Fruitful Collaborations

BBC Young Musician of the Year winners and their teachers

In this special extended article, we interview two winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and their teachers.  Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Ben Davies, Laura van der Heijden and Leonid Gorokhov give fascinating insights into their pedagogical relationships and their experiences of preparing for the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, which Laura won in 2012 and Sheku in 2016. 

BEN DAVIES ‘When Sheku arrived for his first lesson at the Junior Royal Academy of Music aged nine, I was taken by surprise. There was no indication from his body language that he was such an evolved player, until he started playing the Prayer by Bloch with extraordinary emotional power. I could see he was really talented – in a different league to anyone else I had heard at that age – but I also saw that there was a lot I could help him with: technical issues of course, but also helping him to develop and evolve as a player.

Ben Davies and Sheku Kanneh-Mason BBC Young Musician ‘We have worked together every Saturday in term time ever since. In the early years, he would arrive, get his cello out and start playing straightaway and he would hardly talk at all unless you asked him a specific question! I would talk and he would play and I’d know that he’d understood what I’d said from the way he played. We didn’t waste any time on small talk, which was fine, because there was so much to do. Even in the early days when we had a performance class, one of the other teachers would ask me afterwards, “That was just amazing. How do you know what to say to him?” In fact, there was never a shortage of things to say to him. He is so capable that teaching becomes a creative game, trying different ideas and approaches, but I would often feel the responsibility between lessons and worry whether I was doing enough for him. Was I doing the right thing? Then the next lesson came and it was fine.

‘Sheku’s first attempt at the BBC Young Musician competition was when he was 12. It was something he was very keen to do and we thought it would be a way to test the water. He got the highest possible score in the first round and then he was knocked out at the next stage; he just wasn’t old enough. Just before his second attempt at 14, he had a football accident and had his arm in a sling until three days before the first round. That was a bit of a low point, but by the time he entered for the third time he had a lot of experience to draw on.

‘We spent a lot of time choosing repertoire before he entered the latest competition. We looked at previous entrants’ programmes and decided that it’s an advantage to play more than two pieces in the string final, as it gives more insight into your potential as a player. For a solo piece with real character, we chose the Cassado. The next thing we wanted was a piece to tug at the heart strings! Sheku came across a YouTube video of Morceaux de Fantasie op.3, ‘Elégie’ by Rachmaninov transcribed for cello which had the emotional, theatrical climax we were looking for. For a more serious third piece with piano we chose the second movement of the Shostakovich sonata.

‘Sheku started learning the Shostakovich concerto a whole year before the competition, and first performed it in October 2015 just after putting his BBC Young Musician application in. Sheku has always memorised for performance. It matters more to him to be free of the music than to have to improvise when he makes a wrong entry.

‘I went up to his house several times before the string finals and spent time with his family which was really nice. We had a few jokes and ate together and I could see that everyone was involved in his progress. He has this incredible talent but also has the support of his entire family. I have always felt that his parents trust me to do the right thing even if I’m not sure that I am!

‘As the BBC Young Musician rounds progressed, we simply concentrated on preparing for the next stage. There was never any discussion about what would happen if he did or didn’t get through. There were certainly some grey hairs along the way. I wasn’t able to attend the strings final but I got a text saying “He’s broken a string…” At the next lesson, I asked him what was going through his mind when he was replacing the broken string back-stage. He said, “I was thinking that the Cassado was going really well, so I would have to go back on and play it even better, otherwise people would think it was a fluke.” So he went back on and played it even better. He has that kind of response to risk and can cope with something that might throw another person off.

