.

Stephanie Chase: That is wonderful! I have found that my concert travel, including to the modest destinations along with the exotic ones, has really enhanced my own understanding of humanity and our history. In 1986, as soloist with the Hong Kong Philharmonic on its first tour of the then “mainland China,” I learned an enormous amount and had some memorable experiences. By the way, in those days there were few foreign tourists to Hangzhou and I recall walking around one day with a very blonde and quite tall female American violinist, who literally attracted crowds of people gawking at her! I hope you and the students have a wonderful trip, and I’m sure it will be life-changing for a number of them.

To change the subject: It appears likely that the National Endowment of the Arts, along with its sister organizations, may soon be discontinued due to funding cuts by this Administration. Is this expected to have an impact on your work in music education?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: Although we do not receive money from the National Endowment of the Arts, many art organizations do. If funding is cut for the NEA, all their organizations will be competing for the same dollars that we are counting on, and that will make life that much more difficult than it already is. I am saddened by the current climate that undervalues the contribution of the arts and the sciences, which robs our children of their future.

Stephanie Chase: A number of years ago I wrote a response to a letter published in the New York Times entitled “Who Needs the NEA?” and pointed out that the cost of mailing in his letter cost its author his yearly tax share of supporting the NEA. The same is true today. I believe the annual cost to each taxpayer is about 48 cents.

How can the public best support the work of the Children’s Orchestra Society?

Yeou-Cheng Ma: We are in a growth spurt, after our move to the Nassau BOCES Long Island High School of the Arts in Syosset, and would love to have a fuller population in all of our four orchestras; KINDER up to age ten, SINFONIA, for kids 6-14, and Junior Symphonic Orchestra (JSE) and Young Symphonic Ensemble (YSE), for middle school and high school kids. We actually don’t have a lower age limit to our orchestras, but depend on the child’s musical development. And we currently have several 9-12 year old students in our two senior orchestras. Having more students will make a richer rehearsal experience for all. We, as many youth orchestras, need a full complement of winds and brass instrument, which is not always easy. We also need an expanded audience and – of course, like many not-for-profit organizations – seek a stable stream of funding sources!

Stephanie Chase: I cannot imagine that you have much free time – I know that in addition to your medical work, teaching and running the COS, you still practice every day and attend many concerts – but do you have any favorite hobbies?

Yeuo Cheng-Ma violin (performance with Rita Kuo)

Yeou-Cheng Ma: I am lucky that some of my favorite hobbies are already included in your list of my activities. I also love to read books, travelling, and enjoy spending time with friends, especially if a culinary adventure is also involved. If I won lotto, I would love to spend my days and nights playing chamber music with friends. I feel so fortunate that you asked me for this interview, which allowed me to revisit my childhood, and to have this wonderful dialogue with you!

Stephanie Chase: It has been a privilege for me – and thank you for your wonderful work on behalf of music and children.


“The Children's Orchestra Society (COS), founded in 1962 by Dr. H.T. Ma, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to “teaching the language of music” to children and teens. Our mission is to cultivate and nurture children and teach them teamwork and life skills through music-learning and performing in orchestral and chamber music settings, using a child-centered approach. COS members receive excellent training in classical music and opportunities to perform in concerts with their peers as well as with well-established musicians, and reach out to the community to play concerts benefiting victims of natural disasters. COS alumni go on to prestigious colleges and universities, and many of them continue to play. Notable alumni include Caroline Kennedy, Yo-Yo Ma, Shira Stern, Astrid Schween, who recently joined the Juilliard Quartet.”

(Audio excerpt from Children’s Orchestra Society performance)



Stephanie Chase
Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as "one of the violin greats of our era" (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with over 170 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their "elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination" (Boston Globe), "stunning power" (Louisville Courier-Journal), "matchless technique" (BBC Music Magazine), and "virtuosity galore" (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. In addition to her concert activities, she teaches at New York University and Vassar College.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.