Behind the talent

Anyone who watched cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s winning performance in the finals of this year’s BBC Young Musician of the Year knows what a special musician he is. But what’s it like to teach such a player? His teacher, Ben Davies, explains

In spring 2008, a quiet and shy nine-year-old boy shuffled into my teaching room at the Royal Academy of Music. He had come for a consultation lesson, with a view to learning with me in the Junior Department. His name was Sheku Kanneh-Mason and I knew nothing about him until he started to play. After a moving performance of Bloch’s Prayer, I gave him the Courante from Bach’s Sixth suite to sightread! It was clear straight away that he had a special talent and great potential, but also I felt there was much I could help him with.
Fast forward to May 2016 and I am sitting in the Barbican concert hall, listening to Sheku play Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto in his bid to become the BBC Young Musician of the Year 2016. Being involved in his success has given me immense pleasure and pride and has also prompted me to reflect on the journey that had led to this achievement.
I came to be a cellist via a rather circuitous route, studying sciences at school, Art at Foundation Level, and taking a degree in Geography and Geology at university, before doing postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music. On the way I was lucky to have three great teachers: Ioan Davies, Bernard Gregor-Smith and Derek Simpson, all distinguished quartet cellists and all students of Douglas Cameron at the Royal Academy. As a child I was uncomfortable with the language and laws of musical theory. Aside from the immensely practical approach of my teachers, I found that my way of analysing seemed to owe more to my love of landscape and pattern within the natural world, combined with my interest in craft. With time I have come to trust these intuitions more and more.
So how does this relate to my teaching? The cornerstones of string playing can be summarised as ‘The Three Ts’: Tone, Tuning and Timing. In my first lesson, Derek Simpson said that the fundamentals were song and dance (and he made a lovely sound). Derek encouraged me to analyse using his problem-solving approach. If I asked him a question there would be an exchange between him listening to me, then taking my cello and trying it himself, and me playing until he was able to pinpoint the answer that I needed.


