When cellist Yo-Yo Ma appeared on ‘Arthur’ to teach a wholesome lesson about music

21 April 2021, 17:13

Episode of Arthur features Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Redman playing a duet
Episode of Arthur features Yo-Yo Ma and Joshua Redman playing a duet. Picture: PBS

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The time an ‘Arthur’ episode planted a timeless lesson about music in the minds of its bright-eyed viewers.

The year was 1999. The episode, ‘My Music Rules’ in the fourth season of the animated children’s TV series, Arthur. And the guest stars, American cello virtuoso, Yo-Yo Ma, and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman.

In the episode (watch below) the show’s main characters, aardvark Arthur Read and his friends, are on the hunt for a musician to play at their local library on Saturday.

One of the characters, D.W, is dragged along to a concert by her grandmother. “Does he sing?” D.W whinges. “Is there a light show? Does he jump around and smash his instrument? And he calls himself a musician…”

Read more: Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach on a beach is the musical healing the world needs right now >

“How is it you know when you’re about to hear the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” says a disgruntled D.W.

Then, the music begins. An animated Ma – voiced by the cellist himself – bows out Bach’s abiding ‘Prelude’ from his Cello Suite No. 1, and D.W is enraptured.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever heard!” she cries out. D.W goes backstage to speak to Ma and gets him to agree to play at Saturday’s concert, sparking this amazing response:

But across town, Arthur and his friend have their eye on another musician: American jazz saxophonist, Joshua Redman.

The pupils soon begin to imagine Redman as a one-man band, turning literally any object around him into an instrument – including a vacuum cleaner, and a bike pump.

And so, the battle commences. Ma and Redman appear in a dreamlike musical duel, with each child picking a side: classical or jazz.

They quarrel away, but Redman knows what to do. “I’m not a classical musician, but I sure like to listen to it,” he explains. “Tell me if you think this is boring…”

Redman plays a Bach minuet on saxophone, adding some groove to the rhythm in the first variation and encouraging the children to clap along.

Read more: Jazz pianist finds ingenious way to correct audience clapping on the wrong beat >

Arthur episode stars Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello
Arthur episode stars Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello. Picture: PBS

Ma and Redman, much to the children’s surprise, have a deep respect for each other’s music.

“All music begins with rhythm,” Ma tells D.W and the ‘classical’ camp. Plus, Ma adds, “why do you have to like only one kind of music? Do you have to like only one kind of food?”

Redman agrees: “The only rules in music are based on what people like to hear, and those rules change all the time.”

Together, the two musical stalwarts convince the students that they do not have to pick one side, jazz or classical, and that both can be beautiful, captivating and meaningful in their own ways.

The show ends with a duet, and a personal takeaway that what Yo-Yo Ma can’t teach us about the power of music, really isn’t worth knowing. Here’s the legend himself, with the full ‘Prélude’ and three minutes of pure bliss: