Yeou-Cheng Ma and the Children’s Orchestra Society
By Jacki Swearingen '73
This past summer the Children’s Orchestra Society, a ClassACT HR73 Bridge, invited children who were victims of domestic abuse to a week-long summer camp. By the end the children, who had never received music lessons before, put on a small performance in which they sang a song and played on some percussion and string instruments. Six of the 18 students accepted the teacher Dr. Yeou-Cheng Ma’s offer to receive some additional lessons at the camp’s conclusion. One seven-year-old responded to Dr. Ma’s question about what she wanted to do when she grew up by stating “I want to be a violinist.”
“I looked at the child and said ‘Well, how did that come about?’” The child replied “’Before the camp I didn’t know anything about music and now I love it.’”
In the nearly forty years that Dr. Ma and her husband Michael Dadap, an acclaimed classical guitarist, have headed the Children’s Orchestra Society based in Syosset, Long Island, they have nurtured a cultural treasure that has allowed thousands of children to experience the transcendent joy of music. More than the concerts at Carnegie Hall, the international tours and the alumni who have become professional musicians, Dr. Ma takes pride in the fact that the COS is the only orchestra with a comprehensive musical program centered on the child. Among the thousands of children who have auditioned over the decades, she and her husband have only had to turn away one child who was unable to function in a group. “Basically we will find a place for almost everyone,” she said.
Dr. Ma credits her work as a developmental pediatrician for her insights into the learning styles and temperaments of children. That experience has helped her find ways to instruct students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), like one boy who struggled with distractions. Dr. Ma hit on guidelines that helped him focus and feel such a part of the orchestra that he came to rehearsals even when he broke his arm. Eventually he became one of the orchestra’s soloists.
Another young girl hoped to play the viola well enough to join the orchestra when Dr. Ma’s brother, the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, came to perform as a guest soloist. With far less experience on the viola than the other students, the child faced a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Dr. Ma compared acquiring the necessary skills to a fifth grader trying to learn eleventh grade math in a week. Asked if she still wanted to try, the girl replied yes and proceeded to wake at 5:30 every morning to practice. “After a week she actually made it,” Dr. Ma recalled. “I was the one who cried because I honestly didn’t think it was possible for her to make it, but I was going to help her as her teacher.”
As one of the instructors for violin and viola as well as for chamber music, Dr. Ma knows that learning music can enrich a child’s life. “We try to let the kids use music as an outlet for their feelings,” she explained. This emotional release matters especially to Asian-American children who make up a significant portion of the COS’s students. “Asian kids are not particularly encouraged to express their emotions. I think traditional Asian families still would prefer children to be seen and not to be heard, which is not a very American thing.” Advising them to pour their frustrations into a piece like Chopin’s Octave Etude can help children vent while pleasing parents with an intense practice session, she explains.
Intellectually, music trains the brain in ways that differ from traditional academic subjects. It strengthens the ability to remember and to recognize patterns, skills essential for learning reading and math. “Like any language, it teaches you a different way of thinking,” Dr. Ma said. “It expands your vocabulary, your ability to absorb new material.”
Born in Paris and raised by parents who had emigrated from war-torn China to study there, Dr. Ma describes her early childhood years as “trilingual” because she grew up able to communicate in Chinese, French and music. When her family moved to New York when she was eleven, she learned English. At Harvard she studied German, and at Harvard Medical School she mastered Spanish because she planned to work in New York’s city hospitals where that language was vital to communicating with patients and their families.
Dr. Ma’s father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, who received his doctorate in music from the Sorbonne and studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music, launched the Children’s Orchestra Society in 1962 with the idea that placing budding musicians in an orchestra would encourage them to practice more. “Nobody likes to practice by themselves,” Dr. Ma said. “But if they feel that they are playing together in the group, they get a little more motivated and encouraged.”