‘After Sheku heard he was through to the finals I said, “I want to say one thing and then we won’t talk about it again. Whatever you do now, it doesn’t matter. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that you’re going to play Shostakovich at the Barbican with Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony orchestra, that’s all that matters. But I think you really want this, don’t you?” He just nodded. Then we simply got on with the work, focussing on the things I think are most important: the quality of his legato, the expression, the tuning; there’s always something fresh that can be done with each performance. Whatever stage he is at, we ask, what shall we do next time, how can it be different? We organised a lot of play-throughs of the concerto and I went to all the rehearsals and at every single one I took notes; when my wife Ginny was there she took notes too. There was a lot of work on structure and detail, for example making the cadenza the centre point, using the opening to test the acoustic of the hall, listening to what the audience hears, not counting rests.

‘On the day of the final I encouraged him not to play full-out in the morning run-through with orchestra, but he couldn’t do that. His performance that morning was absolutely amazing and technically stunning but I was worried that he might run out of energy. His thumb was hurting by the end of the rehearsal and he was struggling to hold the bow. Afterwards I asked him, ‘Do you think you can do that again this afternoon?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah I think so.’

‘That afternoon at the Barbican, he was so happy to walk out on stage to a sold-out hall. The more people there are, the happier he is. During his final performance, I was quite uncomfortable and just wanted it to be over. I knew he’d play brilliantly, but I just wanted it to be finished, and for him not to fall off the stage or break a string. I watched the video quite intensively for about a week after the final because once the pressure was off I could see all these things we’d worked on and which he’d developed as a result of thinking about it together – that was just so satisfying. I was also thinking, “I must talk to him about the way he times his bow-change there…” I can’t not see the things we might work on next! Winning the competition is one thing, but the work just carries on.

‘The BBC Young Musician competition dominated my life for that period. Even before he got through to the finals, I arranged a deputy to cover my Opera work for the week because I thought he was going to get through. It was very exciting, to the extent that I couldn’t really think about anything else. My children thought maybe Sheku had become my son! “Sheku this, Sheku that.” Then they all came to see him play at the Barbican and realised what I’d been going on about.

‘Sheku gave me a lovely trophy which he made with help from his neighbour who is a glass artist. It’s a curved piece of glass with the score of the Shostokovich with all my scribblings in it. Then a picture of me and him at the bottom with some other comments from him, all fused into the glass. When I hear people talk about Sheku’s playing, I think, well that’s everything we’ve worked towards, that’s everything I believe is really important. That’s such a confirmation of everything we have we have done together.’

SHEKU KANNEH-MASON ‘I was nearly 10 when I first started studying with Ben. In the early stages, we did a lot of work on my bow arm in Sheku Kanneh Masonparticular, getting a really good legato. Ben’s almost obsessed with bowing technique and I’ve grown to recognise that it’s one of the most important things for a cellist to master. It was great – we spent about half or a third of each lesson on technique and the rest focussing on the pieces I was working on, so it was a really good balance, always moving forward. I’m very grateful that we worked so hard on technique early on, so now I have more time to focus on the music and performance.

‘Ben’s good at relating what he’s talking about in the music to real-life analogies. When I was younger it was a lot easier to visualise real-life things rather than using elements of music theory to understand how to express a piece. Lessons are very much a dialogue. Ben encourages me to disagree with some of his musical ideas and encourages me to think of my own ideas instead of getting into the habit of relying on him to tell me what to do. It has always been like that. I use his input and make it my own, and that then makes a performance more convincing. It is very creative for both of us. Ben often demonstrates and it’s the quickest way to learn, to watch someone doing something, rather than having it described to you.

‘I’ve always loved to perform, so that’s a strong motivation to create the performance I want to give. I have six siblings who are all practising and performing all the time and they’ve always inspired me. I have entered a lot of competitions because it’s a good way of getting feedback and you also often get concerto and recital opportunities. It also motivates you to work that little bit harder to take the pieces you are learning to a competitive level. Just through the eight-month process of the BBC Young Musician competition I improved so much more than I would have if I hadn’t taken part. In the BBC competition, the repertoire you choose is really important and plays a huge part. I went back and forth with Ben trying to find a programme which would show the range of what I can play in a short space of time. It’s difficult to figure out what will work in the context of that programme and take the audience on a journey.

