The Kanneh-Masons, all nine of them, are off to Wales this week on a walking holiday. But as they prepare to swap their Nottingham home for a rural cottage, the seven siblings and their parents, Stuart and Kadie, appear more like a chamber orchestra going on tour. For the classically-trained family described by Simon Cowell during their 2015 appearance on Britain’s Got Talent as “the most talented in the world”, is comprised of seven musical prodigies between the ages of 23 and 10, and two rather bemused parents.
Sheku, 20, and his elder sister Isata, 23, are now major recording artists in demand internationally, and their five siblings are following fast in their footsteps.
At the age of 13, Isata achieved the top Grade 8 in three instruments, two of them with the highest marks in the country. Sheku did the same on cello at the age of just nine.
“They were getting scores I didn’t know it was even possible to get,” says their father Stuart, who also showed promise on piano at the age of 12 but turned down the chance to go to music school, fearing he would no longer be able to play football.
Woven into their precious holiday time together, along with lots of walks in the beautiful hills of mid-Wales, will be plenty of music practice, not least for gifted cellist Sheku who this year will be making his Proms debut, after his unforgettable performance as soloist at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last year.
The owners of their holiday cottage have played their part. When Sheku won the BBC Young Musician of the Year title at the age of 17 – becoming the first black musician to triumph in the 38 years since the launch of the competition – they had the old piano in the cottage tuned. Last year they put in a new piano for the children to practise on. “It feels surreal,” admits Stuart, 55, of his children’s success. “One moment they were practising at home and doing exams, and now they are winning things, getting recording contracts and they have managers. It wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened.”
Neither Stuart nor Kadie, 53, who has a PhD and was a university lecturer in English literature until the birth of their fourth child, are musicians.
“Often people ask me if my parents are musicians and are surprised when I say no,” says Sheku. “They have loved music and played when younger, but they are not professionals.
“But a parent doesn’t need to be a musician to be able to encourage their child to do music. They gave us encouragement and were dedicated in taking us to lessons, and listening to the practice even if they did not have the technical knowledge. I’ve definitely really appreciated all that.”
But what is perhaps most remarkable is that Sheku and his talented siblings have achieved all this through the state school system – and through the determined organisation of their mother. “Because Kadie no longer works outside the home the children have each had one‑on‑one time with her each day,” explains Stuart.
At one point she had four children under five, and then five under seven.
“There was a time when it was literally crowd control,” she laughs. “So routine was absolutely necessary.”
The family interest in music began with Isata, a fiercely bright little girl who was in danger of finding school boring. At the age of four, she started learning music theory and recorder to keep her occupied, and when she was six started piano lessons. “She was learning each piece within five minutes and would embellish with her left hand, or put it in a minor key,” recalls Kadie.
“When Braimah was five, I introduced him to the violin, expecting it to sound scratchy, but I could tell it was his thing.
“As for Sheku, he also started with violin but was impatient and angry with it. He was naughty every lesson, and was frustrated that his brother was so good on it.
“Then one day I took him to a concert where the other two were playing and we sat near the cello section. At the end, he said, ‘I want to play that’.”
For the Kanneh-Mason children, practice was never a chore. Instead, it represented precious time with their mother.
“After school I would have a big pot of healthy food ready for a very early supper, and when they were little I would then sit with each of them while they practised for half an hour. My mother taught me this, because her parents would always send her out of the room to practise. Instead, we put the piano at the heart of the house so it never felt like a ‘banishment’.”
Being children, naturally they sometimes had to be nagged into practising. “A child would always rather lie down and do nothing, or go out and play football, but because they could see the achievement that was possible through hard work, they never wanted to give up,” explains Kadie. “The key is consistency.”
She was also determined “never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music to our children”.
Pianist Isata, whose first album is currently number one in the classical chart, remembers the fact that her mother never made her aware of “any limitations – she never made anything of the fact we went to state school and we were black and it was hard to make it as a classical musician”, she says.
“Instead, we had a mindset that we could succeed as we wanted to, but that this would require working very, very hard.”
But there was no intention to produce an orchestra. “They allowed us to do what we enjoyed doing, but there was no long-term plan that we were going to be musicians,” explains Braimah, 21.
The entire family are worried about the cuts to state school music provision which means most children can no longer access free lessons as they did, and Sheku recently donated £3,000 to his old secondary school music department.
Inevitably, with seven talents to support, money has been tight. “I always had a good job, but one salary only goes so far,” says Stuart, a former physicist and “mathematics nerd” for British Airways, who now works as a vice president for a luxury travel company.
“The music became really expensive so we had to make sacrifices. Things broke and were not replaced, and we didn’t decorate or have luxuries.”
At one time the couple had to pull two of the children out of lessons because they could not afford the fees. “Amazingly, this wonderful teacher said she would teach our children for free,” says Stuart, with evident gratitude. “She did so for two years and gave them fabulous technique.”
Gradually the children are becoming more self-sufficient. The three older siblings, Sheku, Isata and their brother Braimah, have embarked on careers as performing musicians, while others are on full scholarships at the Royal Academy of Music.
“It has become much more manageable,” agrees a relieved-sounding Stuart.
The younger children, Konya, 18, plays piano and violin; Jeneba, 16, is a pianist and cello player; 13-year-old Aminata studies violin and piano; while Mariatu,10, is a cellist.
So, does it all get a bit competitive? “We are not rivals but we do inspire each other,” explains Isata.
Braimah agrees: “Naturally, when you are surrounded by people who inspire you and play at a high level, you are going to push for that level, but that’s not a negative.”
But the constant striving for perfection means a lot of holiday luggage. Probably best if they don’t travel Ryanair.
Isata’s debut album Romance is out now on Decca Classics. Isata and Sheku will perform together at the Edinburgh International Festival on Wednesday. Sheku will perform with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms on August 22, with Isata making her television presenting debut for the broadcast. For more information see kannehmasons.com
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