At an age when most children are running around in the playground, Nanjala Antonia found great fun in playing the piano.
When her kindergarten teacher noticed how keen the little girl was on the keys, she alerted her parents who bought her a piano to practise at home.
Nanjala was just a five-year-old child but was already displaying prodigious skill on the instrument.
“I am still playing the same piano today,” says the musician who just turned 20 and has been admitted to a prestigious music school to study under the tutelage of a renowned piano virtuoso.
In the last 15 years, she has received professional training from Winnie Muriithi of Wynton House of Music, Hannah Emmrich, one-time Director of Music at All Saints Cathedral, and American piano educator, Younkyung Rhea Kim.
In August, she will be joining the piano programme at the Manhattan School of Music, New York, one of the world’s premier music conservatories for classical music.
“I am a classically trained pianist but I am versatile and I can work with any genre,” says Nanjala, during a break from rehearsals for her April 1 piano recital at Kenton College, Nairobi.
“Classical music makes it easy to branch out to other types of music, by enforcing your skills as a musician.” She cites her idol, Alicia Keys, who is a classically trained pianist who applies her chops to contemporary R&B.
“It is common to think of classical music as a conservative form of music, but Alicia Keys is proof that you don’t have to be put in a box,” says Nanjala.
She attended Kianda School for her primary and secondary education and then joined Nairobi Academy for her A -Levels where she graduated last year.
“My music training has also helped me academically because I can concentrate on studies for long hours, and retain information, just as I memorise my music,” says Nanjala.
The pianist had received offers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Northern College of Music in Manchester, two of the best music schools in the UK.
But she chose the Manhattan School of Music because of the opportunity to work with piano virtuoso Prof Olga Kern.
“I personally adore her as a performer so the chance to learn under her wings is one that I would not miss,” she says.
Prof Kern who has served on the piano faculty of the Manhattan School of Music since 2017, like Nanjala started studying the piano at age of five.
The virtuoso has performed with the world’s leading ensembles, and her 2004 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Despite her youth, Nanjala can boast of local and international achievements: an Honorary Mention 1st Degree for the Gustav Mahler Piano Prize Competition 2021 (Category 9); and several prizes at the Kenya Music Festival where she participated from the age of 8 to 14 in 2017.
“The Kenya Music Festival was such a unique experience because of the variety of cultural performances on display each year,” she recalls.
She first appeared at the Young Musicians Competition at the age of 8 and won the Intermediate Category in 2019 and the Senior category in 2020.
This is the first time Nanjala is performing a solo concert so nerves are obviously weighing on her mind.
“I always have stage fright so I remain secluded with mum on the day until time to get on stage,” she says.
“I am now able to control my nerves a lot better, though.”
The repertoire consists of Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata Pathetique which is a piece that she always wanted to perform since high school and is delighted that she finally has the opportunity.
The programme also includes J’eaux d’eau a piece by Joseph Maurice Ravel, the French composer, conductor, and pianist.
“This is a cool, impressionist piece that evokes emotions through different sounds like water ripples,” she explains, hence the translation of the title: “Fountains”.
Felix Mendelsohn's Song without Words was selected by her piano teacher Younkyung Rhea Kim as a “palate cleaner” because its mellow mood provides the perfect transition between the other pieces in the programme.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff Nanjala will play two of his famous works Prelude in C Sharp Minor and Prelude in G Minor.
(He composed a set of 24 preludes covering all major and minor keys). The concert, which will be emceed by John Sibi-Okumu, will feature a guest performance by classical guitarist Yovan Barkisoy.
Right now, Nanjala is focused on her music studies and will then chart a specific career path in due course.
“Funny, because when I was younger, I thought I would have my career all figured out by the time I got to 18,” she says with a laugh.