A master class with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in Guangdong, China, leads Nina Pitts down a path of professional and personal discovery.

Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Baker College junior Nina Pitts has been playing the cello since the age of 5, but never received advice like what she heard from famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma at a master class last January. It had nothing to do with tone or technique, but rather how to approach performing.  

“[Ma] said that when you’re the host at the party, it’s your job to make your guests feel special,” Pitts recalled. “And the same principle applies to performances.” Pitts and 75 other musicians from around the world trained under Ma for 10 days at Youth Music Culture Guangdong, his prestigious music festival in Guangdong, China, an experience Pitts called “eye-opening.” 

Nina Pitts with Yo-Yo Ma last year

“The way he thinks about music is insightful, yet the way he verbalizes his thoughts is remarkably simple and easy to comprehend,” she said of Ma, whom she described as a natural teacher and lovely person. “He commits to his musical decisions and his role as an artist with everything he has.” 

Long before Pitts was learning under Ma, she was inspired by her parents, Timothy Pitts and Kathleen Winkler, who teach double bass and violin, respectively, at Rice. Playing a string instrument was a given — but which one? “I told my parents I wanted an instrument where I could sit down,” Pitts laughed. “That was very important to 5-year-old me.”

In addition to the peak experience of studying with top international musicians and Ma himself, the festival’s location carried an especially personal meaning for Pitts. It returned her to the town from where her parents adopted her two decades before. Pitts visited the hotel where the adoption was finalized and life with her parents began. 

“You know when time slows down? It was like that,” she said of the visit. “I had time to think about how lucky I was to be there. I don’t know who chose me for my parents, but it was definitely luck.”

Pitts with her father in China on her adoption day

Back at Rice this spring, Pitts played in the Shepherd School Opera’s production of “Susannah” and is laying the groundwork for her senior year. She plans to pursue graduate school in Europe and eventually wants to perform in opera orchestras or a chamber music ensemble.

“I hope I can show people who haven’t experienced classical music how great it is in its own right — right up there with the greatest pop songs,” she said. “I think it’s funny that Beethoven and Mozart used the same 12 notes that Rihanna and Taylor Swift do — depending on how you put them in order, you get something completely different. But it’s all music and hopefully can make their lives richer.” Keeping the lessons from Ma in mind, wherever in the world she plays, she’ll make her listeners feel special.