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Yo Yo Ma playing with Detroit kids might make your heart melt

Cellist Yo Yo Ma and a few other renowned artists were in Detroit this week, working with some very young musicians.

"Can we say 'Tchaikovsky'?"

"Tchaikovsky!" screamed a classroom of obedient fourth graders.  

The elementary and middle schools students at Spain public school, near downtown Detroit, spent the morning with the most famous living classical musician in the world.

Credit Davie Trumpie

It's part of a national push to gets kids engaged with the arts.

"Yo Yo Ma is coming up here" 

In the auditorium, the 8th graders have been waiting patiently for this concert to get going.

"What did they tell you guys was going to happen today?" I ask. 

"Well, they told us that we was gonna have a performance, and it was gonna be a huge performance. Yo Yo Ma is coming up here," says Lindell, an 8th grader with an earnest face. 

At this point, he and the rest of the school have been in overdrive preparing for Ma.

The school is spotless.

Don't you dare be the kid with notebooks still on his desk, like fourth grader Jerome. His classmate shakes his head, then silently removes the binders for him, placing them in his own desk; Jerome's own is already overflowing. 

The dance team, choir and band have all been practicing like mad.

A group of kids has been designated as official guides for all the TV cameras and reporters – some of the kids got so dressed up, one guy is even wearing a tiny tuxedo. 

Lindell and fellow 8th grader Martinez even have Yo Yo Ma's who bio memorized:

"Ever since he was born, October the 3, 1958. He's Chinese, too. Age 59."

Actually, Google says it's October 7, 1955 – but points for trying, man. 

When asked why Ma chose Spain Elementary-Middle School, Martinez doesn't hesitate:  

"Because this is the best choice they had for performing arts," he says.  

Even shy fourth graders like Brooklyn know their favorite instrument. "Violin," she whispers into the mic.

Spain Elementary and Middle kids are really, really into the performing arts, at least if the kids I talked to are any indication.

Lindell plays tuba, Martinez plays drums. Even shy fourth graders like Brooklyn know their favorite instrument:

"Violin," she whispers into the mic. 

"Collaboration, trust, and imagination"

While the 8th graders waited, Yo Yo Ma spent his morning with the 4th graders.

They created a dancing, human model of the solar system. That's what the kids are studying this time of year.

Which meant the kids had to break some tough news to Ma: Pluto is no longer a planet.

Credit Dave Trumpie
No offense to Yo Yo Ma, but dancer Lil Buck stole the show for a lot of the fourth graders.

"I don't understand why!" Ma told them. "When I went to school, it was a planet! They demoted it!"

Pluto is too small to be a planet, the kids patiently explain. And "it was too far away," adds one. 

Ma and former New York City Ballet dancer Damian Woetzel have been doing classroom stops like this as part of a push to get kids involved with the arts.

"We [learn to] work together, and do what actually Detroit is doing with itself and all the committed citizens and people that are so passionate about the city."

"Collaboration, trust, imagination," said Ma. "So we can talk together, and work together, and do what actually Detroit is doing with itself and all the committed citizens and people that are so passionate about the city."

When the school-wide performance does get going, Yo Yo Ma plays behind elementary school students who read from a poem they've written, called "I Am Unique."

"What makes me unique? My talent. I have skills like NO one else," one braided elementary school girl says, hands on hips. 

Afterwards I ask the 8th grade boys: Why do you think Yo Yo Ma comes and does this kind of stuff in schools?

Because, they say. He’s challenging us. 

"[Being good at music] is better than watching TV, or just sitting inside," says Lindell. "You get to get out, show your talent. Show the real you."

*Major shout out to Lansing photographer Dave Trumpie, who spent his morning taking these awesome photos for us.  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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