How flourishing families cultivate great art
by Ashley McGuire | June 20, 2018
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his family. via BBC Four
“Before he played for millions at the Royal Wedding, he played at home…”
So read a British radio station’s Facebook post about the 19-year-old cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
The post—which features a home video taken of all six of the now infamous Kanneh-Mason children playing Vittorio Monti’s Czardas in a space so small they can hardly move their bows without elbowing one another (see below)—went viral, boasting 10 million views and counting. It’s a concert-level performance of the highest caliber, played by six brothers and sisters in their sweats in a small room at home. It’s a sight to digitally behold.
The video’s popularity, however, is not due to the quality of the performance, but rather to the fact that the members of one family are doing the playing. The meteoric rise of the oldest brother, Sheku, and the accompanying media focus on his extraordinary family offer a chance to reflect on how art and culture are cultivated primarily in the home.
The stories of most great artistic talents share a common thread: at one point or another, some kind of mentor figure discovered them. But before that, most had a parent or parents who cultivated and encouraged that talent and built a home where it could blossom. Some of the greatest musicians of all time came from musical homes: Bach’s family boasted everything from royal musicians to church organists, Rachmaninov’s first piano teacher was his own mother, and Pavarotti learned to sing from his father, who himself was an amateur tenor.
Or take a more lowbrow example: Justin Bieber. It’s become a well-known detail of the pop star’s story that his mom, Pattie Mallette, chose not to abort him when she found herself pregnant as a teenager but instead invested her energies in cultivating a talent she says she could sense almost immediately. Mallette entered her son as a child into talent competitions and filmed videos of him singing, which she then uploaded to YouTube. Bieber credits his multiple platinum albums and more than $100 million fortune to the efforts of his mother.
The Kanneh-Mason children certainly owe much of their success as musicians to the sacrifices of their parents. Their mother Kadiatu, for example, rises before dawn every Saturday to take the younger children on a train to the Royal Academy of Music, where they practice and study for hours. Indeed, it is the outward-oriented generosity of their parents that has cultivated the gifts of their children, a generosity that is evidenced by the fact that they have seven kids in a culture where most don’t have more than two.
But even parents that don’t raise prodigies still play an important role in instilling in children an appreciation for art and the benefits that it provides. As an article on PBS put it:
Although some may regard art education as a luxury, simple creative activities are some of the building blocks of child development. Learning to create and appreciate visual aesthetics may be more important than ever to the development of the next generation of children as they grow up.
In short, families can either cultivate great artists or cultivate humans who appreciate art. Both are essential in a thriving society. Which raises a question: What is the cost of familial breakdown for the arts? Family does not happen in isolation. Its deterioration as a social and cultural institution brings other important cultural pillars down with it. But, as the Kanneh-Mason family embodies, where the family flourishes, so, too, does some of our most beautiful art.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies, where this article was first published. It is republished with permission of IFS.