Day in the Life Of: Hannah Swanson

From recitals to rehearsals, vocal warm-ups to visual critiques, the life of a performing and visual arts student is academically diverse. 

“Day in the Life,” a Spectrum series, shines light on these students and the arts programs at NDSU.

If you would have asked 11-year-old Hannah Swanson what she would be doing when she grew up, she probably would have told you firefighter, comic strip writer or artist.

Piano performer with an emphasis in collaboration, however, not so much.

Yet, 10 years later and here she is: a junior at North Dakota State majoring in piano performance.

Originally, Swanson was a student at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. After her freshman year, she decided that she needed a change. One of her professors suggested she meet with Dr. Tyler Wottrich, an assistant professor of piano in NDSU’s Challey School of Music.

“I ended up coming here and having a piano lesson with him, and I was like, ‘Dude, I really want to come to school here because you are the best person I’ve ever taken a lesson with,'” Swanson described. “He was like, ‘Can you come in August?’ This was mid-July, I should mention. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll just pack up my life and move.'”

Swanson’s favorite piano piece is Claude Debussy’s ‘Deux Arabesque No. 1.’

And that was that: Swanson started a new chapter of her life in a rush, starting classes just as soon as she’d decided to transfer to NDSU.

After that, Swanson’s experience has been a blur of activity: from accompaniments to recitals, a variety of classes to jazz ensembles, Swanson’s been busy being busy.

If you’re going to be a musician, inconsistency is key,” she said. “There’s not really a normal day.”

Her day starts at 9 a.m. with conducting class. Then it’s on to music history — or music mystery, as Swanson likes to call it.

After that, she sings with the University Chamber Singers. From one practice she moves to another: this one her own, having lunch with a side of Beethoven sonatas and Debussy movements.

German is next and after that, she teaches lessons from 4 to 6:30 p.m. The evening continues with either studying or rehearsals.

“It’s emotionally taxing, and time wise, it’s taxing,” she admitted. “We’re all spending hours in the music building putting in so much time and work, and putting in so much emotional energy because if you’re practicing music, you have to be expressing yourself so much. It can be a little tough to balance that with being a person. If you’re spending all your time and energy just pouring yourself into your studies and practicing of your instrument and rehearsing with people and trying to understand the progression of harmonies in theory class, when do you have time to talk to people you love and cook and hang out with your cat?”

In addition to classes, Swanson’s been busy preparing for her junior year recital, coming up in early December.

Piano performance majors are required to perform a full junior and senior year recital, each involving an hour of memorized piano music. What works best for her is to space it all out, making it less overwhelming to tackle.

I’m trying to best handle being a person and having life stuff going on, and then having the more, stereotypical academic side of things to deal with,” she said. “I’m trying to, around that, just immerse myself in music that I’m working on and that I’m trying to take it a step at a time.”

After she graduates from NDSU, Swanson hopes to go to graduate school in collaborative piano. After that, she would probably spend most of her time accompanying chamber orchestra groups, vocalists, freelance work and potentially teaching.

At the core of her love for piano is the ability to work with others.

In the context of music, working with people is great,” she said. “I like teaching lessons and I like collaborating with other people. There are some really great moments where you’re accompanying someone, and you stop thinking about what’s on the page and you start having a conversation with each other through emotions.” 

After being a classically trained pianist for most of her life, the biggest surprise of Swanson’s academic experience has been her newfound love of jazz music.

Last year, Swanson participated in Off the Record Sextet, a group of six NDSU students who combined their musical talents into a jazz combo.

Since she was 11-years-old, Hannah Swanson has known that she wanted to pursue a career in piano.

Growing up, the majority of what I played was Beethoven and Schubert,” she said. “Really just stereotypical classical composers. With accompanying, especially in the past year or so, I’ve really fallen in love with composers and some modern, French saxophone music. Kind of stuff that I probably wouldn’t have understood or thought was garbage in high school. I find really raw and powerful and awesome now.”

However, Swanson’s heart is still in the classical composers.

Her favorite song is ““Deux Arabesques No. 1” by Claude Debussy. It was the first song she ever played by Debussy, when she was in 10th grade. She describes it as a “gateway drug” into comparatively modern composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“It’s like if you can imagine taking a bunch of paintbrushes and dipping them into a bunch of different, complementary watercolors and just see what happens if you just let the colors flow together on a canvas,” she described. “That’s what his music sounds like sometimes. It’s such a different sound from the precision of some of the classical composers. That blurred, beautiful kind of sound.”

As impractical as piano may seem for many, Swanson’s love for her craft and for how it inspires people has propelled her to where she is now: pursuing a career that she loves.

“I think everyone should study what they care about,” she stated simply. “I don’t see the point of getting a degree or pursuing something unless there’s some amounts of passion about.”

If you’re interested in seeing Swanson perform, her junior recital will take place Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. in Beckwith Recital Hall.

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