In Her Words: Elizabeth Swanson on Piano Lessons

4 years ago by

When I was a child, my mom had a few singular rules. One was that if someone was singing around the house, you could never tell them to stop, no matter the time of day. Another was that if you were doing something productive or creative, like having an interesting conversation, going for a bike ride or reading, there was no set bedtime. If you were, let’s say, watching TV, it was to bed with you! But there was one rule she was most known for, one that was steadfast, set in stone, immutable: my siblings and I had to take piano lessons until we graduated from high school.

Other hobbies came and went: swim team, ballet, tennis, gymnastics, soccer, softball. But piano, piano was there through it all. This rule was not ironclad because she wanted us to become professional pianists. She simply wanted us, when we saw a piano in a room, to be able to sit down and play it. Verbatim, that was the answer she gave. I can still hear her saying it, as she repeated it often when we begrudgingly sat down after school to practice each day.

My mom is not a professional pianist, but she plays well. My grandmother had my mom and her siblings take piano lessons. My grandmother learned by ear. The piano has been the family gathering place since I was small. It is an object of nostalgia for me, indelible in my memory. At my grandmother’s house, it was the little, white upright piano, which must be at least 70 years old by now. After dinner we all went into the living room to sing around it: musicals, mostly. It was where I learned Carousel, Hello Dolly, Phantom of the Opera, The Sound of Music, and many, many more before I could even read. In my mom’s house, it was, and still is, the mahogany upright Baldwin piano that was delivered to our doorstep in 1990. My sister Suzanne was seven, I was four, my brother Robbie was just a baby, Christina was still three years out of the picture.

It’s strange to think there was a time in my life BB (before Baldwin). And yet, I remember the night before it arrived, how excited my mom was. “Now girls,” she said that night. She was laying between me and Suzanne, our beds pushed together in our room. Sometimes we’d push them together so we could play games before bed. Other times we pushed our beds together for a special occasion. That night, the impending arrival of the piano was the special occasion. “The only rule of the piano is that you have to wash your hands before playing it,” she continued. Her large, dark brown eyes were sparkling, her cherubic face exuberant. She was 37 but seemed younger than most 25-year-olds, and today, at 65, you could say the same thing. Because it’s not just her physical appearance that gives her this eternal, childlike quality, it’s her personality. Her curiosity about people, her vivacity, her excitement for everything.

Sometimes she would softly play songs to lull us to sleep while we were upstairs in bed. Other times, when we sang around the piano, she’d make a game of it. “Close your eyes,” she’d say. Then we knew she was going to pick a song, play the first note, and see if we could guess what it was.

Suzanne started lessons that year, in 1990, when she was seven. My mom found our piano teacher, Ms. Edwards, through a family we knew from school. It’s funny how things work out: that family moved away shortly after, yet Ms. Edwards became a beloved figure in our lives. She came to our house once a week for half an hour at first, then for an hour when I turned seven and started taking lessons, then an hour and a half with Robbie, and then two hours when Christina joined in. When Suzanne went off to college, her spot was filled by our grandmother.

Ms. Edwards had a clean scent and look to her always, that smelled a bit like paper and a bit like powder—subtle, inviting, soothing. She had chestnut brown hair pulled half up with a barrette, and a natural, makeup-free complexion. She wore classic outfits of crew-neck sweaters, slim khaki trousers, and loafers. She was kind. She quietly commanded respect, but was not intimidating to a shy child, as many grown-ups are. If you had not practiced that week, a look from her was enough to make you disappointed in yourself. The way she played the piano was an extension of her personality: fluidly, easily, naturally, beautifully. I was enthralled by the way her fingers danced over the keys when she would introduce a new piece. She was about my mom’s age when she started teaching us. She, like my mom, seemingly did not age—she looked the same for the 22 years she taught in our home.

As a child, I loved Ms. Edwards for her sweet, soft-spoken ways. As an adult, I look to her as a source of inspiration, a quietly alternative way to be. She seemed to coast just comfortably outside of the pressure of social expectations. She pursued her passion, made a living doing what she loved. She was talented yet self-deprecating and humble, and lived her life the way she wanted: she was not married when we met her, and did not marry until she found the right person, years later, well into her forties, or maybe fifties. A few years ago, she told me: “you can wait. There is no right time or age. It’s not easy, so you want to make sure it is right.” Now, at 33 years old, I think of that often.

I often look back on the piano-lessons era as a time of comfort and insulation. I think I have warped this era in my head, because the reality was that under the surface, there were years when that was not so. But the rituals we had in our home, the piano lessons, the whimsical ambiance my mom created, made it feel that way. No matter what the reality was, she crafted for us a carefree, joyful world filled with piano and songs and games and stories.

I like to isolate this memory: practicing the piano after school, in the fall, chicken noodle soup cooking on the stove, siblings doing homework and playing. When I play a song from The Cider House Rules soundtrack—a wistful classical piece—it reminds me of this time.

