Elizabeth Swallow, a Harrisonburg resident, took piano lessons from JMU professor Eric Ruple after she moved here 20 years ago to follow her passion.

Now, 20 years later, Swallow donated $1 million toward 100 Steinway pianos for the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts, making her one of the largest contributors. The university added another million dollars to purchase another 44, bringing the total to 144 handcrafted Steinway pianos, including four concert grand pianos. Each piano can cost anywhere from $20,000 to more than $110,000.

"If I hadn't practiced enough, I could distract him [Ruple] by asking what was happening with the students," Swallow said. "And I became emotionally attached to the people here."

Swallow was one of nearly 600 to attend the presentation honoring JMU's recently achieved "All-Steinway" status - a title currently held by only 120 schools in the nation.

Ronald Losby, president of Steinway & Sons, presented President Linwood Rose with a plaque recognizing the achievement.

Jeff Schowell, director of the school of music; George Sparks, dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts; and Bruce and Lois Forbes, for whom the Forbes Center was named, all attended the event.

More than 90 percent of current musicians chose to perform on Steinway pianos, according to the Steinway & Sons website. One piano, made of more than 12,000 individual pieces, takes almost a year to make. The wood for the piano is stored for months in conditioned rooms before shaped for the piano. Then, each key is adjusted and balanced to harden or soften each hammer to create the right sound.

"Steinway is a name synonymous with excellence and tradition," Swallow said. "We deserve the very best, and that's why we became an All-Steinway school."

"This is a wonderful thing, to think that James Madison University, right here in Virginia, has a facility that any place ... in the world would envy."
Menahem Pressler
world-renowned pianist

The move to reach All-Steinway status is part of an effort to define the arts program at JMU as one of the best in the nation. The $82 million performing arts center opened last May and contains five performing venues as well as several rehearsal spaces, and seeks to solidify JMU's commitment to the arts as integral to a liberal arts curriculum.

"If we were going to become a truly great university," Rose said in his address, "we had to have an arts program that was sufficiently resourced to support its faculty, and to honor the talent of our faculty and our students."

Faculty members and students said they're excited to work firsthand with the new pianos.

"This is a really great thing for the university," Sparks said. "[We're] provided with the absolute best of everything for our students."

Daniel Warren, a sophomore piano major, said he's thrilled about the pianos.

"When I think Steinway, I think excellence, and that's going to be a good reflection for not only the school of music, but for the university as a whole," he said.

Warren said the addition feels revolutionary.

"I guess to me it can be compared to the football team getting a new stadium," he said. "The new Performing Arts Center and the new pianos have completely transcended anything I could have expected from the university."

Steinway pianos are known as some of the highest quality pianos in the world, and the one on stage Saturday afternoon was certainly no exception. The lights of the stage glistened off its sleek black finish, as the inside's golden finish glowed.

The looks, however, didn't compare to the instrument's sound for the next two hours.

World-class pianist Menahem Pressler performed on one of the new grand pianos, holding to his reputation with his renditions of Beethoven, Debussy and Schubert. The roar of the crowd drew him back for two encores, and he concluded his show with a version of "Lullaby."

Pressler, 87, escaped Nazi Germany during World War II, and he eventually went on to begin his career after winning an international piano competition in San Francisco in 1946. Since then, he has traveled the world to share his gifts, performing with orchestras across the United States and Europe.

For almost 60 years, Pressler has taught at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, where he acts as Distinguished Professor of Music as the Charles Webb Chair.

Swallow said Pressler regards his students as his own children. Many of them have gone on to win prizes in major international piano competitions, including the Queen Elizabeth, Busoni and Rubenstein contests.

"For the students themselves it will be a unique experience to be able to come on a stage like this and touch this instrument," he said, mentioning that the Steinway piano in the concert hall was one of the most magnificent pianos he had ever played.

"This is a wonderful thing, to think that James Madison University, right here in Virginia, has a facility that any place ... in the world would envy. It is so beautiful," Pressler said.

Warren said he is impressed by the pianos' outstanding quality.

"From a performer's standpoint, we work our entire lives to develop a very sensitive and delicate touch with the piano to get the best sound and best feel," he said. "To have something that responds so well, it's almost as if the piano becomes a part of you ... It truly becomes solely about the music."

Both Rose and the music department hope that reaching this status will give students and faculty some of the tools they need to grow to their full potential.

"Yes this is for the students; yes this is for the faculty," Rose said. "But this is also for the entire university and community, and we are anxious to share it."

Contact Ryan Platt at plattrf@dukes.jmu.edu.