In an airy, sunny gymnasium on Saturday afternoon, under basketball hoops and banners, in front of people freshly pricked and waiting for minutes to pass, Yo-Yo Ma played a little Bach.
The world-renowned cellist had gone to the vaccination clinic at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass., for his second coronavirus vaccine dose, according to clinic organizers. After getting his shot, he took a seat along a padded blue wall of the gym, near others waiting out their 15-minute post-vaccination observation time, and surprised them with a performance.
Leslie Drager, the lead clinical manager for the vaccination site, said that when Ma started to play, the whole place went quiet.
“It was so weird how peaceful the whole building became, just having a little bit of music in the background,” said Drager, who is the lead public health nurse for Berkshire Public Health Alliance.
She said the vaccination site has nine stations of nurses administering doses. On Saturday, 1,102 shots were administered – all second doses. Ma arrived toward the end of the day.
“People are talking and moving, there are lots of volunteers, and everybody just went quiet and went to watch and listen,” Drager said.
When Ma got his first dose, he came and went mostly unnoticed, she said. This time, he arrived with his cello.
Hilary Bashara, a nurse administering vaccinations at the clinic, said she administered both of Ma’s doses.
The first time, Bashara said, she noticed Ma as he took in his surroundings.
“Most people, they are busy, they’re sort of anxious and waiting – he was different,” she said. “I just watched his face, and he was looking about the room and his face generated such warmth, it felt like he was smiling under his mask. When he got up to where I was, he was like, ‘Thank you so much for being here.’ “
Then she saw his name.
When he arrived Saturday, Bashara got to administer his dose again. Afterward, he asked whether it was OK to play, and Ma picked a spot in the observation area.
Videos of Saturday’s informal performance show Ma masked and seated along a wall. Vaccine recipients are scattered and seated nearby as he played the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. In another clip, he is seen performing “Ave Maria.”
“It just brought that whole room together,” Bashara said. “It was so healing.”
When he stopped, the group applauded, and Ma stood and placed his hand on his chest.
“The Berkshires are loaded with the arts, and the arts couldn’t do what they normally do out here all summer,” Drager said. “Maybe this is the beginning of what we’re going to see this summer. It’s just – we’re all looking forward to the future, to get out and get our lives back.”
Exactly one year before his performance at the clinic, Ma shared a video of himself playing Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home.” It had been two days since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Major performing and visual arts institutions had already begun to shutter.
“In these days of anxiety, I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort,” Ma tweeted March 13, 2020.
Last summer, in an interview with The Washington Post hosted on Instagram Live, he described the way music can fill some of the void left by decreased human connection during the pandemic.
“Our skin is our largest organ, and how much we respond to touch – during covid, that has been taken away from us. You can’t touch, you can’t hug, you can’t shake hands. But what music does, its sound moves air molecules. So when air floats across your skin and touches the hairs of your skin, that’s touch,” Ma said then. “That’s the closest thing to actually someone touching you. … It’s as if you were miniaturized and you’re in the middle of a lake. But that lake is a bowl, and you’re in that bowl and that vessel is holding you. That’s what music can do.”