From the Suzuki Heritage Interview Series, May 2010 SAA Conference, edited by Pam Brasch

I always loved music as a child, and I remember that my parents, especially an aunt, always would sing to me. She’d sit on a swing and sing me to sleep at night in our North Carolina home on our front porch. I grew up loving it. Both grandmothers had a piano, and I didn’t. When I went to their homes, I would play and play and begged for a piano. Finally at Christmas, when I was in the fourth grade, Santa brought me my first piano. It was just a love affair for me from the beginning—with piano and with music.

I ended up majoring in music, and I thought that I wanted to teach at the college level and that’s the way I began, as a university teacher. I have done that off and on throughout the years, as well as teaching children, but through my own two sons, I learned about the Suzuki Method for violin. My husband was also a musician, and we were so excited about it. When each of our two sons was four, they began Suzuki violin instruction. I thought I had never seen anything so wonderful and awesome. My oldest son, who began first, did so well that my head was very big. I could hardly get it through the door. I thought I had a little genius for a child, until we took him to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, the first of the Suzuki institutes. I then realized that there were lots of children who were just as good and better. So my head, instead, was swelling big for the Suzuki Method. When the Suzuki Violin teacher told me, “There’s such a thing as Suzuki Piano, by the way,” there was no way I could ignore it, not look into it.

I did my first teacher training at Stevens Point. It was the kind of training that was offered in the early years—a five-day course where we were trained in all of the Suzuki books. When I left, I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing, and there wasn’t much to read, so I really had to just gather my thoughts from the Suzuki Violin and reapply it to the piano technique and use the philosophy. So, while I wasn’t really a pioneer, I was one who was involved in the beginning stages. It became, for me, the most wonderful thing aside from my family that I’ve ever done. I must say that I have realized my potential as a piano teacher to the fullest through this method.

Has this method helped your own playing?

I listen more. I’ve learned to listen more to myself, and I listen more to recordings of great artists. I feel like I have gained an additional degree through such refined listening. It has helped me tremendously.

You mentioned that you went to Stevens Point, and you were initially amazed by the quality of the playing. The philosophy, though, is different than the pedagogy and from producing wonderful players. How and when did you get into the philosophy?

I got into the philosophy when my children began Suzuki Violin. The teacher had me read Nurtured by Love, and then I felt that more than anything else, I absorbed the philosophy through her teaching. I did read what was available, and I loved it. In a way, it seemed like I was already a Suzuki Piano teacher. I had such great love for children, and I felt that the children came first and the music took second. Even as a traditional piano teacher, I found that I had done many of the same things that Suzuki embraced.

I have seen several of your students play, and I can see on their faces how they’re feeling that day and hear it in their music. How do you produce that in a child?

I’m able to get that response through using a lot of Suzuki teaching techniques. I think that I also have a great passion for what I’m doing, and the children sense that. Through demonstration teaching, which is part of Suzuki teaching, I think that I can help them feel the music so much more than by just asking them to read the notes and play the music. Through the listening they do, they absorb much of the feeling. I can’t give 100 percent of that to each child, but I’m certain it comes through Suzuki teaching techniques and through my own passion and joy for the children and the music itself.

What interaction did you have with Dr. Suzuki?

When I met Dr. Suzuki, he was quite old. I was teaching at the Pan-Pacific Conference in Australia when I first met him. He took a fall, tripped over a violin case that weekend, and so wasn’t able to interact much, but I remember the first time I ever saw him—just in a crowd at Stevens Point—he was saying, “Children, they have a very wonderful mind, they’re just short.” I loved that. You’ve got to capture them in those little short moments. I must say, that it is something I have dedicated myself to—approaching my students at an almost graduate level in terms of my expectations because I have learned that children can do anything we want, and probably better than the rest of us, but they need to be treated in a child-like manner. I have worked to make the approach child-like.

It was very important to Dr. Suzuki—to remain young and to infuse enthusiasm for life and everyday life into everything that he did. How do you deal with that on a daily basis?

I must say that teaching on a daily basis brings me to life, for the most part. Even when something is happening in my personal life that may be less than wonderful, it’s when I teach that I’m the happiest. I’m always glad to see the children. It’s a passion with me; I’ll always love it.

