Sheku Kanneh-Mason's message to musicians in Play On Philly and beyond: don't forget to listen
Sheku Kanneh-Mason wore an amiably focused expression, his hands resting on the upper bout of his cello, as he assessed a recent run-through of an 18th-century melody. But this wasn’t a rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Kanneh-Mason recorded his second album, or The Philadelphia Orchestra, which featured him in concert last year.
He was, instead, listening to a gaggle of grade-school cellists play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” in an auditorium at West Philly’s Saint Francis de Sales School on Monday afternoon. As the kids finished the song, Kanneh-Mason stood to offer feedback. In a soft Nottingham purr, he began by praising how the young cellists had found a collective sound. Then, gently, he added: “I wonder whether you have the sound of the words in your mind as you are playing.” At this suggestion, a few students widened their eyes, and one or two shifted nervously in their seats.
Kanneh-Mason was visiting these young musicians through an ongoing partnership between Play On Philly, which provides tuition-free music education to students K through 12, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which had also enlisted him for a solo recital on Tuesday night. Watching him engage with the students, often with a word of encouragement or a solicitous question, it was quickly apparent how passionate he is about music education. While he’s among the most heavily accoladed musicians of our time — a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and the first Black recipient of the BBC Young Musician award — Kanneh-Mason is also still 24, not so far removed from his own formative years.
“The mission of Play On Philly is to create amazing human beings,” Jessica Zweig, the organization’s executive director, said in a classroom at Saint Francis de Sales. “I want the kids to be able to expand their perception, to recognize something that’s bigger than them. So when an artist like Sheku comes in — one, ‘This is an artist who looks like me, and he’s playing at the highest levels of musicianship.’ I want our kids to say, ‘Maybe I could do that someday.’”
That approachability was a winning hallmark of Kanneh-Mason’s visit, one seemingly in tune with his personality. Before their “Twinkle, Twinkle,” as the kids were still tuning up, one outgoing young cellist, Alimah, rushed over to pepper him with questions. He put down his bow and smiled, bantering warmly for several minutes. Later, he joined the cello section of the Play On Philly Children’s Orchestra, in its first full-ensemble run-through of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which will feature in a winter concert on Dec. 12 at the Temple Performing Arts Center.
At the podium, teaching artist and conductor Nicholas Handahl led the middle-school-age musicians through the piece, crisp efficiency humming beneath a layer of patience. “The magic with any guest” he mused later, “is that you say can something as a teacher a hundred times, and then someone new comes in and says it one time — and it’s like, ‘Oh, I heard you.’”
This happened when Kanneh-Mason addressed the orchestra, making a point about listening to one another as they played. He proceeded to do some playing of his own: a portion of the iconic prélude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, delivered with the same singing tone and emotive clarity that he brought to a BBC television studio five years ago.
“How did you learn to play that good?” asked one student afterward, lobbing the first awestruck question of a Q&A. There was laughter throughout the room, before Kanneh-Mason’s earnest attempt at a response. “The very honest answer is that there’s no shortcut,” he said, describing the hours of practice he put in every day, from around the time he first started playing, at age 6. He returned to the idea of listening, and using music as a mode of communication.
In a separate interview following the workshop, Kanneh-Mason went a step further. “What I love particularly about the idea of listening to the people around you, or inspiring the people around you, is that these are principles that are so prominent and important in music — but also just generally in life,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons I think that music education can be such a powerful thing, because it teaches you empathy and understanding, and the idea of inspiring and raising up the people around you, and that being at the heart of what we do.”
Kanneh-Mason put this principle in motion the evening after his school visit, during an extravagantly expressive solo recital under the banner of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Performing in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Cultural Campus, he opened with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor and concluded with Gaspar Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello — filling the program in between not only with a canonical Britten cello suite but also three pieces composed expressly for him, by Edmund Finnis, Gwilym Simcock and Leo Brouwer. The program capitalized on both his sterling technical prowess and his keen, searching intellect, as well as the ardent lyrical fluency that has already become a trademark.
“I try to make the most of the trust I feel I have with audiences in lots of different places,” Kanneh-Mason said in our interview, which WRTI will share in full later this month, “because ultimately I think performing things that are meaningful and that I have a strong connection with — that’s going to have the most powerful impact on the audience.”