Isata Kanneh-Mason on Family, Success, and More

Before the December 3 recital with her brother Sheku, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason sat down with provost Adrian Daly to talk about the influence of her family on her musical career, the relationship between talent and success, and the importance of music education.

Isata Kanneh-Mason is a Postgraduate at The Royal Academy of Music, studying piano with Carole Presland. She is an acclaimed pianist, having won awards and scholarships including the Iris Dyer Piano Prize four times over, the Mrs. Claude Beddington Prize, and the Elton John Scholarship. Here, she speaks with Provost Adrian Daly and the Colburn community in advance of her December 3 recital with her brother Sheku.

This conversation has been lightly edited for style, length, and clarity.

First of all, maybe we could start by talking a little bit about your family.
My parents had seven children—I’m the oldest. Because there’s so many of us, all of us playing music means that our household is very full of music all the time. I think that was a really big part of shaping who I am today, because I grew up surrounded by other people in my house always practicing and there being like, a violin next door or a cello next door. Music always felt very normal to me and like a very natural part of my life, and I think my family always kind of enforced that.

How did you come to music? Are your parents musicians?
My parents aren’t professional musicians, but they played music while they were at school—my dad played the piano, and my mum played the piano as well. They went into other things, but when we were very young children they were always playing music around the house—all kinds of music. So we grew up in this very musical environment.

When we started having lessons, they just gave us lessons as a hobby among other things. They didn’t intend for us all to become musicians. They were at a level where they could help us in our practice and give us really good advice, because they understood music.

And then when we started taking it more seriously, I think they were quite surprised because they didn’t plan it, but they supported us and helped us to work hard and become musicians.

How did you come to start with the piano? Were there other instruments that you tried along the way?
We all started the piano, actually, and then took up a string instrument as a second study. I just stuck with the piano because I loved it. My brother said “actually, I’d like to make violin my first,” and my brother after that, Sheku, said “actually I’d like to play the cello,” so it kind of just happened like that. But I never wavered from the piano because I just took to it.

Can you talk a little bit about how as a family you decide what musical configurations you play in? Does that affect your family dynamic?
In terms of who plays with who, because my brothers and I are the closest in age, we started playing together as a piano trio when I was about 11 and they were 8 and 9. So that just naturally happened, because we played piano, violin, and cello.

As the others grew up, we just started making random combinations. The younger ones sometimes play a trio, sometimes we play quartets, sometimes we all play together as seven. It goes with what people want to do, really.

In terms of how it changes us as a family, I don’t know because I don’t know any other way. It’s quite strange because for most people you have a family and then you have your career, but for me it’s very much linked—my family is often part of my career, and that can be quite a crazy thing. I think we’ve gotten very good at separating the two things so that we have our music together and we also have our family life together. We try really hard to separate them and not mesh them too much.

How has playing with your family members impacted your developing as a solo pianist?
It’s definitely helped, actually, because for one I think chamber music is important anyway for developing as a musician, whether that’s with your family or with other musicians. So playing chamber music with my family definitely helped me.

I think it’s also helped me because I’m always feeling motivated. When there are people around me who are also motivated and also inspired, you egg each other on and help each other. That’s helped me to want to practice harder and be used to practicing a lot.

How do you go through the process of developing as a trio, from rehearsal to the first performance and then through multiple performances? How does your dynamic work with your two brothers in a trio setting?
Well, it’s much better now that we’re older. When we were younger, they would just mess around in our rehearsals and I would shout at them and that was basically the dynamic!

Now that we’ve grown up, our rehearsals are quite effective—we usually start by getting to know the piece, and then when we feel like we’re on top of it we’ll record ourselves and take it to some musicians that we know and get lessons or coachings. I think that’s when you really start learning—when you have coachings with other people.

Sometimes we’ll try and do informal performances, like we’ll play for our friends, because I think it’s much greater pressure to play for your friends. It’s only when you’ve done the first performance in a piece that you start feeling like you actually have it as part of you.

How do you feel you’ve grown as a musician through the process of teaching?
I like to teach myself because I really have to think outside of myself—how did I play, how can I make this better. Even when you’re teaching someone, you’re also learning. There are things you might have had to learn that you now do subconsciously. It shows how long you’ve been doing something-—that you learn it and it goes to the subconscious, which brings up space to learn more things. I think that’s been a really interesting thing to find art through.

There’s lots of talented musicians out there who are never successful, and there’s a lot of not so talented musicians who are incredibly successful. How do you see the relationship between talent and success? And in your opinion, what are some key things that students should be focusing on to be successful?
Success happens at different times for everyone, and success means a different thing for everyone. I think it’s important to define what success actually means to you and what you actually want out of your musical career because it’s not just about playing concerts. It could be about playing concerts if you decide that you just want to do concerts, but then maybe have an idea of what kind of repertoire you want to focus on.

I think it’s about basically deciding exactly what you want, and then once you’ve decided that, it’s easier to get there because there are less paths to choose from when you know more where you’re going. I’m quite wary of the word ‘talent’ because you’re perhaps born with some kind of talent, but I think hard work is so much more important than that. I’ll be tempted to say talent is definitely further down in importance once you get older.

Once you’ve decided what success means for you, then you just have to work at it and not be discouraged it’s not happening when you thought it would happen. For example, when I was about 17 and was about to enter a particular competition, my goal was to immediately win and be successful at 18 and start doing concerts. That didn’t happen, and there was a whole period between ages 18 and 22 that I was studying and I had no idea how I was going to ever get concerts.

Looking back, I think that was a good thing. I needed that period of development and that period of struggling, but it’s obviously hard when you’re in that period to feel that. I would also say don’t be discouraged that things aren’t looking up, because it could be about to work out.

Have you thought about how you might be part of the music education equation in the UK and beyond?
I think that music education isn’t as valued, because the results aren’t as immediately productive. In things like informational science, it’s more obvious what the path is and it’s more obvious to the parents that the child is going to grow up and get the job and make lots of money.

With something more abstract like music or drama or art, it’s not an obvious pathway, and people are often worried, “how is my child ever going to make a real job of it?” We want to show people that of course you can have a life in music and in the arts, but also the qualities that you get playing music can be applied to all areas of life.

Music is important, whether you’re going to become a musician or not.

How did you choose the repertoire for your concert [on December 3 with Sheku]?
The Rachmaninoff was something that we both loved, so once we knew we wanted to do that, then we thought, “well okay, what would go well around the Rachmaninoff?”

The Barber came to mind because it’s not often played, and it’s American. Rachmaninoff is Russian, but he was in America at the time that he composed this sonata, and you can hear the American influence. So we thought the Barber would be a good complement to this.

And then Lutosławski came about because Lutosławski is just a really interesting piece that Sheku actually had in a concert once. It’s not often played and it’s a quite crazy, atonal piece, but he loved it and he showed it to me. And then Beethoven because we knew we needed something light, otherwise it would be quite a challenge.

Do you ever give Sheku a hard time about the fact that you have to play a lot more notes than he does?
Yeah—all the time!