Tone – making a great sound on the instrument, developing a variety of colours and thinking about how they connect. Derek Simpson maintained that a true legato was the most difficult style of bowing and paid much attention to the bow. I like to imagine sound as a material, with its own inherent quality, which one can shape, mould and stretch to make a phrase. I also make ceramics and often relate the two activities. The craft of making, and playing, interests me.
Tuning: my teachers were all very fussy about tuning, for which I am very grateful. I compare it to polishing silver, in that it is a never-ending job. I encourage my students to explore the character of intervals, for example, by likening the degrees of the scale as siblings to the first born (tonic). I assist them by providing a drone, accompanying them on the cello with the bass lines of their repertoire and fine-tuning small sections without vibrato while seeking to find the character in the line of notes. I will talk about brightness and dullness in sound, in comparison to the same qualities in a painting, in order to avoid always talking in terms of sharp and flat. I feel that much of the expression in music can be found in the tuning and the character of the intervals. One of the best examples of this in practice was an exciting concert I attended given by a group of Mongolian throat singers who used overtones to produce harmonics.
Timing: good, vibrant rhythm is essential. I encourage students to work out what the notated rhythms actually mean, once lifted off the page, by imagining what the composer was hearing in his or her head which lead to the rhythms being notated in that way. The abiding principle for me is rubato in its true sense of robbed time, giving and taking. The rubato might be contained within a bar or over the whole or part of a phrase. Rhythms can be seen as patterns, and in this sense are building blocks for the music.
In terms of technical work, I, like many others of my generation was brought up on Popper, Grützmacher, Piatti and Duport. I teach these to my students, but not in their entirety, choosing sections that are useful without them becoming too much of a chore. Joan Dickson’s Freedom of the Fingerboard and Christopher Bunting’s exercises are excellent in their brevity and ability to pinpoint a detail of technique. I also like to make up small specific exercises based on these, but which relate directly to repertoire being studied. I encourage my students to do the same. While Sheku was warming up before his performance at the Barbican, it gave me great pleasure to hear him running through a selection of these exercises, which he had embellished since I had last heard them!
I have always enjoyed listening to performances and like to analyse what I hear and observe. If I don’t enjoy a performance I never feel it is wasted – there is always something to be learnt. Hearing what you don’t like can be a spur to developing your own interpretation. As a student I remember listening, with my father, to a live broadcast of Bach’s Third Suite, by an eminent cellist. Afterwards we discussed it and I felt that although I admired the cellist, I was certain I wouldn’t want to play the piece in that way. We came to the conclusion that there were as many ways of playing Bach as there are players and I felt reassured that I could admire aspects of this cellist but find my own way.
People sometimes ask me if I follow a particular school of teaching, to which my answer is no. My approach is to listen to a student and then try to find ways of helping them technically and musically, while encouraging them to find their own musical voice. I always find something positive to comment on first and then any criticisms can be voiced in context. I don’t have a problem with the concept of criticism, but maybe it is wise to avoid using the word! The best lessons I received were when the teacher communicated as a result of drawing on their own personal experiences. My Geography teacher at school used to arrive to school by bike. His lessons would often start with interesting and amusing references to observations from his journey, which invariably fed into the subject matter for that lesson.
Because I am interested in the natural world, art, ceramics etc, I use these in my imagery and analogies, as in this way I feel I communicate most effectively. It is not the subjects that matter – it is the enthusiasm and communication that are essential. When I find a student doesn’t respond to an idea, it is important to keep inventing and re-inventing until I make a connection. There is an element of performance in teaching and I treat the giving of a lesson as a creative process. I think about my students between lessons but tend not to plan lessons. It helps to be able to run your ideas against another colleague. I am lucky that my partner is a violin teacher and she has been a very good sounding board for me over the years.
From an early age, I was often taken to concerts by the Fitzwilliam and Lindsay quartets and experienced music-making as a conversation between the four players. I always liked to hear how one player might suggest an idea, and how another player would respond. This is something I encourage, as it seems to me to be the essence of chamber music but also can be applied when playing in large ensembles. Sheku demonstrated this very well in his relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I found the playing of the Lindsays’ first violinist Peter Cropper particularly inspiring. He had a way of joining notes together in a phrase that was utterly convincing and yet surprising. His approach was always deeply personal and informed by his thoughtful study of the music.
Mischa Maisky always amazes me with his inventiveness. In variation five of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, the cello plays 13 C sharps in a row: in Mischa Maisky’s performance each one was different in some way. As a result I have adopted the phrase, ‘The Mischa Maisky Moment’ to encourage a student to imagine what he might do at a certain point in their music. This is an approach that Sheku identifies with in a particularly intuitive way.
I remember a session with Joan Dickson on the first movement of Schubert’s B flat major Trio. We spent a long time on the few bars that start the cello tune. I was impressed with her ability to communicate the direction and tensions of the harmony without using the theoretical language that has always felt alien to me. When an audience member at the performance commented on how much he appreciated the way I played this phrase, I understood the importance of attention to detail. In Sheku’s performance at the Barbican there were many details which had a history from our work together and which evidently delighted and moved the audience. Experiencing the power and persuasion of his communication and the response from the audience made me very happy.


In the period leading up to the BBC Young Musician competition, I worked with Sheku on four key areas: legato, tuning, vibrato and characterisation. Here is a brief summary of the two that Sheku found most useful.

Firstly we worked on establishing legato within the bow while changing fingers in the left hand, practising the bowing independently of the left hand on open strings, so that the bow leads when the fingers are added again. Secondly, we looked at maintaining good legato at the bow change by putting pauses between each bow and focusing on starting and finishing each bow with a slower bow speed. The pauses are then reduced in length until they no longer separate the bow strokes.
We concentrated on developing a vibrato that emerges from the sound, rather than being applied to the sound. I use the image of a stationary washing line (representing the line of sound drawn out of the instrument) being tapped so as to set up a wave that travels along its length. Out of this comes discussion of the amplitude and speed of the vibrato, which can be measured in oscillations per beat using a metronome. Secondly, we worked on developing the ability to have continuous vibrato in the hand while changing fingers. I find Christopher Bunting’s ‘Fives’ exercise useful for this.
This article was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of Arco. ESTA members receive four copies of Arco a year with their membership. Find out about the full benefits of joining ESTA here

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