Yo-Yo Ma's inspiring commencement speech: "Be humans before musicians"

Two days ago the cellist Yo.Yo Ma gave an inspiring commencement address at Dartmouth. We selected the core of his speech. You can find the entire video at the bottom, with Mr. Ma playing.


"You will be powerful. And when you are, do not abuse your power. Ever. [...] In my own lifetime, I’ve seen too many people make decisions that put themselves before their community, before society, before the health of our planet. I’ve seen too many people who choose to build walls rather than bridges. [...] What’s worse is that we come up with a lot of excuses for this behavior. [...] But by reducing decisions to these standards, we are forgetting about the empathy we are born with, about the trust others have put in us, and about the obligations to one another as human beings.

That is why culture is so important. Culture resists reduction and constantly reminds us of the beautiful complexities that humans are made of, both individually and collectively. The stories we tell; the music we make; the experiments and buildings we design. Everything that helps us to understand ourselves, to understand one another, to understand our environment—culture.

But, it’s not just the culture we learn about in textbooks or see in a museum. It’s the arts and sciences; all the different disciplines that ask us to try, to trust, and to build. It’s culture that inspires deep learning and curiosity, that makes us want to seek the universal principles that drive everything.

Today, everywhere I go—whenever I hear music effortlessly crossing a border or see an example of art transcending economic and political differences or witness scientists from dozens of countries collaborating—I am reminded how essential culture has always been, in every era, every tradition.

Two weeks ago, I was in Spain. I made a pilgrimage to visit the home of one my great heroes, the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. He was 97 years old when I was a freshman in college. He had lived through World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II. I was so lucky to have played for him when I was 7 years old. He said I was talented. His advice to me then: Make sure you have time to play baseball. And I’ll let you imagine how that might have worked out.

But in reality, that wise counsel, “to make time for baseball,” was a profound reflection of the philosophy that motivated his life. Casals always thought of himself as a human being first, as a musician second, and only then a cellist. It’s a philosophy that I’ve held close to my heart for most of my own life.

Now, I had always known Casals as a great advocate for human dignity. But standing in his home two weeks ago, I understood what it meant for him to live that philosophy, what it meant for him to be a human being first. I began to understand just a few of the thousands of actions he took every day, every month. Each was in the service of his fellow human beings.

I saw letters of protest he wrote to newspapers from London to Tokyo. I saw meticulous, handwritten accounts of his enormous financial contributions to countless refugees fleeing the carnage of the Spanish Civil War—evidence of a powerful, humanistic life. My visit to Casals’ house was a reminder to me that we must all try to use our power well. Because to not use our power is to abuse it. [...]

Let us remember: Every struggle for reform, innovation, or justice starts with a voice in the wilderness. A voice in the wilderness. Vox clamantis in deserto. You all know that. 

So, as you go forward today, I’d just like to leave you with this one thought: You have, and always will have, more power than you know. Never abuse this power. Never abuse this power. It is a gift. Use it with great care and with great intention. Listen to the voices crying in the wilderness; become one of those voices, a voice for justice and for hope.

Remember, always, that you are a human being first. It’s a truth embedded in the very foundation of your liberal arts education. Practice your humanity daily. Practice that truth. Let it power your decisions, let it inspire your thoughts, and let it shape your ideals. Then you will soar. You will fly. And you will help others soar and fly".