Exploring the Teaching of Mary Craig Powell
It has been my privilege for many years to know Mary Craig Powell as a colleague and friend. Although Mary Craig is an internationally renowned Suzuki specialist, her pedagogic knowledge and instructional skills reach far beyond the confines of a particular method or philosophy. Watching Mary Craig teach is a revelatory and inspiring experience, and I know that you will find her thoughts in this interview stimulating and thought-provoking.
Rebecca Johnson: Thank you for sharing your time and expertise with us! Let's jump right into a question that some of our readers might have: sometimes traditional teachers feel that the Suzuki approach does not produce good music readers; however, your students are typically very fine readers. How and when do you teach reading?
Mary Craig Powell: First, I would like to explain that in the Suzuki method we follow the natural process of development from birth. It is known that children hear much sooner than they read because the ear develops before the eye; they are able to hear in the womb, but usually learn to read books when they are five or six years old. When they begin to read, they already have a speaking vocabulary of several thousand words; five to seven years later, their reading level catches up to their speaking vocabulary. Dr. Suzuki followed this same process in the development of musical ability. This method follows the order of "hear, learn, see (read)." Thus, reading is delayed in our first Suzuki book while other important skills are addressed—skills such as ear development, the basic technique of the instrument, and attention to the musical development that leads to artistry.
That said, I intentionally delay the beginning of reading. Since I usually begin
An exciting event
I treat the arrival of learning to read with great excitement in my studio.
My beginning readers are greatly helped by their awareness of the nomenclature of the keyboard gained in the Book 1 study. We begin transferring to reading the Suzuki music somewhere from mid-Book 2 to early Book 3, giving additional reading development.
Giving it time
I understand the concern of traditional teachers about reading skills of Suzuki pianists. When one of my students is in the first third of our Book 2 he is also usually in a reading primer, and, if he transferred at this stage, I can imagine the horror of a traditional teacher seeing such an obvious gap in abilities. However, I also know that eventually, given five or six years of consistent reading experience in their traditional reading books plus transferring to reading their Suzuki scores, there will be a much differ- ent picture to present to the world. I feel truly excited about the high level of ability my Suzuki readers achieve and I'm proud that they read so well.
Many years ago I gave a young boy an untitled one-line piece he had never seen to sight-play in his lesson. After studying the score with the steps I had given him, he
RJ: What pedagogical aspects of the Suzuki method and/or philosophy do you think are applicable for all teachers? MCP: Wow, I could probably write a book about this! There are many, but here are some of my top choices. (Although I suspect that some or all of these aspects are already a part of many teachers' instruction—perhaps this will at least help strengthen their beliefs in these areas.)
Involving the parent
In Suzuki we talk about a triangle with the teacher and parent at the bottom and the child at the top, meaning that the child is an outgrowth of both the teacher and parent in this method. Parents are truly an integral part. They attend every lesson, taking notes and learning to model after the teacher. They are also responsible for practicing with the child at home until the student's reading level allows him to become independent, and for seeing that the required listening is done.
When I first became a Suzuki teacher I did not realize what an absolutely huge difference parental involvement could make
Listening to music
Listening to music is of great importance in the Suzuki method. In his book Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, Josef Lhévinne stated "Most students hear, but they do not listen. The finest students are those who have learned to listen."1 I work very hard to develop this type of student. There are two areas of listening required.
From the very earliest levels of instruction, all teachers can choose a few special pieces from the students' reading books for the purpose of developing young musicians. These pieces can be studied for
The beginning is the most important time
I have always had great respect for the importance placed on beginning instruction in Russia; it is said they put their finest teachers with beginners. A natural use of the body, with good balance and posture, is established in the first Suzuki book. We work from the beginning to develop the musical ear and tone— all things that lead to artistry in the child. While we allow each child to develop at their own pace, our goal is to see that these important areas are significantly developed in the very beginning.
The love of the child through music study
"Where love is deep, much can be accomplished." These famous words from Shinichi Suzuki provide a powerful insight into the man, the philosophy, and the method. Suzuki had a great love of children. His heart was broken as he saw the children in Japan after World War II, and he sought to find a way to help replace the sadness and grief they were experiencing with something beautiful. Thus, in developing this method, his stress was on using it primarily to develop human beings who would make a better world, filled with peace rather than war. It is a message of love—the child comes first, the music is second. We also tend to get better musical results from a child when we show them our love and respect. I am glad to know that many, many teachers feel this for their students without being Suzuki teachers. My hope is that all teachers will further their efforts to make this an important goal in teaching their students.
On-going training makes us better teachers
Our continuing training through the Suzuki Association of the Americas helps create improved teachers. Teachers can study and play every piece in every Suzuki book, observe students being taught by excellent teachers, as well as learn valuable teaching techniques that greatly facilitate their teaching through this training. There is a great openness among them with much sharing of ideas, and many return summer after summer to continue their growth as teachers. Regardless of the level of their background prior to training, all gain from the experience and return home better teachers. Learning is a life-long need for all of us.
Every child can learn
The first course teachers take when they begin Suzuki training is titled "Every Child Can." This philosophy has had a tremendous impact on my own teaching. I was brought up with the belief that only "talented" children can do well in music. Actually, I still believe that. The difference is that I used to apply that word to only a select few and now I believe ALL children have
RJ: Your students are known for their beautiful tone. Do you have some tips that are applicable for all teachers? MCP: I do value beautiful tone production, and cherish Dr. Suzuki's comment: "Beautiful tone, beautiful heart." In the Suzuki
I also demonstrate beautiful sound constantly in their lessons. For example, in our first Suzuki
A frog named Fred
I have a stuffed frog that helps me work with tone (as well as many other things). His name is Fred and he sits on the music rack of my piano where he can carefully observe the lessons. To help the students realize that tone is produced through gravity, I let Fred fall into the child's cupped hands. Then we practice gravity drops with the child letting his hand fall, demonstrating this concept and eliminating the tendencies of pushing or poking into the keys. Fred is quite critical and often whispers complaints that the tone sounds angry, weak, etc., into my ear.
Years ago I read
I can tell that my students are truly conscious of good sound when we have our group lessons. After each child plays a piece, I ask the class to comment on what they liked about the playing. Often they comment on beautiful tone and it pleases me to know how connected they have become to the beauty and importance of it.
RJ: What is your advice for successfully working with overly ambitious parents?
MCP: Parents come in all types and styles. Some are overly ambitious, pressuring, negative, even "tigers"; some are indifferent and lazy about their child's progress, while others are positive and nurturing and do things just right. I work with all of them, trying to help mold and nurture them toward a healthy direction in their children's instruction. For all of
As the leader in this learning
RJ: Please tell us about your student, Gavin George.
MCP: Gavin is rapidly gaining international attention as a young artist. He began piano lessons at the age of three and a half, was reading music when he was four, became my student at the age of five, and he is now ten years old. Although the word "prodigy" has become almost annoying these days with its misuse, Gavin is a prodigy in the very finest sense of the word. Although neither of his parents had any musical background, they recognized Gavin's keen interest in music when he was quite young and began his lessons. They have made a 100 percent commitment to him because of his incredible ability, joy, and passion for music and the piano. He has performed twice
While I try to bring each child to their highest potential, my mission has never been to develop concert pianists. I think, however, we might have a future giant at the piano in Gavin. Whether he becomes that or not, I know that he has already realized my most important goal for him as well as for all my students—he has gained something powerful through music that is beautiful and full of deep, inner meaning that will enrich his life forever.
1. Lhevinne, Joseph. (1972). Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, p. 11.