The elder Dr. Ma, a conductor and musicologist, ran the orchestra until 1977 when he retired with the hope that one of his children would take his place. However, his son already had a packed touring schedule and his daughter was about to begin her residency in pediatrics. The Children’s Orchestra Society lapsed for seven years until Yeou-Cheng Ma and her husband, Michael Dadap, decided to resurrect it after he confided that his life-long dream was to run a music school. In the nearly forty years since, the couple have relied on their creative partnership to grow the orchestra’s size and acclaim. “He’s a vision guy, and I’m the one with the purse strings,” Dr. Ma said.
At present about 100 children come each week to the COS’s new home at the Community Church of Syosset to play in the orchestra’s four divisions that are ranked by age and ability. Down from a peak of 235 in the years before the pandemic, the COS hopes to enroll about 120 young musicians later this season. They are taught by a faculty made up largely of COS alums, whom Dr. Ma describes as “part of the family” and “a testament to how much they value that experience.”
Children can start as young as three in the Pre-Kinder program in which they are introduced to notes and ensemble playing. “When they can tell different colors, they are developmentally able to distinguish different notes and call them different things,” Dr. Ma explained. She herself began to learn violin from her father at 2 ½ years old. By the age of five she was traveling every six months with him on the train between Paris and Belgium to study with the renowned violinist Arthur Grumiaux.
Students progress through three levels until they are eligible to compete for one of the more than 80 spots in the Young Symphonic Ensemble, the full orchestra that performs in places such as Alice Tully Hall and goes on tour to Scotland and the Philippines. In addition, the COS offers the chance to play in smaller groups such as the Elite String Ensemble and the Percussion Ensemble.
“We have a theory class and various other things, just like a music school. Except we are not a music school. We’re just an orchestra with benefits.” Dr. Ma said. “The idea is just to get them to play together, to enjoy each other’s company.”
The Children’s Orchestra Society has thrived during the years when people from all over the world arrived in New York City to start new lives for themselves and their families. Many members have been immigrant children who find a home in the orchestra with its mixture of inclusion and great expectations. The orchestra has served as the bridge that allows children to move toward the futures they envision for themselves.
Dr. Ma recalls one young Hispanic boy, “a loner,” who was brought to the Children’s Orchestra Society by his godmother. Despite his musical inexperience and his reluctance to talk to the other students, he sat each time in the first violin section. When he was told he needed to take lessons, he responded that he didn’t have the time or money for that instruction. “I said ‘We can teach you lessons for free, but you would have to help us put away the chairs after rehearsal and set up before rehearsal.’” In the process of working for free lessons, he made friends with others who were also arranging chairs and music stands.
During the COS’s summer vacation, the boy wrote to Dr. Ma and her husband to say he felt isolated and depressed in his difficult home situation. The couple were then offering instruction at the New York Big Apple Music Festival, a program for talented young musicians. To help him weather this trying time, they allowed him to join their one-week program even though his musical skills did not begin to match those of the other participants. At the conclusion, he received a certificate.
“The next day I got a three-page letter from this kid telling me how important that camp was, how proud his mother was that he was the only Hispanic kid in the group, and how he ended up having a two-hour conversation with his father who was incarcerated…Apparently it had a huge impact, way beyond what we expected.” By the end of high school, the youth won a full four-year scholarship to study at Emory University in Atlanta.
Along with teaching children to master the works of Mozart and Beethoven, Dr. Ma and her faculty help children like that young man imagine their future and how to get there. “My brother calls it finding his or her own voice,” she explained. “It’s a tall order to find your dream, but at least get them to think about what it is they want to do.” Then the task is to teach them how to set both short-term and long-term goals, she added. “It’s always about preparing them for life.”
Steeped in the beauty and techniques necessary for music-making as well as in self-discipline and a spirit of cooperation, the young people who leave the COS often go on to rewarding professions. One hundred percent matriculate to college, and one quarter of that group attend Ivy League schools, including 24 who entered Harvard between 1984 and 2016.
A small number become professional musicians, like the alums who have joined COS’s faculty or like Dr. Ma’s brother who played in the orchestra when his father led it. Aspiring musicians prepare for the intense auditions that conservatories or college music programs require by competing to be a COS soloist, particularly for the annual Discovery Recital. This June the winners of the past three years performed at Alice Tully Hall with Distinguished Guest Artist Adele Anthony, the violinist. Famous artists who have played with the COS in the past include the violinist Jaime Laredo, the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, and the flutist Eugenia Zukerman. Yo-Yo Ma has also returned to perform with the children his sister teaches.