‘After a performance when I’ve cooled down I’ll sit back and think what I could improve on for the next time and what worked well too. I try to make every performance different in some way and I always try to take risks because in my opinion there’s nothing worse than a performance when you’re just churning out the music and there’s nothing fresh, or with any life in it so I try to avoid that. I try to do fingerings consistently but I like to try new ideas with phrasing or playing a passage more quietly or louder or doing a bit of rubato I haven’t tried before or leaving a shift later, things like that. That helps to make the performance a real communication with the audience.

‘Because the BBC Young Musician competition was so important we went into such minute detail for the pieces. For example, in the strings final the programme was only 16 minutes’ worth of music but we spent months going into detail on each bar and each piece and performing in front of a small audience and taking notes and improving on that and watching the video back and performing the whole programme. The amount of detail was very high and it paid off because it really left nothing to chance when it came to the competition.

‘My dad was with me in London for the whole week of rehearsals before the final. There was a dress rehearsal in the morning and I really went for it because it was the first time I’d played in the concert hall and I wanted to get the feeling of the hall. It was quite tiring but I relaxed throughout the afternoon and so when it came to the final performance I was fine. Performing live is a really special thing. I just love the feeling of being able to walk out and to perform to an audience. Since the BBC Young Musician competition I’ve enjoyed the sudden change in the amount of concert requests I receive and I’m really excited about the record signing with Decca to record the Shostakovich; it really is a dream come true.’

LEONID GOROKHOV  ‘I started teaching Laura when she was about 11. She was unusually calm and concentrated for someone of her age; very focussed and alert, but also relaxed. To me these were signs that she would be really good to teach because she could concentrate, she could understand what I wanted, and was obviously really smart: all the things which make lessons really enjoyable. I liked the combination of her focussed and measured approach. Spontaneity is important in a musician of course, but to be measured, calm and grounded is quite rare.

Leonid photo BBC Young Musician ‘I never really treated Laura like a child. Because she was already grown up in her head and had quite strong hands, we moved on to fairly challenging repertoire once we had established a strong enough base. We took things little by little. I like to teach the Etudes and we covered them bit by bit, starting with simpler studies by Popper and expanding to more advanced ones such as Piatti and Grützmacher, trying to remain as un-tedious as possible. I like to ensure that there is no movement that is uncomfortable and no sound which is not pleasant, while we try to make sense of the cello’s structure and geography. Combined with these studies we covered things which were spontaneous and enjoyable such as the Bach Suites.

‘Then came all the pieces like the Davidoff concerto and Boccherini, the core repertoire which creates a solid base, so that you never get lost in future situations with the extended repertoire. Students always feel independent if they are well grounded in this respect. If you have an understanding of how to tackle different and difficult things such as studies and the Bach Suites, then you can deal with most repertoire.

‘Our meetings were never regular because I already lived in Germany and Laura was based in the UK, but we saw each other when we could. We would tape the lessons and make notes in case there was something she needed to come back to. At the first stage of our master plan, Laura’s mother Daniela was up at five with Laura each morning helping her to practise. However motivated the child is, you still need someone to be there and without Daniela we wouldn’t have managed. Her family would come and stay with us in Germany sometimes and we also Skyped occasionally.

‘I did not prescribe how long Laura should practice; I just tried to keep the whole process as challenging as possible, mentally and spiritually so I hope she was never bored with the cello. Laura became strong and competent at a very early age and so she was allowed to play pretty grown up pieces fairly early on, such as the Dvorak and Walton concertos, as well as sonatas and chamber music such as the Shostakovich trio no. 2, which is not something a child would normally play.

