Sheku Kanneh-Mason is tuned into education and opportunity

The royal wedding cellist tells The Big Issue how opening youngsters' minds to classic musical in state schools like the one he attended can pave the way for success

It’s easy to think of Sheku Kanneh-Mason as the teenage cellist who knocked the wind out of billions of people watching his performance at Meghan and Harry’s wedding. But by that point in 2018, he’d already chalked up a remarkable list of achievements. He was six when he first lifted a cello. At 16 he was named 2016’s BBC Young Musician of the Year – the first black musician to take the title in the competition’s history. Now he’s kicking off 2020 with an album recorded alongside his hero Sir Simon Rattle. With his background as a state-educated kid from Nottingham Kanneh-Mason, who is still only 20, knows that even a talent like his could have gone undiscovered. He’s dismayed that other kids who lack funds or an early exposure to classical music will be lost. He explains why opportunity and education are paramount and how even he is still learning.

See it to be it

It’s difficult when you don’t see someone like you doing it. It’s a big thing that I’m hoping to change of course. Everyone can get so much from having music lessons, so to not have the opportunity is a real shame.

Of course, you need the initial inspiration and desire to do it, which comes from being exposed to music. But it’s now very rare for someone, unless you have a lot of money, to have music lessons from a young age. I think what needs to change is having high-quality lessons in schools and for that to be seen as important.

All the things I’ve learned from my teachers over the years will always stick with me and if I’m ever working with young children I very often remember how things were explained to me. And working with young people and them asking me questions makes me ask questions as well. I hope that because I’m not so much older than them they can be inspired by me. I was very lucky in the teacher I had and the things I saw, the people I was able to be inspired by. It’s exciting to be that person for others.

Starting young

Both my parents loved classical music. Growing up listening to that was really lovely, so I had the exposure from a very young age. Before the cello I was playing the violin for about a month. Then I remember watching a concert and being really excited by the sound and the look of the cello.

I’m working with many children [at inner-city charity London Music Masters] who wouldn’t have had access. There’s so much talent among young people that needs to be combined with opportunity.

Just seeing the concentration on their faces when they’re doing something that they’re enjoying and passionate about is really beautiful to watch. I find that performing to children who are hearing this music for the first time and how they respond in such a natural way is really special.

Selling classical to youngsters

The younger the kids are, the more open-minded they are – but I think classical music can definitely speak to anyone who has a good opportunity to properly listen to it. The more you understand, the more you get from it. That’s not to say that you have to be an expert on classical music to enjoy it, it means there’s just so much in the music. With understanding it can be even more special.

It’s a language that everyone can understand. You enjoy this wonderful music and it also teaches you the skills of combining the physical with the emotional. It’s one of the few things that bring those two aspects together. Music can unite us and it’s a language that everyone can understand.

Meeting your heroes

Sir Simon Rattle [conductor on Kanneh-Mason’s new album Elgar] is such an open musician, and an inspiring one too. So I felt really free and able to be expressive. I was also able to learn lots from him, the whole experience was really special for me. Being there recording one of my favourite pieces of music with an amazing orchestra and an amazing conductor… that to me is a dream.

We had a kickabout in his back garden. Of course I won! No, I can’t really remember, it was a long game and his son was very good. Very, very good. I love football, it’s secondary to cello but if I had to do something else it would be football.

Abbey Road [where the album was recorded] had such an amazing atmosphere, and having photos of Elgar conducting there was really special. There were photos around the place of all the people who have recorded there. I do love The Beatles, but for me it’s more about Elgar.

Elgar, an album anchored around Elgar’s Cello Concerto, is out on January 10. For tour dates see shekukannehmason.com