What is it about Dr. Suzuki’s legacy that speaks most clearly to you, or speaks most strongly?

His love for children and his desire to bring music into their hearts, so that their lives could be filled with love rather than hatred. After the war, that was why he turned to this; he wanted to let the children of Japan have something beautiful to fill their hearts rather than the hatred of the world, and I adore the man for that.

You are a significant part of the legacy, though. How does that responsibility affect you?

I feel the responsibility, but it does not stress me. I want to give all I can to all other teachers, and I have no ego about it. I just love to share.

Dr. Suzuki had no ego in what he did. Is that part of why he was so appealing?

Perhaps so. I think that he felt that the Method and the Philosophy should not just be just Suzuki; it should be Suzuki-Powell, or whatever person was working with it. I felt very much that he wanted us to carry on his legacy in our own way, the best that we could.

What do you see coming up now in the younger generations? How excited are you about the younger teachers carrying on this legacy and this tradition?

Oh, I very much hope that they will.

I feel that the revised International Suzuki Piano books will attract more teachers; I think we have improved the body of the literature greatly. To me, it feels like Dr. Suzuki must be smiling on us from heaven for having made those changes. Some people thought it was going against Suzuki, and again, I think he wanted it a Suzuki-Powell or Suzuki-whoever method, and he would want it to grow with new ideas. He always wanted a new idea. I think that this helps attract younger teachers, and the more young teachers can hear fine Suzuki Piano students play, the more attractive it will be to them, too.

How does one thank Dr. Suzuki for this legacy?

I try to thank Dr. Suzuki for his legacy by becoming a part of it, and doing my part toward fulfilling his desire that music was for all children, and that we can fill them with something beautiful. I hope to help carry it out for him.

Do you feel that you’re in service to your students, in service to the world, using the Suzuki method?

I certainly do. I think of myself as a leader with my students and with other teachers, and I endorse Servant Leadership—I am there to serve their needs, and that’s the kind of leadership that I hope to provide.

When you come to a conference like this, you just get so immersed in it. I’ve never seen a conference where everybody hugs each other quite as much. It’s wonderful. I long for some other music organizations to have some of the featured lectures that we have, especially those that endorse love for the child, and not just focusing on teaching the instrument. I actually think that you get far better results with your teaching of the instrument when you have reached the child’s heart. It’s just wonderful to be here. It’s powerful.

Learning Experiences with Mary Craig Powell

Mary Craig Powell’s accomplishments are legendary throughout the international Suzuki Community and beyond. She represented the SAA on the International Suzuki Piano Committee with Seizo Azuma (Japan), Nada Brissenden (Pan Pacific Suzuki Association), and Kasia Borowiak (European Suzuki Association). Working with EL Lancaster (Alfred Music), the committee produced the much-needed New International Edition of the Suzuki Piano School (2008–2010).

Fifteen years ago, in 2002, the SAA awarded Mary Craig the Creating Learning Community Award for “Excellence in Suzuki Teacher Education.” Her influence has continued to expand. The number of individual teachers Mary Craig has taught in our region alone has now reached 621 according to the SAA Registry. We asked a few teachers to share briefly their personal perspectives on Mary Craig Powell’s pedagogy.

I feel very grateful for being able to learn from Mary Craig Powell, whom I respect and admire.

She is my role model for a Master Teacher: professional, first-rate musician, dedicated and creative teacher, and most importantly, a wonderful, caring human being.

I’ve learned a great deal from her interaction with parents at the lesson, how well she keeps them engaged, actively participating in a process. Being a respectful mentor to the parents, Mary Craig has been always specific, giving super clear directions. Here are some of my observations:

• Sit a parent closer to the piano (left side from the student) to observe the lesson and to be an active participant.

• Talk to a parent, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly through a child.

•Be very specific in your assignments for homework (how many times to repeat, how to practice in steps, what metronome markings are, etc.).

•Be firm but kind.

•Make parents trust you in choosing a recital piece.

•Write a memo for yourself about student’s repertoire and current homework.

