Shortly after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got married, a 19-year-old musician kept their wedding guests entertained while they took care of some official paperwork.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was one of many artists who performed at the May 19 royal wedding. Despite his age, Kanneh-Mason has already made a name for himself, winning the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition and releasing a record-setting classical album this past January. The royal couple selected him for their ceremony after Harry saw him play last year.
“I was bowled over when Ms. Markle called me to ask if I would play during the ceremony, and of course I immediately said yes!” Kanneh-Mason said in a news release. “What a privilege to be able to play the cello at such a wonderful event.”
Given the international fanfare around the royal wedding, it’s safe to say Kanneh-Mason is about to blow up. But even though he’s now rolling with the royals, he’s still a pretty money-conscious musician. Here’s why.
Growing Up, His Parents Spent ‘Every Penny’ on Music
Kanneh-Mason has six brothers and sisters, all of whom are musically inclined, according to his bio on the family website. He started playing the cello when he was 6; most of his siblings specialize in violin or piano.
The family is bursting with talent—seriously, they even went on Britain’s Got Talent—and cultivating it costs a lot. In 2016, matriarch Kadie Kanneh-Mason told The Daily Mail that “every penny of our money goes on music.”
“We haven’t decorated for years … the tiles are coming off the roof,” she said. “We never buy new clothes. I do the girls’ hair myself because it’s too expensive to take them to a salon. Our car is a wreck.”
It’s even been reported that the Kanneh-Mason kids use borrowed instruments from a local retiree named Frank White.
“What would we have done without him? What do other families do? I don’t know,” the mom told the Mail. “One of Sheku’s strings can cost £80 [about $110]. A cello bow can be £2,000 [about $2,800]. Then there are the trains, the sheet music, the overnight stays.”
He’s Won a Big Scholarship
Kanneh-Mason received a junior scholarship through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) to study under Ben Davies in the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music.
He’s still an ABRSM scholarship student these days, now attending the Royal Academy of Music full-time to work with Hannah Roberts, according to his bio. Tuition there starts at £9,250, or about $13,000, and annual living costs are estimated at £11,500, or about $16,000.
He’s not the only one getting financial aid. His sister Isata Kanneh-Mason had her Royal Academy of Music education paid for by none other than Elton John.
An Anonymous Sponsor Loans Him His Instrument
Like his siblings, Kanneh-Mason doesn’t own his cello—he uses an Antonius and Hieronymus Amati cello from 1610, according to his bio.
Violin dealer Florian Leonhard arranged for him to play it in the BBC competition and ended up brokering a permanent deal for him to keep it “with the help of a generous anonymous sponsor based in London,” as the Strad reported.
“The cello has been bought and is on loan to me from a private collection. I can hardly believe that I can continue to develop my relationship with this cello, making the sound more completely my own over time,” Kanneh-Mason said at the time.
He Gives Back
Kanneh-Mason hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
This past fall, the cellist donated £3,000 ($4,200) to his alma mater, Trinity Catholic School. He took action after learning the institution was facing funding cuts and had put music education on the chopping block.
“Sheku made a substantial contribution to the cello teaching as it was under threat,” assistant head teacher Steve Mandeson told the Nottingham Post. “Sheku decided to make a a big donation which has made it possible to carry on teaching the cello to our pupils in the future, and that will be his legacy at the school.”