A young Caymanian musician recently received some impressive news: Three of the top music schools in the world have offered him a place to study at their prestigious institutions.
For Dequan Smith, an accomplished cellist, this is another step towards his dream of teaching and performing the cello on the international stage. Thanks to the unwavering support of his parents and Cayman Arts Festival, coupled with natural talent and a passion for learning, Dequan has demonstrated the ability necessary to go all the way to the top, as they say in showbiz.
A particularly interesting fact is that Dequan did not start his musical journey on the historic string instrument. After displaying an affinity for the arts around the age of six, he began to learn the piano and trumpet, which then expanded to include other brass instruments and the recorder.
It was only when he was 13 – nearly 14 – that he sought out his next challenge.
“I really wanted to play a string instrument,” Dequan said, “and was looking at the violin or viola, but my Mum suggested I try the cello.”
You might say, it was love at first note.
“It was so different from anything I’d played before,” he said, adding that he found it truly intriguing. “I just loved it.”
Despite its completely dissimilar design from anything Dequan had previously played, grasping the cello came easier to him, due to years of music experience already under his belt. A passion for the new object of his affection helped.
“I wanted to play so badly, that the difficulty wasn’t a deterrent,” he said.
From that moment on, Dequan pretty much forsook all other instruments for the cello. He spent time studying with the CAF in its ensemble programme, under the tutelage of Angharad Parkes, and attended summer camp in New York at Luzerne Music Centre for three consecutive years – starting in 2016 – which covered chamber music, orchestra and private lessons. His attendance was made possible through a scholarship from the CAF.
If there had been any doubts regarding his decision to throw his heart and soul into the same instrument that seduced Yo-Yo Ma many years ago, they dissolved at camp.
“That’s when I really realised I wanted to be a cellist,” Dequan revealed, as he talked about the master classes provided, designed to prepare attendees for further studies.
“It’s a very intensive programme,” he said. “No WiFi, no phones… and the centre is situated at the base of the Adirondack mountains.
“If you approach the camp with the right frame of mind, it can change your life,” he said. “It was certainly life-changing for me.”
On the first morning of his first year there, he was up at 6am and found other students already playing. He asked if he could join in and sight-read with the group of them, and from that moment on, he could be found in that room almost all the time.
“I missed meals because I was practicing so much,” he laughed. “In fact, my award in camp was titled ‘Most likely to be practicing the cello’.”
Dec. 2017 brought an opportunity for Dequan to see a glimpse of what he could achieve in the future. Award-winning young Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniță and two members of the Kanneh-Mason family – Sheku (cellist) and his sister Isata (pianist) – visited the Cayman Islands by invitation from CAF. Sheku won the BBC Young Musician 2016 award and among other many noteworthy performances, played for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding on 19 May, 2018.
Sheku was booked to play two master classes in Cayman on the same day, with Dequan playing the first session with him, and another musician, the second, in the afternoon.
“I was going to watch the second session, but then the other musician couldn’t make it, so
I ended up playing that one with Sheku as well,” Dequan said. “It was a great experience; Sheku was very thoughtful and quite sensitive, and as we were of a similar age, he didn’t seem so far removed, even though he had been playing for 10 years longer [than I had].
“I found him to be down-to-earth and kind; he really involved me,” Dequan said. “And his sister was absolutely lovely.”
In Dec. 2018, Dequan auditioned for – and was accepted at – Wells Cathedral School in Somerset. A few months later, a royal visit from Prince Charles and Camilla put him on centre stage when he played for them at Pedro St. James – one of the stops on their whirlwind island tour.
“It was particularly interesting for me to play at that event, because Prince Charles is a cellist as well,” Dequan said, adding that His Royal Highness had been inspired by legendary musician Jacqueline du Pré, who he also cited as one of his own influences.
The Prince of Wales actually played in the orchestra of Trinity College, Cambridge, but admitted to poet laureate Simon Armitage in a interview last year that he “was a very bad member of the cello section, I can assure you”.
On 11 May 2019, Dequan won Butterfield Young Musician of the Year, thrilling the audience with his renditions of ‘Kol Nidre’ by Max Bruch and ‘Élégie’ by Fauré, and in September of that same year, he headed to Wells Cathedral School to start a sixth form course of study. Unfortunately, COVID put a spanner in the works in early 2020. As a result of the pandemic, Dequan had to come back to Cayman for five months and lessons moved online, as they did for students around the world. It wasn’t the same as being there in person, and the time difference didn’t help.
“I found the 4am wakeup pretty difficult,” he admitted.
Dequan played at local CAF events whenever he could, which helped keep up his performance training, and went back to Wells in August 2020. In 2021, he was promoted to principal cellist in the school’s string orchestra – an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who had only started learning the instrument six years prior.
Clearly, other tertiary educational institutions agreed. In anticipation of moving to university-level, Dequan applied to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, all of whom sent him acceptance letters. He chose the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and will be starting a Bachelor of Music in Performance (Honours) programme later this year.
Executive Director of CAF, Marius Gaina, could not be happier for the young man who he has seen go from strength to strength over the past five years.
“Dequan is a very hardworking student and I’ve known him since we started our afterschool programmes,” Gaina said. “He was always dedicated and a shining example to the other kids. He proved that the dream is possible – it’s doable – and now all the other children will see that one of their own can reach that level. This proves that our programmes are working, and we consider Dequan to be a Cayman Arts Festival ambassador in the UK.”
It really seems like the sky’s the limit for the young Caymanian musician, who one day may be playing in the most prestigious concert halls in the world. There is no reason to think otherwise, based on the remarkable resume he already possesses.
Dequan is very grateful to teachers Parkes, Richard May, Jameson Platte and Stephen Czarkowski, and speaks of them with great admiration – along with influences du Pré and Sheku – yet he is keen to forge his own unique path. He has also not forgotten the priceless gift bestowed upon him by the CAF.
“I wouldn’t be a cellist if not for Cayman Arts Festival,” Dequan said. “They have provided scholarships, support and instruments to use – all I had to do was practice.”
As he looks to the future, his positive attitude shines through.
“There are so many ways to get to what you want to achieve,” he said. “The most exciting part for me is discovering how I will get there.”