These are only a few points from the wealth of information I retained from my learning from Mary Craig.     

– Marina Obukovsky, SAA Teacher Trainer, Head of Piano Department, The School for Strings, NY

One of the many pedagogical gifts Mary Craig Powell has demonstrated and shared with me as a teacher has been the use of creativity and playfulness in teaching. I learned from her that teaching can be fun for students and for me. A stuffed animal can deliver both praise for a task well done and constructive criticism for how to accomplish a task more successfully. That animal can also make silly, humorous comments and totally engage a child in their lesson. What fun! Extra repetitions of skills can be accomplished by using just about any object—shapes, cars, or little rubber animals. Engaging a child in creating detailed stories about pieces is another imaginative tool I would never have thought of prior to my study with Mary Craig. Her own creativity inspires me daily to continue trying new fun ways of introducing musical ideas or technique and to continue challenging myself to expect a lot from students without being too serious all the time.

Oh, and stickers. . . one can never have or give away too many stickers. Who would’ve thought of 20 stickers for a lesson? Thank you, Mary Craig.

– Gail Gebhart, SAA Teacher Trainer, studio teacher and faculty at Wayne State University, MI

I have been privilegedand honored to know Mary Craig Powell and consider her to be one of the most important influences on my teaching career. Her knowledge of pianism and pedagogy is equally extraordinary at all levels of the Suzuki repertoire. One of Mary Craig’s many gifts is the ability to dissect the most intricate details of the repertoire while still maintaining an element of simplicity when discussing the approach to teaching. One of the tenets of her teaching, which she revisited throughout the different books, was the idea of Demonstration, Imitation, and Verbalization. This is a concept which many Suzuki teachers are familiar with, but it was the succinctness and ease of her delivery which made an impact and impressed on me the extreme importance of this idea. The students hear and see the teacher modeling, after which they execute the concept themselves.  It is only after these two steps are accomplished that the concept is verbalized for the parent and the child. This is one of the biggest differences between Suzuki piano teaching and traditional piano teaching. Mary Craig’s simple and effective understanding of this basic teaching premise allows for the child to grasp and execute the concept in the quickest and most effective fashion. This is what we are all searching for as teachers, and my hope is that all of Mary Craig’s trainees will continue to apply the many wonderful things she has imparted to all of us.

– Dr. Bret Serrin, Chair, Piano Department, Suzuki Music Institute of Dallas****

In 1992, I entered Kerns Chapel at Capital University for my first Suzuki Piano teacher training course with Mary Craig Powell. I was instantly mesmerized by the Suzuki method, and by the end of the first day with Mary Craig, I was a convert. I have been fortunate to take several teacher training courses with her and to spend nine wonderful years as a Suzuki parent in her studio. I have applied many of Mary Craig’s pedagogical concepts to my daily teaching. Of these, I feel that one of the most important is to always say something positive about students’ playing before discussing what needs to be worked on in their practice. As I quietly listen to students playing their pieces, I am thinking not only of how to give them guidance for improvement, but also of what they executed well in their playing. By following Mary Craig’s example, I have learned that discussing the positives first makes students more receptive to hearing what in their pieces still needs extra attention.

When working with young students, I love using Mary Craig’s technique of teaching through a stuffed animal. It’s really perfect; I give the praise, and my studio frog, Carl, “tells” them what still needs improvement. As Mary Craig says of her frog, Fred, “He can say what I can’t!” I’m proud and happy that Mary Craig has influenced my teaching. I am a better teacher today because of her many wonderful, insightful ideas.             

– Judy Scurci, Suzuki Piano Teacher and Workshop Coordinator

What immediately appealed to me about Mary Craig Powell’s teacher training in the early 1980s was her systematic, detailed, and unhurried way to present each teaching point. As I observed her teach her own students, I could see how they became complete virtuosic musicians using her brilliant pedagogy. These are some examples that have stayed with me through the years.

