Mary Craig Powell: Reflections on Love & Learning
by Samantha Steitz
Note to Reader: I first wrote this article in the summer of 2015 immediately after returning home from training in Columbus, Ohio. I’m re-sharing this now upon the announcement of her passing January 21, 2019.
This summer, I ventured for the first time to Columbus, Ohio, where I was to study with the internationally renowned Suzuki teacher trainer Mary Craig Powell. By reputation, Mary Craig is one of those rare and amazing teachers who everyone says profusely nice things about with absolutely no exception. For this reason, I was certainly expecting to learn a bit about Books 4 and 5 (which I was studying in the courses) and how she developed her own studio (filled with many of the best young musicians in Ohio and the country). That said, I never could have fathomed just how much I could and would take away from all things I saw at her workshop - big and small.
I will focus on a few overarching principles I observed during the 10 day workshop, and why remaining mindful of these principles is significant for all of us teachers, parents and students.
Attention to Reading. Very sadly, some Suzuki students and teachers have earned a reputation that they cannot read music as well as "traditional" students. Ms. Powell's teaching and her students prove them wrong. Each and every student I observed read at a very high level due to the insistence of their teacher that they prioritize this skill. According to Mary Craig, 1/3 of practice time should be spent reading. Furthermore, she spends as much time as necessary during the lesson time to cover the reading assignment. It is never pushed to the end of the lesson, in fact, she begins with it. Overall suggestion: Read for 20 minutes a day (goal with intermediate-advanced students) and prioritize it first in your practice routine.
Priority to Perform. One of Mary Craig's big priorities is for her students to perform in local guilds, competitions and performances very frequently. Students are "kept very busy in the Spring" with a myriad of these events. Their performance skills grow tremendously and they are constantly being encouraged to play their very best and prepare their very hardest.
Focus on Technique. I'd like to think that most teachers think heavily about technique and what they bequeath on their students. I was particularly impressed with the students I saw for their beautiful "piano hands", relaxed arms, and gorgeous sound. Mary Craig uses a unique combination of scale, arpeggio and technical exercises in the course of lessons and home practice suggestions to cement these skills and the results are fantastic.
Teamwork with Parents. Perhaps one of the most significant and beautiful interactions I observed in Ohio were between teacher and parent. For anyone reading this who has worked with or acted as a "Suzuki parent," the importance cannot be stressed heavily enough. Mary Craig demonstrated an ability to convey a huge amount of information to the parents in very specific terms. Parents of her students would hurriedly jot down the exact amount of of repetitions for certain passages, take videos and photos when appropriate, and ask thoughtful questions about the home practice. The success of Mary Craig's students can be attributed largely to their teacher's dedication, experience and guidance, but also to this often silent but profound understanding that parent and teacher were one team, united by a commitment to hard work and a love of the piano.
State of Grace. As a lifelong learner of piano, I have witnessed countless teachers. Each one has something to offer. And chances are that if you do become a teacher, it's not for the paycheck. A friend of mine in college once said he liked the idea that nobody chooses to be a musician, it chooses you. It is a vocation. For this reason, the great majority of music teachers care deeply about their work. Despite this, many of us slip into unproductive patterns: getting frustrated, forgetting to remain positive because even though the piece was beautiful, we've talked about that wrong fingering SO MANY TIMES!, wondering if the student has been listening to their CD and practicing enough, being resentful of summer camp because it robs the children of their energy when they arrive at your house half asleep at 4 p.m. These are feelings I'm guessing every teacher and parent has felt. What I observed in Ohio, however, was a state of grace regardless of circumstance. Mary Craig never seemed to get frustrated, never seemed rushed, never appeared overwhelmed. She had opinions, strong ones, that were conveyed with compassion above all else. Parents and children seemed to listen intently when she spoke, and would diligently do as she said not because they were being forced to, but because they wanted to.
When introducing a student to the group of us teachers, Mary Craig would often end with "...and ____ just LOVES to play the piano!" The student would stand beaming in front of us, shaking their head "YES." My grandfather would often say "There is no profession more noble than teaching." Indeed, when you observe teaching so good, of a bond so deep, of so much truly hard work accomplished, this saying could not be more true. Thank you Mary Craig for your commitment to teaching, and for sharing this passion of yours with us.