“I know when Emanuel Ax came to rehearse with us, the kids were more interested in the pizza than Emanuel Ax,” Dr. Ma recalled. “But that’s kids. Someday they’re going to say ‘Wow! You know I had a chance.’”
Before the pandemic’s lockdown, the Children’s Orchestra Society embarked on several tours to cities in the United States, Europe and Asia. For Dr. Ma the most moving encounter was when the young musicians in 2017 performed in three Chinese cities, including her father’s hometown of Ningbo across the Hangzhou Bay from Shanghai. In Ningbo she found herself surrounded by Chinese paparazzi whose audience was enthralled by the arrival of the daughter of this famous musical family. “If we went by truck or van, I would hide among the instruments so they wouldn’t come to me and ask to interview me,” she said. “But, you know, it was very touching to be there.”
Dr. Ma’s parents had fallen in love when both were students in Paris, where they stayed through the years the Imperial Japanese Army ravaged their country and then after Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army established a Communist state in 1949. Her parents nearly returned to China when Dr. Ma was two-and-one-half years old but ended up staying in France because they needed a third ticket for their toddler daughter. Nearly two years later her brother Yo-Yo arrived to become the fourth member of a close-knit family whose life in their small Parisian apartment revolved around music.
“For both my brother and I, our oldest memory is the smell of a French bakery,” said Dr. Ma. “Even though I am Chinese, I consider France my native country because that’s where I grew up and that’s where my grandmother is buried.”
Dr. Ma remembers a “very, very quiet” childhood in which she and her brother played in the Jardin du Luxembourg after being schooled at home by their parents. At first their father taught them music, and then they shared a piano teacher. Soon each child embraced a stringed instrument and began lessons, Yo-Yo with his first cello teacher and Yeou-Cheng with a violin teacher in his eighties. When that teacher passed away, her father wrote to Grumiaux, who listened to the five-year-old play and agreed to instruct her even though he had never taken a student younger than ten.
“Part of my life is just music,” Dr. Ma said. “I said to somebody at one point that if somebody were to extract music from my life, they would have to reprogram my DNA because it’s so much a part of me.”
When the family visited friends and relatives in the United States in 1962, the two children participated in the first telecast. During that televised fundraiser for what would become the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, an eleven-year-old Yeou-Cheng and her seven-year-old brother Yo-Yo played the first movement of Jean-Baptiste Breval’s Concertino No. 3 in A Major in a piano-cello duet. Leonard Bernstein introduced the young musicians as presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy looked on.
Despite their talents both Dr. Ma and her brother Yo-Yo gave few concerts during their early years. “My father was often asked ‘Dr. Ma, are your children prodigies?’ But he goes, ‘Prodigies are children with bad parents. I’m not a bad parent. So my children are not prodigies.’ He was very protective of us.”
By then Dr. Ma had begun a nine-year tenure as her brother’s rehearsal pianist, accompanying him to cello lessons with Janos Schultz and Leonard Rose. Her violin lessons had ended at that point, a cessation that she has spoken about with pain in other interviews. But in describing the impact the Children’s Orchestra Society has had over the decades, the partnership she and her husband forged to revive the orchestra, and the knowledge she has gained as a developmental pediatrician, Dr. Ma now seems at peace with the richness of her life.
Home-schooled until she entered a sixth grade classroom in her new country, Dr. Ma mastered English and other subjects rapidly and entered Harvard in 1969. She lived in North House and concentrated in chemistry while working during the summer in research labs at Rockefeller University. Once a week she gathered members of the small community of Chinese graduate students and aspiring students of Mandarin for Chinese Table at Comstock Hall.
Dr. Ma’s childhood had been spent in relative isolation from other children besides her brother, a state she described as “kind of floating, kind of ghosts, we really didn’t have anything to ground us except our lessons.” But at Harvard she found herself in “an eclectic place” full of people interested in “the most obscure things” like the price of bread in Russia of the 1920s. Senior year she decided to become a physician and entered Harvard Medical School in 1973.
