Best 2019 Commencement Speech: Yo-Yo Ma Encourages Us “To Try, To Trust and To Build”

Photo Credit: Dartmouth News

Photo Credit: Dartmouth News

If you listen to one commencement speech this year, I recommend Yo-Yo Ma’s address to Dartmouth graduates on June 9thin Hanover, NH. Drawing on his artistry and musical talents, he did not disappoint. And he had a clear call to action for graduates that is a good reminder to us all.

“You will be powerful. And when you are, do not abuse your power – ever.” 

He spoke of the need to make decisions and take actions that help our communities, our society, and the health of our planet. And he stressed the obligation we have to one another as human beings. 

“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.” 

“Culture. But its 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.”

Sharing stories from his friendship with Spanish cellist and activist Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma went on to challenge graduates to lead a powerful and humanistic life.

“To not speak, to remain silent in the face of uncertainty, in the face of the insecurity and massive changes that confront us today, that every one of us confronts every day of our lives—that is an abuse of power.”

“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.”

Building on this imagery, Yo-Yo Ma closed his address by playing the traditional Catalan folksong that became a signature for Casals, The Song of the Birds.” Casals famously came out of retirement in 1971 to perform this song for peace in front of the United Nations General Assembly– when he was 95.

Beautiful, moving and thought-provoking. 

Let us all commit to try, to trust, to build….and to never abuse the power entrusted to us.