‘Laura has always had a fascination with different cultures and languages and she is very well read. She wouldn’t play a Franck sonata without reading around it, or tackle Shostakovich on the basis that it can be described as ‘a train going through Siberia’. She is very inquisitive and considers the background thoroughly. Over the years, she has learned Russian and speaks it pretty much without an accent which is remarkable. All of us have a personality and a talent which consists of various parts, and there is always something missing in each one of us, such as patience or spontaneity or imagination. If Laura ever feels there is something she needs to develop in herself, she will do it. She is extremely persistent and intelligent, and she was like that from an early age.

‘Where I come from in Russia, you are in specialist music education from the age of 7 and there is no question about what your profession will be. We had some wonderful teachers who always allowed some sort of compromise in order to achieve excellence in our instruments. Laura was very fortunate to have had a school which allowed her a lot of flexibility so she always had time when she needed it. Nevertheless, as she was not in an official musical environment, events such as a competition were very useful as they perk you up, make you look forward and set goals for you along the way. This was certainly the right thing for Laura, but this wouldn’t be true for everyone. It gave her a good impetus.

‘We planned her repertoire carefully for the BBC Young Musician competition but she didn’t have extra contact time with me during that period. Fortunately, she was too young to be nervous and took it all very much in her stride.

‘Our mutual goal in choosing the Walton concerto was to create something for the audience to identify with as a piece. I spent the best part of my adult life in England and I feel quite emotional about this concerto. Laura was born in England and her parents come from the Netherlands and Switzerland but we both feel an extremely strong connection this country, so the choice of the Walton meant something for both of us. The fact that it’s not often performed was also perhaps a good thing because otherwise it would be in everyone’s ears.

‘I was able to take a flight to Newcastle for a few days to be there for the build up to the final of the BBC Young Musician competition – for me it was very exciting but also incredibly emotional and nerve racking. I just wanted her to play well, it wasn’t necessarily a question of winning or not winning. I was really happy for her either way: she was a young person playing this wonderful concerto which meant something for us both. I hoped she would bring something special to the audience from the stage. She had a really lovely orchestra and conductor to work with, which was uplifting. I saw some familiar faces in the orchestra and the acoustic of the Sage hall was fantastic.

‘Laura is a serene and happy player who has great physical ease. The danger is that when success comes to someone at that age, they may not be prepared to deal with it. Laura always had her feet on the ground, and so although after the BBC success she had so many concerts to prepare for, with all sorts of repertoire, she has coped really well. She hasn’t lost the will or the sparkle about learning and playing music; that is burning ever more brightly, which is the most important thing. I am happy that this success has given her the chance to keep this candle burning.’

LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN ‘When I was 11, my parents and my first cello teacher Marina Logie started to BBC Young Musician Laura van der Heijden look for my next teacher. Leonid Gorokhov was recommended to us by a pianist at the Royal College of Music who had recently heard him in a concert and was extremely impressed by his virtuosity and playing. I had my first consultation lesson in 2008, on Christmas Eve, and I enjoyed it so much that I went back for another lesson with Leonid on Boxing Day. We got on really well, his lessons were informal and never stressful. As a teacher, Leonid really treats you as an individual. He immediately understands which areas a player needs to develop and focusses on them with an acute awareness of priorities. He has a very natural way of teaching. It’s neither too personal nor too formal, and he constantly pushes you to stretch your limits, yet never too much.

‘We also understand each other very well, and I seem to have very similar goals for myself as he does for me. In terms of the actual teaching he says the right thing in the right way at the right time. A most special thing about his teaching is that he always could tell me precisely what I needed to do technically to achieve what I wanted musically. When I was younger, he never used “images” (e.g. to play something like one is walking on a mountain ridge etc.). Now, he only needs to say two words and I understand what he means. He is very efficient and does not waste time. Some teachers like to tell long anecdotes, but he is very practical, very cello-focussed, which works very well for me. He believes in the art of doing and copying. As an incredible player, Leonid often demonstrates instead of explaining. It looks a lot easier than it is!