A half-century ago when women were a minority in medical school classes, they had to confront challenges ranging from male professors disdainful of their abilities to prospective partners who couldn’t understand the life or death demands of medicine. Dr. Ma was guided during those groundbreaking years by some exceptional female mentors and by her growing love for the specialty of pediatrics. “I really like kids,” she said. After graduation she completed a residency at New York University-Bellevue and spent nearly four decades as a developmental pediatrician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She retired in 2018.
After marriage to Michael Dadap in 1982, the two settled in Queens where they raised a son and a daughter while reviving her father’s orchestra. The years when her children were young, when she worked full-time caring for patients with disabilities and when her father returned from Taiwan after suffering a stroke, were difficult ones. “I had my medical job, I had my dad, I had two small children. That’s way too much. I really, really, really can’t do all this,” she recalled. “I guess the only thing that could go is the orchestra. If it comes to that, then it comes to that.” Nonetheless, Dr. Ma and her husband managed to keep the orchestra afloat, passing their profound love of music on to generations of students.
In recent years the pandemic and the ravages of climate change have burdened the Children’s Orchestra Society. New York City’s Covid lockdown in the spring of 2020 forced the administrators to come up with new ways to continue musical instruction and permit students to practice and to perform together. Dr. Ma and her husband vowed to hold on to the faculty they regarded as “family,” who would be impossible to replace when Covid retreated. Soon these teachers were all assigned to groups of six or seven children who then spent nearly two years connecting with each other and their teachers on Zoom. By May of 2020 everyone had rehearsed enough online to put together an extraordinary digital performance of the 3rd movement from Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, which took the place of their annual gala. Only this past spring was the orchestra able again to perform together before a live concert audience.
When Hurricane Ida struck New York City in September 2021, the storm flooded the basement of Dr. Ma’s house in Queens, causing an estimated half million dollars in damage. The waters destroyed two grand pianos, many instruments and nearly all of the sheet music library that Dr. Ma and her father had collected over decades. For two weeks they hauled the wreckage out to their front lawn until they had filled three dumpsters and 150 contractor bags. “It was the most horrifying year,” she said.
The new home for the COS at the Community Church of Syosset has allowed Dr. Ma to begin to exhale. The non-profit’s five-year lease means that long-term improvements like a new heating and air-conditioning system could be installed without fears of being asked abruptly to leave, a threat their previous landlord made constantly. Now Dr. Ma and her cohorts have worked hard to spruce up their new classrooms and welcome back students who come from across New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
These students audition for the Children’s Society Orchestra not only because of its superb instruction but also for the culture of kindness it fosters. When one child vying for a prized solo spot in the Discovery Competition forgot her music, other contestants raced to the fax machine to bring sheets back to the young musician. “Kids will be competitive, and that’s just the way it is,” Dr Ma observed. “But we still need to not encourage people to just think of that as the only thing. Our kids really touch us in how they learn to be compassionate for each other.”
These unique qualities of cooperation and child-centeredness make it hard to find someone to take over the directorship of the orchestra as Dr. Ma and her husband move closer to retirement. Challenges like raising money for scholarships and new instruments persist, but the greatest test Dr. Ma believes the orchestra faces is “succession planning.” She hopes that members of ClassACT HR73 might help in eventually finding a new executive director who could perpetuate the orchestra’s special ethos, build on its tradition of excellence, and help with the fund-raising role that Dr. Ma has performed so well. Other “infrastructure” tasks like designing the website and writing copy could benefit from the skills of ClassACT volunteers. Classmates can also donate to the orchestra here.
With the start of a new season, auditions are already underway for the 29th COS Discovery Competition. Dr. Ma is once again focused on teaching young performers how to coax music of piercing beauty out of their violins and violas while ensuring they participate in a community that embodies the service and generosity that has characterized her own life. “I need to communicate the music to the kids, and to carry it forward because obviously we are not here forever. We need someone to carry the music forward.”