  1. Use of mainstream piano technique, particularly “love notes”: those special notes in pieces that require a flexible wrist roll to sink deeply into the note creating a fuller, rounded sound

  2. Use of rainbow phrases and the physical gesture to turn a phrase

  3. Use of “stop-prepare” to make instant dynamic changes

  4. Marking a moving line inside a series of repeated notes, then carefully teaching weight balance to bring out a line

  5. Her systematic approach to rhythmic and melodic reading creates a capable sight-reader.

  6. She speaks to students in appealing analogies and metaphors that help them relate to dynamic changes and to the piece overall by developing imagery.

  7. Her kind, respectful, and detailed instructions to parents serve as an ideal model for how to best engage them in the talent development of their child.

As a colleague and leader, she has mentored me through the years. I feel fortunate to have had her presence in my professional life. Her gracious, common-sense approach has shaped my teaching and will remain with me forever.

– Diana Galindo, SAA Teacher Trainer and studio teacher, Flagstaff, AZ

I’m sure you know the student. The one who loves to play fast. He can’t wait to show that he can play it faster than the recording! I see the excitement on his face. I share his enthusiasm. I really want him to succeed! Then, he misses a fingering and it all falls to pieces. I can see him deflate right in front of my eyes. That’s the moment when I can hear Mary Craig Powell’s gentle, eastern North Carolina accent in my head saying, “Let’s put a Stop, Prepare right here.”

I have known and trained with Mary Craig Powell for 27 years. I sat in her Piano 1A class at Capital University in the summer of 1990, totally skeptical about this Suzuki thing. I had just purchased a music school with Suzuki teachers, and although I was going to stick with my own “traditional” teaching, I knew I had to be able to “sell” the Suzuki Method to prospective parents. I was just there to learn about it. By lunchtime, as Mary Craig had predicted (how does she know these things?!), I had changed my auditor status to participant. The Suzuki Philosophy and Mary Craig Powell’s teaching made sense, so I stopped and prepared to implement all that I was learning.

Stop, Prepare. It’s a life changing teaching tool. One note of Twinkle theme to the next, one sudden change in dynamic, one eight-measure spot in a Brahms Intermezzo made of chords so full of notes that one wants to grow extra fingers—each of these spots can use a Stop, Prepare. From the very first lesson to a professional career: taking the time to stop, analyze the situation, figure out how to fix it, and then implement the fix is a positive and efficient way to succeed.   

–Maryfrances Kirsh, Piano and Violin, Denison University Suzuki Program, OH

How do you describe pedagogical genius of Mary Craig in a few short paragraphs? Taking teacher training courses with Mary Craig, both at Institutes but especially in her home studio, was the pinnacle of my training. It is hard to pinpoint just a few of the things that settled in my heart but I will try.

Many years ago as a cheeky, young, freshly minted Suzuki teacher, I was taking a teacher training course and observing Mary Craig in a lesson with a student. It was one of my first encounters with Mary Craig, although I had heard a great deal about her already. Having observed a few lessons before, I noticed that she was a very positive teacher. She first pointed to all the things that were very good in student’s playing, then slowly worked her way to things she wanted to fix.

Then in a Book Three masterclass a student had just finished playing and . . . it was truly not good. As the student was painfully working her way through Clementi, I tried to follow Mary Craig’s example to find something positive about this performance, and I was failing miserably. I was thinking “Well, let’s see what positive things will Ms. Powell find in that playing?” I could tell from the faces of other trainees that they were having similar thoughts. After the student stopped playing we all held our breaths. Mary Craig smiled her beautiful smile, looked at the student as if she was the most important person in the world and said, “Myyyy, I can tell you really love this piece!”The student vigorously nodded her head, and we all smiled and exhaled.”

When she works with a student, it seems as if there is nothing more important to her then being there in the moment with each student. She always maintains eye contact with the students while speaking to them and has an incredible gift of holding and maintaining their attention. I have seen students, including my seven-year-old daughter, staring at Mary Craig with complete love in their faces.

To Mary Craig, every student has potential, every student is cherished, and every effort, no matter how feeble, is to be applauded and celebrated. She truly is a Pied Piper of Suzuki Piano. Thank you!            

– Malgosia Lis, Suzuki Piano Coordinator, The Hartt School Community Division, University of Hartford