16 minutes reading time (3254 words)

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 three-to six-year-olds, I know that I still have plenty of time to address and develop that difficult skill of reading at the piano. In Suzuki Book 1, I spend a good deal of time in our group lessons with pre-reading experiences which prepare for reading readiness. Book 1 usually takes my students one to two years to complete, so the time to begin reading is not too far away and it still leaves me many years to develop reading skills. By the time my students begin Suzuki Book 2, we start devoting a portion of our lesson to learning to read with a traditional reading book.

An exciting event

I treat the arrival of learning to read with great excitement in my studio. At first I spend a rather large portion of the lesson with it so that I can prepare the parent and child for success by demonstrating the steps involved in successful reading. We enjoy activities such as tapping the rhythm and studying the score for its details (even though at first it is simply seeing steps and skips before playing the piece). I am just as devoted to my students becoming successful readers as I am to the Book 1 skills, and once begun, I always open their lessons with reading. We continue reading and using the corresponding theory work in traditional methods books for years and years, and they usually prepare four pages of reading per week from these books. For extra strength in rhythmic reading my students work in a rhythm book and later read a lot of jazz. There is no demonstration playing of these pieces or listening to CDs, such as we do with the Suzuki repertoire, so the students are completely dependent on their reading skills to achieve success.

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 announced "that's Here Comes the Bride!" I was thrilled. I realized that with his well-trained ears he was hearing the music in his head, something that I know leads to more secure and musical reading. In this sense, Suzuki students can potentially become among the nest of readers and I have seen much of that in my studio. I do all I can to entice them with incentives such as summer reading contests with prizes for all who have read more than four pages a week, plus a grand prize for the one reading the most at the end of our summer session. This past summer the eight-year-old winner read a total of 134 pages in seven weeks!

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 in a child's progress; now I am sold on their contribution—the teacher is no better than the parent behind her or him. I would like to see all teachers begin to involve their students' parents at some level if they have not already done so. They can attend the weekly lessons instead of dropping them off for the lesson; and they can take notes, requiring them to be truly involved and focused in the lesson rather than reading a magazine during it. Bring them in for conferences occasionally to discuss their child's progress. Tell them you need their help to see that their child practices daily (many parents do not realize this unless told), give them some guidance as to how long their child needs to practice, and show them what kind of practice produces the best results. Seek all the help you can possibly get from them.

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. First is listening to the reference recordings of the Suzuki books the students are studying (as well as to other fine Classical music). Surrounding children with a professional performance of their repertoire helps them unconsciously absorb beautiful tone, fine phrasing, and good rhythmic execution. Children learn their mother tongue this way—they simply absorb it through listening. Students also listen to the desired musical sound through artistic demonstration techniques in their piano lessons. This type of demonstration is used only in the Suzuki books where there is great emphasis on artistry and it is omitted when working in reading books.

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 beauty of tone, good phrasing, and lovely tonal colors until students have achieved new skills in these areas. Meanwhile, students can continue reading other pieces that do not require the same high level of musicality but enhance their reading skills.

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 ability. Given the proper environment, each child can realize his or her own potential. Knowing this has helped me produce a studio of students that many people think are all highly gifted because they play so well. I, however, have no idea what their abilities will be when I begin them as preschoolers. In an interesting study a teacher was told she was teaching an academic classroom of gifted children. Actually, it was a classroom of children who had not previously shown any particular giftedness in academics; however, because she believed they all had great ability she approached her instruction of them as if they were gifted. The result was that these children later tested as highly gifted. This belief makes a big difference.

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 method we place great value on listening to fine music by excellent artists who produce beautiful tone. My students listen to a reference CD of their Suzuki pieces where they are exposed to the language of music on a daily basis. Beautiful tone is heard repeatedly and absorbed unconsciously, just as young children absorb their language ability from their environment.

I also demonstrate beautiful sound constantly in their lessons. For example, in our first Suzuki book I take a short portion of every lesson to play a listening game devoted to developing beautiful tone. While the parent closes their eyes, I play an exercise called "tonalization" (a name Dr. Suzuki coined to work on beautiful sound from the singer's "vocalization") and then the child mimics it trying to produce the same deep, warm, even, singing sound as mine. (It is just a five-finger pattern ascending and descending.) Mom then guesses who was first and second player. It is great fun and the children love it because it is a game. I see them grow and grow in their understanding of good sound through this listening activity. At home, the parent is asked to play a second version of the game daily in the practice session. If one of the requirements, such as deep tone is missing, Mom raises her hand. If the child plays without Mom raising her hand, the young student wins the game. While this is child-oriented, it eventually produces adult, mature sounds from the skills gained through constant listening and intelligent use of repetition. Such activities can be used in any teacher's studio.

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 that psychologists say children take no offense from dialogue with a puppet or stuffed animal, and consequently I went shopping for Fred. Sometimes he closes his eyes with horror (I take his arms and cover his eyes). I complain to him that he is too critical and then turn his back to us while we work to improve. When he turns around again and sees the improvement, he jumps for joy. The psychologists are right—the children love Fred and he can get by with things that I cannot. Even my older students like his presence, although I do not use the child-like activities with them. Many traditional teachers who have attended my training classes told me they purchased a frog as soon as they returned home, and said what a huge difference it made in the atmosphere of their teaching studios. (Honestly, I think the stuffed animal industry owes me some royalties for the enormous sale of frogs I have given them over the years!)

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 them I offer parent education classes before they begin, which includes discussing the Suzuki philosophy and the love for the child that we endorse. Parent education continues indefinitely through their children's studies, and their attendance at each lesson provides the opportunity to try to mold them by my example in the studio.

As the leader in this learning process I seek to earn their trust and confidence, and to help prevent them from trying to "run the show." For those parents who have serious issues, such as being overly ambitious, I have private conferences; in these meetings I take a very positive position with them as I praise them for what I see as their strengths before discussing areas for growth and change. I find that if I acknowledge their strengths they can accept the need for change in other areas more willingly. I am straightforward and honest, stating only the facts without blaming them. While I am certain that I can never completely change parents' behavior, I hope I have helped guide them toward improvement. Once in my career, when all my attempts failed, I refused to continue teaching a child because of an overly-ambitious tiger mom who was not willing to make a change. I could not continue to be a part of it.

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 in Carnegie Hall, is the youngest performer ever to be chosen to play on "From the Top," has already performed a concerto twice with orchestra, is currently preparing to perform the entire Beethoven Third Concerto with orchestra—and the list goes on and on!. He is so thrilled about the Beethoven performance you would think Santa Claus was coming! [Editor's note: you can find many of his performances on YouTube.]

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.

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