Nicole Pinnell walked onto the stage at the Ragan Theater at Utah Valley University for the final number of the UVU Symphony Orchestra’s winter concert on Dec. 3.
Wearing a bright purple dress and plenty of eye-catching jewelry, her infectious smile was still the focal point. She sat on a small stand near the podium, perching her cello at a lower height and more of an angle than those already set up among orchestra members.
The thunderous energy of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor began.
Once Pinnell began to play, it was clear that her relationship with her instrument is an intimate one.
She bent over the cello, cradling it toward her chest. Her eyes were closed much of the time, eyebrows creasing over the emotion of each measure, fingers feeling their way to each note.
There was an audible “wow” in the audience after she finished the first movement.
Born in California in 1971 and raised in Wisconsin before settling in Salt Lake City, Pinnell first discovered the cello when she was 9 years old.
“I saw it in a string shop. It was so beautiful,” she said in an interview following the concert. “And they pulled it down and said I could try it, and this big, booming, beautiful sound came out. I was hooked.”
Glowing is the best word to describe Pinnell when she is not intensely engaged with the cello. Friendly and expressive in her conversations, she’s unassuming, welcoming and hardly wears her accomplishments on her sleeve.
And she has a lot of accomplishments she could be boasting about.
Pinnell made her solo debut with the University of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12. She started teaching cello lessons when she was 13. She became assistant principal cellist at the University of Wisconsin and performed in Carnegie Hall when she was 14. At 16, she won a contest to study one-on-one with cello great Yo-Yo Ma.
When asked if she considered herself a prodigy, she paused for a moment, smiled and laughed nervously as she replied, “Yes.” She quickly credited some of her music teachers when talking about her early accomplishments.
Pinnell says she lives by the motto, “determination, not talent, is the key to success," a thought taken from a clipped newspaper article she kept in her room as a child.
“I practiced very hard,” she said. “Every musician works really hard.”
This musician is far more forthcoming when talking about her instrument, music and other people than she is in talking about herself.
One of her recent albums — the only album, really that she can call one of her own — is “Sunday Morning with Classical Cello,” which also features Czech cellist Michal Kaňka. Her name is found listed in small print beneath the tracks on the inside cover.
“The idea with that album is that my focus is on the cello,” she said. “It’s on the music. It’s not on me. That’s my intention.”
When she’s not talking about the music, she'll readily gush about other artists who inspire her or teachers and mentors she’s had.
“Her collaborative spirit is just a joy,” said Reed Criddle, director of choral activities and interim conductor of the UVU Symphony Orchestra. The Dvorak concerto is one of Criddle’s favorites, and he was excited to bring Pinnell in to play. The piece, he explained, has many duets between the cello and other instruments.
“She brings (the students) up to her level and they shine because she has that essence about her.”
The university's symphony orchestra is not the only group to feature Pinnell’s collaborative spirit. Pinnell has often worked with producer Tyler Castleton and Shadow Mountain records, which released the “Sunday Morning” album. Other artists she’s worked with include Alex Boye, Hilary Weeks, Jenny Phillips, Dallyn Bayles and the group Jericho Road — many LDS, Christian and inspirational artists.
“I love the feeling that people can get from music,” she said. “It’s really exciting to be part of something bigger than yourself, so I genuinely love all of those albums from my heart.”
She added, “My guiding principle in life is to be an influence for good.”
A particularly notable collaboration is Pinnell’s work with violinist Jenny Oaks Baker. Baker’s latest album, “Wish Upon a Star,” which features Pinnell in the song "Beauty and the Beast," received a Grammy nomination on Nov. 30.
Pinnell loves working with Baker.
“She is impeccable. She is passionate. She’s lyric, and it’s exciting to play with someone who can handle a real intense duet accompaniment — or I should say she doesn’t just handle it, she wants that,” Pinnell said.
Baker returned the sentiments.
Describing Pinnell's depiction of the Beast in the song, she called it a "beautiful, rich, caramel-chocolate sound." Pinnell plays from the heart, Baker said.
“She’s a joy to work with,” she said. “She’s a beautiful, beautiful player.” She added she's honored to have Pinnell featured on the album.
"Wish Upon a Star" was arranged by composer Kurt Bestor, whom Pinnell met about 20 years ago. She deeply admires Bestor and has worked with him frequently.
She is featured on Bestor's album “Sketches” among others. Bestor wrote the part for the Beast with Pinnell in mind.
Pinnell had to pick and choose as she discussed collaborations and influences. The list is long and extremely eclectic.
Her work with the cello has seen her share the stage with Joseph Silverstein and Keith Lockhart with the Utah Symphony. It’s also taken her to performances with Led Zeppelin, Quincy Jones, Donny Osmond and Air Supply.
She’s being completely honest when she says she likes all kinds of music.
Aside from music, Pinnell is dedicated to family and teaching.
She has three very musical children: Mathew, 16, plays jazz vibes and percussion, Quincy, 13 (who's named after Quincy Jones), plays electric and acoustic bass and Ashlee, 8, has followed in her mother’s footsteps with cello, piano and voice.
Pinnell also came from a musical family, which includes a music professor father and accomplished violist sister. She harbors an enduring love and respect for her family whether they're professionally musical or not.
“My parents and siblings are powerhouses in their fields,” she said. “But when we get together all we do is cook a lot of food, laugh until we are weak, and dance until we are exhausted. We are energized by our love for each other.”
Teaching is Pinnell’s other longtime love and driving force. Today, she has a studio of about 30 students and teaches cello at UVU.
Pinnell calls her teaching style the Namaste Music Method. The word "namaste," derived from Sanskrit, essentially means “the divine in me honors the divine in you,” she said.
“I really try to teach the students that all of their solutions are within themselves,” she said, adding she gives them what she knows but emphasizes their unique way of experiencing the music.
“I love that I can be a working musician who adores what they do as well as make an impact on children, who are the key to our future,” Pinnell said.
When asked about her work with older students at UVU specifically, she said, “Oh, it’s been fabulous. The students are really good and they’re also very engaged.” She complimented the students’ work on the Dvorak concerto.
Her role as a teacher was apparent during the Dec. 3 performance, especially in her duet with student and concertmaster Lauren Hodge Brown. As they played together, Pinnell turned toward Brown, nodding slightly in encouragement.
Teacher, mother, musician — it all culminates into very soulful playing.
“She is the best of the best,” Criddle said after the performance. “Nicole just — she really puts humanity in her playing. You feel her spirit come out.”
For more information about Pinnell, visit Utah Valley University's website.
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