Next up, playing the Royal wedding young musicians on the day that changed their lives

One overslept, one played in cowboy boots and ones next gig is the royal wedding five past winners of BBC Young Musician relive the thrill of the competition

Im honoured to be playing at Harry and Meghans wedding

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello, 2016 winner at 17

I entered my first Young Musician competition at the age of 12. There was no way I was going to win. I just did it to give myself something to work towards, doing the same again at 14. That year my older sister, Isata, reached the piano final. By the time I competed again in 2016, I felt like a veteran. Im lucky: I am very comfortable performing. I dont tend to get nervous.

The environment was supportive and positive throughout. The three of us who made it to the final were especially friendly we were all going through the same thing, after all. It was the first time any of us had played a concerto with a professional orchestra, so we were all really excited. I dont bother much about what I wear: I find suit jackets constricting so I just wear something Im comfortable in. My mum helped me pick it.

Top of the classical charts Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Photograph: Glen Thomas

The feeling of elation at winning didnt fade for a long time, although I did have my maths A-level two days after the final, which brought me back down to earth with a bump. I had to get straight back to schoolwork, and there were also new pieces to practise.

The competition is a wonderful thing: it gives young people the chance to perform to a wide audience. Winning has had a massive impact on my career, letting me play all over the world. Im studying full-time at the Royal Academy, and Im very proud that my album Inspiration, which features everything from Shostakovich to Bob Marley, went to the top of the classical charts. And Im so excited and honoured to be performing at Prince Harry and Meghan Markles wedding. Winning also meant Ive had to get used to doing interviews, which is something that I certainly didnt find easy at first. My only advice for this years finalists would be to embrace this amazing opportunity and enjoy it. I did.

I overslept. My teacher had to wake me and throw me on stage

Lara Melda, piano, 2010 winner at 16

Life-changing Lara Melda winning in 2010. Photograph: Huw John

I entered at the very last minute. I was lucky to be accepted at all. After each round, I thought: Ugh, theres no way Im getting through. I hadnt prepared a concerto in advance because I never thought Id reach the final. So I had only a month to learn Saint-Sans second piano concerto. Luckily, my specialist music school, The Purcell, were understanding.

I was very young and not so good at the interviews that are part of the competition. I still feel happier expressing myself through the piano than through my words. The final itself went by in a blur. I like to rest before I perform and somehow I overslept and my teacher had to wake me up to throw me on stage. But my nerves disappeared as soon as I played the first note. Its an incredible experience, performing with a professional symphony orchestra, and I was weeping the whole way through the handshakes and the presentation of the award. The photos of me are horrendous – Ive got this awful crying face on. There wasnt much celebrating that night as we had to leave Cardiff at 3am to drive to London to be on BBC Breakfast.

Winning changed my life but it can be a blessing and also a burden. At music college, it made me a semi-celebrity, which I hated. And as a teenager, you dont have the repertoire that a concert pianist in their 20s or 30s would have. But Ive benefited in so many ways: perhaps most importantly, it brought me to the attention of Alfred Brendel, who agreed to work with me in private masterclasses.

Theres still so much more to be done to change perspectives about classical music especially the governments. Every child needs access to music and more funding is needed. There are so many raw talents out there who arent reaching their potential.

Channel 4 asked me to go on Celebrity Big Brother

Mark Simpson, clarinet, 2006 winner age 17

Still pinching himself Mark Simpson. Photograph: Kaupo Kikkas

A while ago, I listened back to my performance of the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto that won me the competition. It is of course the performance of a very talented musician, but I was struck by how far from definitive it was. These pieces need life experience, they need pain and depth to be understood. I think the competition would better serve young musicians if the age range was 18 to 24. By that point, youre a musician whos studied and played and has a voice with something to say.

I was the first and still the only person to win BBC Young Musician and BBC Young Composer simultaneously. I was 17 and it was overwhelming. The expectation is that YM winners go straight into a high-powered concerto career, but I wasnt interested in being a superstar. I didnt want to have a career playing Mozart concertos. My heart lay in contemporary music and I wanted to study, to learn, to grow. I was offered an incredible amount of opportunities Channel 4 even called to ask me to go on Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack. I definitely dodged a bullet there. I had to learn what was important and what to say no to.

Today, as a successful soloist and composer, I still sometimes have to pinch myself. It seems so remarkable. My mum and dad arent musical, they werent wealthy, and they certainly werent pushy. They just left me to get on with it. I was lucky enough to go to a state school in Liverpool where a heavily subsidised and vibrant music scheme meant I was given free music lessons, a free instrument and all kinds of other ensemble opportunities. Could someone from my background get to the final of Young Musician today? I doubt it. I am the product of a system that no longer exists due to cuts.

Walking on stage for the final, with a whole rig full cameras filming me, I was petrified and had to flip a switch in my head telling myself, forcing myself, to enjoy it. When I won, there was this huge roar and I could see my family at the back going crazy. It was one of the happiest days of my life. We all partied back at the hotel and my music teacher asked me if I wanted a drink. I asked for a whisky and a cigar. My mum went mad! Ultimately though, what can the competition do other than say Here he is? Its what you do next thats the important thing.

I was on painkillers and couldnt hold the bow properly

Laura van der Heijden, cello, 2012 winner aged 15

Tennis injury Laura van der Heijden. Photograph: BBC

I was 14 when I entered. I was really just hoping to get through the first round to show that all the music Id been doing was worth it. I never expected to get much further, let alone win it. The week before the strings final, I played tennis. Im a very bad tennis player and I managed to hurt my arm, so my main memory was of being high on painkillers and not being able to hold my bow properly.

I played the Walton cello concerto in the overall final. It was a good choice on my teachers part: the cello repertoire isnt massive and with a piece such as, say, the Elgar concerto its more difficult to find your own voice. But the Walton isnt so well known, even though its a magical and very accessible work I felt passionate about.

I had a slightly unfortunate start. I sat down and looked over to Kiril Petrenko, the conductor, thinking to tune, but he misunderstood me and began the piece itself. I just had to play what else could I have done? I remember feeling so relaxed and free, playing with the orchestra. I felt like I was flying. The announcement of the winner was a bittersweet moment as it meant that the whole experience was over, and I found the whole situation tricky – deciding between three different instruments and three different musicians. I felt sad we couldnt all go on stage together. Even now I can hardly believe I won. It still seems unreal.

I turned up wearing an outrageous pair of cowboy boots

Martin James Bartlett, piano, 2014 winner age 17

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Marissa SafontNext up, playing the Royal wedding young musicians on the day that changed their lives

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