"I really think that living lightly is very good," Yo-Yo Ma, whose modesty has received as much praise over the years as his musical prowess, tells PEOPLE in its latest issue

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Musician Yo-Yo Ma at The Atlantic Festival
Yo-Yo Ma
| Credit: Stephen Voss/Redux

For decades Yo-Yo Ma has been hailed as the greatest cellist in the world.

But at the mention of his long list of accolades — which includes 18 Grammy Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom — the virtuoso wrinkles his brow.

“I really think that living lightly is very good,” Ma, whose modesty has received as much praise over the years as his musical prowess, tells PEOPLE in its latest issue. “The best thing is there is no best. It’s not about winning, but about sharing.”

Throughout his illustrious career, Ma, 65, who was born in Paris to Chinese immigrants and raised in New York City, has been tirelessly building cultural bridges.

His tool, of course, is the universal language of music. “It’s very easy to feel despondent and discouraged, but we have to keep going,” says the humanitarian, whose non-profit organization Silkroad unites world-class musicians from around the globe to champion arts education and collaboration across cultures.

For Ma's wide-ranging interview — in which he reflects on his long-lasting career, his 42-year marriage to wife Jill Hornor and the tight-knit family they've created — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

SONG OF COMFORT AND HOPE - ALBUM COVER Kathryn Stott; Yo-Yo Ma
Credit: Courtesy Sony

Born in Paris to Chinese immigrants and raised in New York, Ma acknowledges the struggle he faced to find his place while growing up. "It was very confusing for a child. I’d hear, 'You’re Chinese. You must act this way.' Then, 'Oh, you’re not Chinese,'" he recalls.

"The French would say, 'Why would you want to move to the States? This is the greatest country in the world!' In America we say, 'This is the greatest country in the world.' My answer is, 'I’m human. I’m all of those things,'" continues the star. "Why should we not accept that we’re many things and celebrate it?"

In a time of great division, Ma’s new genre-spanning album Songs of Comfort and Hope, with pianist Kathryn Stott, is his way of offering solace in a time of fear.

“My grandchildren will be 82 and 83 in the year 2100,” he says. “These two little people that I love dearly make me think a lot about what kind of world I’m leaving for them.”

A musician for practically his entire life, Ma acknowledges even he can struggle with the demands of constant practice.

"At every stage in life, you have to look for changing motivations. I didn't love practicing," he says. "What I say to people who ask how I deal with it is obviously we've all experienced good days and bad days."

The goal, says Ma, is to have more good ones than bad ones.

"The way to have good days is to turn the world 'should' into 'want,'" he says. "We're plagued by, 'I should be doing this. I should be doing that.' Before you have a family, the world is so exciting. But after you have children, you have to find a better reason than, 'Oh, it's my job.'"

"If you don't find new reasons with every decade, it doesn't work. You won't be a good performer," he continues. "Find the switch. You're the only person who can locate it and activate it."