Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Joan Lithgow started playing the piano at the age of 7 while attending the Assumption Convent Malvern, Gauteng, South Africa. She completed her schooling at the Art, Ballet and Music School (now known as the NSA). She graduated  from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1977 with a B.Mus degree and then the following year with an HDE (PG). In 1990 she graduated with a M.Mus from Wits. While studying at Wits she also attained an LRSM and LTCL in piano teaching.

While at university Lithgow joined the SABC Junior Orchestra and later freelanced as a percussionist with the National Symphony and PACT orchestras. She was also the vibraphonist with the group “La Triolette” who performed regularly at the 5 star Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg between 1979 and 1982.

Lithgow is also a qualified piano teacher and has taught in various schools in South Africa and Botswana. She was the first IEB Examiner for Music and has adjudicated at many music competitions around the country. More recently she has trained and led Marimba Bands from disadvantaged communities to perform in Vienna, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and New York. These trips were all conducted under the auspices of Education Africa.

She has also been the organiser of six extremely successful National Marimba Festivals and in 2012 organised the 1st Education Africa Marimba and Steelpan Festival, which attracted over 1200 participants from all over Africa, South Africa and abroad. A 2nd such festival followed in 2013 with more than 1400 participants from all nine provinces in South Africa as well as Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, France and Germany.

She is married with with two children, Bradley and Amy-Sue. Her husband Ian owns a successful Marimba manufacturing business: The Marimba Workshop.