A New Generation of Musicians: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason Visit Trenton Central High School

Written by
Cammie Lee '22, TAP Student Correspondent
Dec. 22, 2020

On Monday, November 16, Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Orchestra students had the opportunity to speak with cellist Sheku and pianist Isata of the illustrious Kanneh-Mason family in a Zoom event hosted by the Neighborhood Music Project and moderated by Trenton Arts at Princeton program manager, Lou Chen.

The siblings are world-renowned for their musical talent and have accumulated many accolades. Sheku, who currently studies at the Royal Academy of Music, initially rose to prominence after winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition—the first Black musician to do so. In 2018, he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Isata, a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, has received numerous scholarships and awards including the Elton John Scholarship and the Gwendolyn Reiche Memorial Scholarship. She regularly performs internationally, and most recently conducted an extensive U.S. tour that included a solo performance at Carnegie Hall.

The siblings’ conversation with the TCHS students was one of several community events made possible by their Princeton University Concerts virtual residency. On December 8, they performed together in a digital concert, and on November 19, their parents, Kadiatu and Stuart, participated in a public conversation with radio host Helga Davis. Sheku, Isata, and their brother Braimah, who plays the violin, also curated a series of playlists as a part of a new collective listening project.

The conversation began with a curated selection of performance videos, including a clip of six Kanneh-Mason siblings performing on Britain’s Got Talent, interspersed with a series of pre-selected questions. In their responses, Sheku and Isata described what it was like to grow up in a household of musicians, noting the constant sources of inspiration that arose both from hearing their siblings practice and from the diverse range of music genres their parents exposed them to from an early age.

During the second half of the event, Sheku and Isata responded to questions posed by TCHS students. When one of the students asked how they felt about their fame, Sheku responded thoughtfully, “I suppose what we focus on and think about and enjoy the most is playing, and everything that comes with that—of course, the opportunity to play at lots of wonderful places is very very special, but I think the opportunity just to play is what I personally feel most lucky about.”

The siblings also addressed many students’ concerns about the challenges of pursuing music professionally after graduating from high school. Julio, a senior who plays the drums, asked, “What should you do when you have a dream or goal to become something in the music world, but your parents are trying to sway you away from it?”

Isata replied first. “When it comes to pursuing a dream or a goal, if you really want to do it, I would always say that you have to go for it,” she remarked. Sheku quickly followed with his response:

“We all know that it’s very difficult to play an instrument and play at a high level, and then, therefore, to go into the profession—it’s no secret that it’s difficult and that it’s potentially a risk, but I can’t see a better way to live your life than to do what you love, and therefore, even if it is a risk, I would always go for it, and it’s always going to be worth it. You’ll never regret going into something you love.”

The discussion was peppered with moments of artistic reflection as the Kanneh-Masons imparted wisdom gleaned from their own experiences as musicians. Gisela, a junior who plays clarinet, asked, “As a musician, how do you find ways to incorporate passion, meaning, and intention into your music playing, while combating nerves?” Isata’s response to Gisela’s question emphasized music’s inherent embedment within life:

“In terms of including passion, meaning, and intention, I think having a rich and fulfilling life on a day-to-day basis gives you important experiences to bring to the music. Inspiration also comes through teaching and listening to others, so you learn how to incorporate those things in your playing. I think it’s okay to feel nervous, and the key is actually learning to bring passion despite feeling nervous. That just comes with practice: putting yourself out there and performing.”

Many of the students had already watched videos of the Kanneh-Masons prior to the event, and thus the opportunity to directly interact with the siblings took on an especially meaningful significance for them.

“Sheku is my inspiration to work harder and learn new things on the cello,” said Martha, a cellist for both the TCHS Orchestra and the Trenton Youth Orchestra, at the conclusion of the Q&A. “He plays outstandingly.”