How a South Korean violinist found success despite being deaf in one ear

Soojin Han, 36, performs as a soloist and has toured in the UK and US

South Korean violinist Soojin Han opens up about how she overcame the odds to find success as a soloist. Evelyn Lau / The National
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Soojin Han has never let the deafness in her left ear hold her back.

Han was only 4 when the discovery was made, coming after she kept misunderstanding her homework assignments at school. Seated on the left backside of the classroom, it was only after the teachers pointed out the issue to her parents that she was taken to hospital.

“It's actually a genetic condition. My mother has it and her grandfather had it. But it's a condition that usually skips a generation. But somehow it was anomalous that it came straight to me. And of course, they had no idea that it would happen,” says Han, now 36.

“I heard later on that my mum was devastated. She didn't show it at all, because I think she knew that it would probably shock me. But it was something that she really didn't want me to have inherited from her. But she made no show of it. They never made it seem as if it was a disability of any kind.”

Despite the tough circumstances, it hasn’t stopped her from becoming a world-class violinist. As Han’s father pursued a doctorate degree in the UK, her family left South Korea when she was 2, a decision she believes played a pivotal role later in life.

I was able to grow at my own pace and I had space. It is so important for the development, not only of a human being but also as an artist, it's so crucial to have that
Soojin Han, violinist

She began playing the instrument at 8, being inspired by her mother. Growing up, she further explored her talent, as a student at The Purcell School for Young Musicians in the UK and at the University of Oxford and the Royal Academy of Music in London. She believes her multicultural upbringing helped her get to where she is today.

“In the UK, the education system allows you to be yourself. It allows you to develop character from a very young age and I think that was something that I benefited most from: I found my voice,” she says.

“I was able to grow at my own pace and I had space. It is so important for the development, not only of a human being but also as an artist, it's so crucial to have that.

"But in Korea, because everyone was so focused on the growth of the economy and everyone has to be the best at everything, I think that that's where the focus was slightly different. And from what I heard from my peers who grew up in Korea, they were always so focused on being competitive and that there was no time, there was no space. And if I had that, then maybe I wouldn't have been a musician.”

These days Han performs as a soloist, meaning she does not perform in any orchestra — though she does occasionally. She has performed numerous times in the British capital as well as on tours in Europe and the US. She says that being deaf on her left side isn’t an issue, but admits it took a while to figure out how to work with it.

“When I'm playing with others, it's actually OK if I play in a chamber group because it's a small group. But for instance, when I'm playing as a soloist with an orchestra, there are certain places even in concerti, even if I'm the main player, that I have to accompany one of the players in the woodwind section, which is on the left of me. So on the stage, it would be to the back left and I can't hear them at all,” she says.

“In those kinds of cases, I would just put all my concentration on the conductor and so I'd rely on him. I was able to go about these situations but it just took a little bit of time to find the solution there.”

Those who have watched Han perform before will notice her face is filled with expression as she plays. This is because of how deeply connected she feels to the music, which she’s often called “healing” because of her own experience. When she was young, her mother would play music when she was sick and even now, when playing music for others, she’s also heard them share feedback about how it feels as though it has the power to heal.

Even though musicians want to always be in a positive mindset before going on stage, that isn’t always the case. This can make for a difficult performance. However, Han says that even if she isn’t feeling a specific piece for the moment, that doesn’t mean that her mood might not change during the event and still make for a beautiful experience.

“You can play everything, of course. But if you're not in the mood, then you can't really put your whole being into it I suppose. I mean you try. I think you go through phases, and when you're completely immersed in the music, then it's like you're connected to a greater force or something. And that's when miracles happen,” she says.

“But sometimes it's interesting because you feel that you're not in the mood. But sometimes onstage when you're in that state of concentration, suddenly the inspiration comes from somewhere and then you think what's happening and you realise that it's not you who are creating it, you realise that you are a channel for something else for something bigger to go through."

Updated: November 10, 2022, 7:19 AM