‘I decided to learn Russian because I wanted to understand my teacher and his Russian speaking students (when in the company of more than one Russian speaker, they switch into Russian) helped by the fact that one of those students was my boyfriend at the time. I am multilingual anyway and very interested in learning languages, so I thought it would be a fun thing to do. As it turns out, Leonid and I only rarely speak Russian together because of a slightly silly issue: Using the informal form of ‘you’ in Russian would feel wrong because he is my teacher and nobody calls their teacher by the informal – but as we have quite a close relationship, calling him by his formal name would be strange. At least I now understand what he says to other people!

‘All of Leonid’s students have very different playing styles. What we have in common is that he helps us all towards a free, unforced way of playing. Cellos don’t respond well to force; you have to coax the sound out of them. That is something Leonid does wonderfully well. He also tries to teach us to be self-sufficient, by teaching us ways of identifying and dealing with issues. I very much appreciate that Leonid does not try to fit any of us into a particular mould, but supports us as much as he can to develop our own ‘voice’. He shares his vast knowledge generously, but does not like people very much who are too lazy to research and think for themselves. Technically, I hope that I have some of the left and right hand flexibility and agility that he does because obviously, I admire that very much.

‘Stressful/scary situations? Leonid and I played together at the Brighton Festival when I was about 13. I accompanied him playing a Locatelli sonata and I am nowhere near a professional pianist. Accompanying him was quite scary, I was so worried to mess everything up! It was the most incredible lesson of course in hind sight… Another difficult experience was my first concerto performance in Switzerland when I was12; I had a memory slip and no experience in how to recover from such a situation, so it seemed to last for an eternity, which was rather embarrassing at the time.

‘Preparing for the BBC Young Musician was really exciting. I think my age shielded me from getting overly worried or nervous. I’d watched the BBC competition since I was really little. I particularly remember Ben Grosvenor, Nicola Benedetti and Jennifer Pike’s performances. I always loved watching it. I had played regularly in local and regional competitions, they were something to work towards, a place to be heard – in good competitions I got very helpful feedback. My parents felt that if I didn’t get through the first BBC round, we maybe should reassess how much we were investing into my cello playing.

‘My then piano teacher Emily Jeffrey advised me that no matter what my expectations were, I should have the whole programme mapped out for every stage of the competition before the start – just in case. Leonid of course was my main advisor for the programme. My personal aim for the competition was to get to play the ‘Golden Cockerel’ (Rimsky-Korsakov) because I was so excited about this piece. I had never played anything so virtuosic and outrageous before. Leonid introduced me to the Walton concerto, as he loves this piece of music. I remember that I didn’t immediately connect with it, but after listening to recordings and studying the score, I started to hear the story line and realised just how atmospheric it is; the texture and the sound of the orchestra is so magical. By the time I played it at the final, I was completely in love with the piece and to play it with such an amazing orchestra was a wonderful experience; I felt like I was flying and really enjoyed the performance.

‘The BBC Young Musician competition feels quite distant in some ways now. I am studying music in Cambridge – the first person who recommended that I should seriously expand and deepen my musical knowledge was Rosie Biss, whom I met as an adjudicator at the strings final; as a fellow cellist, she gave me some valuable advice for which I am very grateful.

‘After the competition followed a mostly very positive, wonderful time: Collaborating with many different musicians, performing at many different venues, meeting lots of interesting people. I learned so much, especially about performance and how to manage myself before, during and after playing for an audience, but of course also about the musical world and the world of grown-ups. I also started to experience self-doubt for the first time, I don’t know exactly what triggered it; I used to be a happy, quite laid-back child and I hope that I will eventually be able to fully integrate that sense of inner contentedness with my more adult and much wider – as well as much more unsettling – experience of the world we all live in.’

Warmest thanks to Ben, Sheku, Leonid and Laura for so generously taking the time to give these interviews during a very busy period for them all. 

© Sarah Mnatzaganian and Robin Aitchison January 2017

For more practical cello articles click here