When I left for college, the piano playing mostly stopped, as did the singing. I was busy, I was trying on different personas, I thought I was coming into my own yet actually I was getting farther away from myself. I was working at my school’s newspaper and headed for a career in fashion journalism. After college I moved to New York and became a magazine editor. I continued to not play the piano. New York apartments were not big enough for pianos (at least not the apartments I could afford) and it was a moot point because I couldn’t afford a piano anyway. When the novelty of the fashion industry wore off, when I got to a settled point in my job and in my life—about five years later—I realized something was missing, and had been for a while. It was during a walk on a tree-lined, cobble-stone street in the West Village on a fall night. That was my favorite thing to do in New York, gallivant, meander, pick an area and see where it would take me. (Another game from my childhood started by my mom.) I noticed one home, a brownstone with a large window in the front, revealing a lit-up room with a grand piano and a child playing scales—no doubt practicing, begrudgingly. A shot of homesickness tore through my stomach. Homesickness for home, and for the piano—two things so intertwined that I could not possibly separate them.

Whenever I could, I began walking by piano stores as a source of comfort. I searched for used pianos on Craigslist just to entertain the idea that maybe I could have one. I craved to play the piano, a craving I had never experienced before.

As I unearthed my old self again, I began, slowly, to let myself wonder if New York and Magazine Editor were identifiers that I still needed and wanted. When I let my guard down, when I was honest with myself, I knew I found the most joy in trees and nature and my home and the piano. I wanted to write, I didn’t necessarily need to be a magazine editor. I would be happy working freelance. It took a few years to mentally gear up for it, but 10 years after moving to New York, I moved back home.

For me, playing the piano is something that has nothing to do with work or looks or societal expectations or relationships or anything else at all. Learning a new song, my sole objective in that moment is to master it. I am thinking of nothing else. And once I master it, the pride I feel in myself gives me confidence. Each time, a song a bit more difficult than the last. It is the pure joy of learning something that is just for you; no strings attached. There is no pressure. The piano has the instant power to take you away, to make you to live in the moment, to leave your phone behind and envelope yourself in the music. It instantly lifts your mood if you are feeling sad or anxious. It can give you goosebumps, it can calm you. It is my form of meditation.

I play “Moon River” when I am feeling nostalgic and whimsical. I play gospel when I want to feel soulful. I play Disney songs when I want to feel carefree. I play the theme song from Amelie when I want to feel like a movie heroine. I play songs from The Secret Garden when I am feeling solemn. And so on…

The piano has been a place where I have joyously played duets with a boyfriend, where I have fallen in love and have been broken-hearted, and have been comforted in times of immense grief. The beautiful thing is that it works in any circumstance, no matter how you are feeling or what phase of life you’re in. It is always there. Once you know how to play, you can sit down, anywhere there is any piano, and play it. And that is one of the greatest joys in my life.


Add yours
  • Quelle jolie tradition! et quelle jolie histoire!

  • I adore this story. I’m 48 and hope one day my life will calm down enough so I can learn to play piano. I wish I had such a wonderful mother like yours !

  • Jolie histoire !

  • Quels beaux souvenirs d’enfance !

  • What a beautiful story and so well written. Thank you for sharing. Play on!

  • love everything about this article. thank you so much!
    lovely. evocative. satisfying.

  • What a beautiful story. I could read her words all day long…

  • What a beautifully written piece. I adore piano also. As a new (ish) solo Mumma I am committed to saving for a piano for my little boy. I want him to experience the joy and focus that it brings. Thank you for your heartfelt words Elizabeth Swanson.

  • Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story!

    I’m 33 too, not married etc. At times asking myself where am I, what are the things that truly comfort me, what is my real source of inspiration and joy onto this life journey. Piano is your way of meditation. Then I’m on a right path of looking for my own and should continue testing and searching :)

  • Mariateresa August, 31 2019, 10:54 / Reply

    Brava! In manette of music you’ve Just tight to come back at home!!!!

  • Lovely and whimsichal. I would love for this piece to be transformed in an intire novel!

  • This was just what I needed today. Thank you. Lovely. Bisous.

  • Mariateresa August, 31 2019, 11:09 / Reply

    Brava! I love your option to back home in music’s name and mama !!!!

  • Catherine August, 31 2019, 3:20 / Reply

    J’ai adoré ce récit et j’aurais aimé le lire avant d’avoir des enfants! Merci pour l’inspiration!

  • Such a beautifully written story. I had it right in front of my eyes.

  • Caroline Dé September, 3 2019, 12:59 / Reply

    Quelle histoire, c’était touchant. J’aimerais en voir plus ici :)

  • This piece brought tears to me eyes. I am also in the midst of returning to my own soul. More accurately, being able to clear the mental clutter that cut me off from my own consciousness and the things that brought me unbridled joy. It’s really much simpler than you’d think to reconnect with yourself. Thanks for this beautiful writing and for sharing your story.

  • Thank you Elisabeth, you really are a gifted writer, it’s a delight to read you :)
    Thx to the translator as well as it’s beautilly written in French as well!

  • Lovely story, thanks for share, you are a good mother! I can read it all my life …

  • Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your story. What a wonderful person your mom was. My sisters got the piano lessons, not me. I am the youngest of 6. I do have longings, sometimes, to chase away the melancholie ….by playing the piano. Unfortunately, I am tone deft. Maybe one day, when I retire, I will tackle that …just playing for my self-no pressure.

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