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Nottingham Cello Player Sheku Kanneh-Mason on Winning BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016

27 December 16 words: Paul Klotschkow

Being crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016 is only one of the many accolades and awards that seventeen-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason has won. And, on top of those, he’s also bagged himself a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music. Not bad for an A-level student from Nottingham…

Firstly, congratulations on being awarded the BBC Young Musician Of The Year. What does it mean to you to have won, and what sort of opportunities does the accolade bring?
I have always wanted to enter, so to win it was a dream come true. It has brought me lots of wonderful opportunities to perform, and also to collaborate with wonderful musicians and conductors.

It is a huge honour. What has life been like since?
Life has changed dramatically over the past few months. I’ve done lots of concerts, including the Royal Festival Hall, and have learnt even more time management skills to juggle concerts, rehearsals and studying both at school and at the Academy. Next year’s programme is even more diverse, with lots of recitals booked across the UK and abroad. I’ve also just signed a record deal with Decca, which is incredible.

I recently heard you on BBC Radio Four – what is it like having media interest and having to do interviews?
The press have been very interested in what I, and also my siblings, have achieved. I think I am getting more relaxed doing interviews and actually enjoy them now. Most of the interviewers are genuinely interested in getting the message of making classical music more accessible out there.

You mentioned your siblings – you come from a very musically talented family. What do you put this down to?
From a young age we were encouraged by our parents to take up an instrument. Also, we grew up in a household where there was all types of music being played on CDs all the time. And we live in a house where it is fun to play music.

You are currently completing your A-Levels at Trinity as well as studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. You must also be fitting in lots of practice in between all of the revising and coursework. How are you coping with it all and what do you do to relax?
It has not been easy to study for my A-Levels while also practicing and performing concerts. But my school is very supportive and help me catch up on lessons I’ve missed. Fortunately, the subjects I am doing for A-Level – Maths, Physics, Music – I really enjoy. I relax by listening to music, playing football and watching films.

Your performances look to be very demanding, both physically and mentally. How do you prepare for them?
I make sure that I have learnt the pieces really well, through lots of slow practice, so that I am confident before the performance. On the day I tend to make rehearsals fairly low key, relax and enjoy the experience with the orchestra. I also make sure I get a lot of sleep beforehand and will exercise too.

What is going through your head when you are performing on stage?
I just get lost in the music, and really want to take the audience on the same journey that I am feeling.

The classical music world can appear to be only for those from privileged backgrounds  – instruments, equipment and lessons can all add up to quite a bit of money, while recitals can be very formal affairs. As someone who goes to a comprehensive school, how easy was it to get the opportunity to start learning and performing music?
It has taken a lot of sacrifice from my parents to enable my siblings and I to be able to play music to the level we enjoy. Instruments and their maintenance, music, travelling to concerts and lessons are all very expensive. So I feel lucky that it was a priority for my family.

How important are Nottingham Youth Orchestra to young musicians of Nottingham?
Really important. It is the place where they can develop so many skills in music including ensemble playing, sight reading, teamwork and many more.

You are involved in the Chineke! Orchestra – can you tell me a bit about that?
It was set up by Chi-chi Nwanoku to specifically address the issue of lack of diversity in classic music. The orchestra brings together musicians from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds to perform major classic works. Most recently, we performed in the Royal Festival Hall in London. I think it is really helping to change people’s perceptions.

What’s the one piece of music that you always enjoy performing?
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 1.

Is there a piece of music you would make any classical music doubters listen to to change their minds?
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2. It is a beautiful piece of music.

What are your plans after you have finished your A-levels?
I will have a short holiday with friends and also with my family. Hopefully I’ll then go to one of the music conservatoires and continue improving my cello playing. I will also learn new repertoire in preparation for the many performance opportunities I have ahead.

My ultimate aim is to perform around the world, but I also enjoy teaching and I thoroughly enjoy performing as part of a chamber orchestra.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason will be performing at New Year’s Eve Classical Gala, Royal Concert Hall, New Year’s Eve 2016, £15.

The Kanneh-Masons website

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