Stanford Student Thrives on Piano Lessons with CCMS Instructor



by Jeff Selesnick


Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Esther Elonga and her family fled to Uganda as refugees when she was only three. Her parents thought the family’s stay in Uganda would only be a matter of months, but it ended up being nearly 13 years. Life was difficult as refugees in Uganda, with her and her family enduring a season where her father fell sick, a time when her mother generated all the income for the family, and months when rent money was in short supply.

“Music played a really important role in our life,” she recalls. “We used to pray together as a family at night, and every time we would pray, we would start by singing. We mostly sang Swahili hymns, and they were important to us because they gave us hope. Those songs were our stronghold, helping us to continue trusting in God.”

Her nightly singing sessions with her family also exposed Esther to the power music has to build community. Despite being the only Congolese family in their area of Kampala, Uganda, neighbors heard Esther’s family singing every evening and slowly began learning the songs and participating in the evening prayers. “Even if you don’t understand the language, I think everyone can identify with the meaning of these songs,” she says.

After the extended stay in Uganda, Esther and her family resettled in Concord in December 2014, halfway through her sophomore year in high school. Adjusting to the culture, food, and weather proved to be challenging, but Esther completed a successful tenure at Concord High School and was accepted into Harvard upon graduation.

While she sang sporadically with the Songweavers women’s chorus in high school, Esther’s relationship with Concord Community Music School truly began in the spring of 2020. Forced to return home during her junior year at Harvard when the pandemic shuttered the campus, Esther found herself with some precious free time for the first time in years. And she knew exactly what she wanted to do with it.

“It had always been in my heart to learn to play the piano and to specifically learn to play these Swahili hymns from my childhood,” she says. “Singing those songs again would take me back to those moments in Uganda. Yes, there were some painful moments, but also moments of hope and joy with neighbors and friends.”

Esther received the financial aid she needed and started taking virtual lessons with piano faculty member Rebecca Herst. The early days were, as Esther puts it, “bumpy”; adapting to the Zoom lesson model, starting an instrument she had never played, and learning to read music for the first time in her life. But as she progressed and started honing the basic skills, with Herst’s help, she was able to begin focusing on learning the hymns of her childhood. “The music to these hymns was never written down, and Esther wanted to learn to play them and integrate that into the church/hymn-singing practice she experienced in Uganda,” says Herst. “I think it’s a lofty, unusual, and selfless goal and she’s coming along nicely.”

Because everything started and stayed on Zoom, she was able to take classes through the end of her undergraduate career and has continued them even as she moved out west to begin the Medical Scientist Training Program at Stanford. While she was home for Christmas break in December of 2023, Esther had the opportunity to finally meet her instructor in person, and she and Herst could barely contain their excitement during their first, and to this point only, in-person lesson. Esther was even able to participate (virtually) in her first recital this spring, submitting a video of her performing a Swahili hymn from her childhood.



The rigorous academic schedule at Stanford leaves little time for practicing, but Esther makes a point of rising early on Wednesday mornings for her session with Herst. “It’s a difficult journey,” says Esther describing the eight-year program she is currently in. “I enjoy everything that I’m doing but I can’t negate the fact that it’s difficult. These songs bring me back to a time where it was difficult, and I made it through, and they continue to encourage me along my journey.”

Zoom allows Esther to stay in touch with Herst and her music education community, a constant throughout different locations  and her many accomplishments.


Watch Esther’s video performance on YouTube at