ABU DHABI // When 150 pupils from Al Rabeeh School in Abu Dhabi filed into their assembly hall yesterday morning, they were greeted with a large grin and a friendly wave from a man with a cello.
Although their teachers looked on in awe, most of the children had no idea they were meeting one of the world's most respected musicians.
Yo-Yo Ma, the Chinese-American cellist, has won 16 Grammy Awards, was named a peace ambassador to the UN and is a member of US President Barack Obama's committee for arts and humanities.
He is in the capital to play at the annual Abu Dhabi Classics festival and open the week-long Al Ain Classics, which starts this weekend. As a precursor, he visited schools across the capital to conduct short workshops.
At Al Rabeeh school, with girls and boys from Grades 5 and 6, he told the story of how his cello was made from wood, varnish and other parts collected from all over the world.
Then, with the help of two other musicians - Kamal Musallam from Jordan playing oud and Israel Varela from Mexico on a drum called the cajon - he demonstrated how music from three continents easily blended together.
"One of the questions we all ask ourselves is who we are, how do we fit into this world and why do we do what we do," said Ma. "The language of music is the language of the heart, and I'm pretty sure we all have one of them. Music is one of the best ways to access the inner soul and to start to trust in the world. It makes the work I do so much more useful when a memory stays behind."
Ma, who was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom last month, said it was a pleasure and a thrill to be able to spend time with the children.
"I love kids," he said. "I really appreciate the chance to come somewhere like this and meet the children. As I get older, what keeps me young is to figure out what people of a different generation think about." Ma, 55, was born in Paris to musical parents. Widely considered a musical genius, he took up the cello when he was four and by seven had played in front of two American presidents - John F Kennedy and Dwight D Eisenhower.
"He is an unbelievable human being, an unbelievable musician and an unbelievable communicator," said Till Janczukowicz, the executive and artistic director of Abu Dhabi Classics.
"He has a clear passion not only for the music but to pass something on to the younger generation. Some of the children in here will remember this for the rest of their lives."
Mr Janczukowicz said he had been negotiating for almost three years to book Ma to perform in the UAE.
The educational element, he said, just meant the musician could reach a wider audience during his time here.
Hugh Carey, the head teacher at Al Rabeeh school, described the experience as "wonderful" for the pupils.
"I'd be very surprised if any of the children had ever seen someone play a cello in real life, let alone such a prestigious musician," he said.
"The fact that he managed to engage them so completely and bring a smile to every one of their faces means a lot to us as a school."
The 800 Emirati and Arab pupils at the private school do not have music in their curriculum, and only a small music room that is occasionally used by one of the teachers. This morning, 700 primary school students will attend a rehearsal session with Ma and students of Abu Dhabi's Bait al Oud at Emirates Palace.
Ma will perform his concert at the palace tonight and on Saturday in Al Ain.