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Two years ago, at the age of 24, pianist Hanja Strydom moved to England to continue her career as a chamber musician and accompanist. A native of South Africa, she now lives in the UK with her cellist husband, with whom she often gives concerts.

  Tell us something of your background, in particular how you came to be a musician.
  I come from a very musical family. Both of my parents are musicians: my father is a professional organist and my mother used to teach piano from home. Music was therefore a very natural part of family life, and as a very young child, I incessantly nagged my mother to allow me to have lessons as well. When I was five, she couldn't take any more tantrums from me, and so began to teach me the piano formally. Throughout my childhood I participated in every local festival and concert imaginable, and one thing led to another…at the age of sixteen, I was asked to perform the Ravel Piano Concerto with the National Orchestra, which is based in Johannesburg. By then it was clear that I wanted to be a professional musician.

  What would you have done if you hadn't decided to study music?
  Music has always been such a major part of my life that I never really considered doing anything else. I am quite interested in linguistics, so I might have had a career there, but music has always dominated the scene…so nothing else really ever got a look in!

  Where did you study and why?
  I went to Pro Arte High School in Pretoria, which specialises in the performing arts, where I was able to focus on performing (as opposed to the sports-obsessed schools I had been to previously). During my A-levels I was lucky enough to be invited to Italy for a couple of months to take some lessons with Fabio Bidini, who had visited South Africa to give a series of master classes and concerts. After that, I came home and began a BMus degree at the University of Pretoria, but have to admit that after those inspirational months in Europe, I simply couldn't readjust to my surroundings. I decided to do my second year through correspondence at the University of South Africa and spent most of that year in Yugoslavia. I went to study with Arbo Valdma, an Estonian musician who at the time taught in both Belgrade and Cologne. I couldn't afford Germany and, since the Yugoslavian economy was in turmoil, due to the Bosnian war (which was, by that time, coming to an end), Belgrade was affordable…even for a South African.

At the end of my time there, Valdma advised me to audition at the Hochschule in Cologne. I got a place and was able to make new roots there – I was in my element and felt I had finally found the place that suited my musical ideals the best.

  What do you think you got out of music college?
  I felt permanently inspired, since I was surrounded by musicians I admired: professors gave concerts all the time and things just didn't seem stagnant. Most of the students were extremely dedicated, a large percentage of whom had left their home countries to study there. Clearly, I learned a lot about interpretation, style, piano technique and especially sound production, and was given the enormous benefits that come from performing regularly. Throughout my studies in Germany I worked as a student accompanist at the college to pay for my living expenses; unfortunately this often was the cause of friction with my teacher, who wanted me to put all my energy into solo repertoire. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every second of it and gained invaluable experience in both the art of Liedbegleitung and chamber playing.

  Do you see yourself as an ensemble musician or a soloist?
  Very much an ensemble musician! Since coming to England most of the emphasis has been on chamber music. I play regularly in a small contemporary ensemble called Vamos and in the Tarnas Piano Trio, so I think I could describe myself very much as a chamber performer. I am also very busy as a piano accompanist for both singers and instrumentalists.

  Who or what has been the most influential in shaping your musical ideas?
  My teacher in Pretoria, Joseph Stanford, had a very large influence on me. I started with him at the age of eleven and was one of two children he taught, apart from his activities as a professor at the university. As he wasn't used to working with children, he never tried to simplify musical truths and, as a result, I progressed faster than I would have otherwise. He took me to the concert hall in the university before performances and I got used to the way everything changes from both auditory and psychological viewpoints once one moves from the front room to the stage. Valdma obviously had an immense influence as well: he has a wonderful combination of passion for music, dedication and wisdom, which are rare commodities in any teacher.

  Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
  I don't have very fixed expectations for my future, although I wouldn't mind studying and performing the chamber repertoire for many years to come. I don't necessarily see myself living in Britain…for a South African, it's perhaps a little too cold and damp to stay here forever!

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