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The Piano Lady

Maui musician offers lessons with love and passion.

October 6, 2011
Barry Sultanoff

Affectionately dubbed “The Piano Lady,” this devoted dynamo of the art of piano playing affirms, by example, that the core of all musical expression is love: love of music; love of the feeling of attunement that arises in the body when beautiful music is played, sung and listened to; and, most importantly, love of life itself!

With her primal passion for music augmented by degrees in psychology and education (M.Ed., University of Hawai‘i), certification in developmental disabilities and on-the-job training in raising her three children, Bell is re-emerging as South Maui’s piano teacher extraordinaire. She’ll even come to your home.

In fact, she prefers to come to your home. “As an educational therapist, I’ve always worked with students in their homes, so it just seems natural to me to offer piano instruction in the student’s familiar environment. Music should be fun; I hope to inspire kids to love music as much as I do. Believe me, I understand the other extreme. I’ve been there; those painful, horrible lessons with a strict disciplinarian hovering over me demanding perfection. That’s not fun!”

Article Photos

Suzie Bell inspires her students to love music and to play for the pure joy of it.

And there’s another practical reason for keeping her teaching home-based. In these times of strained budgets, families can seldom manage the cost of a traditional piano. Usually, however, they can afford an electronic keyboard, which serves as a nice alternative at home.

“It makes most sense for the student to learn—and practice—on his or her own instrument. One hour a week at the piano [at a lesson in Bell’s home] is nowhere near enough. Practice is necessary for growth,” she said.

Bell comes by her love of music honestly. Her childhood home in Grand Rapids, Mich., always resounded with music and melody. In those days, the family would gather around the grand piano, expertly played by Bell’s mother, a concert pianist who was one of a long line of piano teachers.

In the early 1880s, in fact, her grandmother, Caroline Barney, gave recitals in her Ohio living room with the famous pianist Edward McDowell. McDowell, who composed during the Romantic period of the late 19th century, was an early member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His piano suite, Woodland Sketches, includes his best-known piece, To a Wild Rose.

Both of Bell’s sisters also have music degrees and currently teach piano.

Bell is, at heart, an inventor and an iconoclast, eschewing teaching styles that can be dully formulaic. “I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve. Of course, everyone needs to have a good foundation in music theory, but exploring rhythms and styles in new, innovative ways is what brings out a student’s passion,” she explained.

Bell’s teaching spans a wide range of ages. Using her certification as an educational therapist, she’s worked for more than 20 years with families dealing with autism and attention disorders. She’s often taught piano in home-school settings. At one point in her variegated career, she even traveled to her Seabury Hall students’ homes to help them accomplish their homework.

Recently having learned that the Kalama Heights retirement home in Kīhei had a working grand piano at their facility, Bell proposed that she volunteer her time to host a monthly sing-along for the residents. (The idea had occurred to her because she’d once played for her grandmother and friends at their retirement home.) Kalama has now embraced Bell’s offer: The kickoff gathering will include the crooning of Broadway tunes; Cole Porter and Rogers-and-Hammerstein sing-alongs will follow.

Bell also aspires to share her love of piano with younger adults in South Maui. She’s currently organizing a group of adults who, like herself, want to play entirely for the love of it. “It will be like a book club. We’ll meet at each other’s homes, share something new about music, play some four-handed duets, and just hang out and listen,” she said.

She also has stacks of sheet music (“from classics to jazz”) that she’s willing to lend to interested parties.

Of her myriad creative activities, Bell said, “I admit, I’m sort of an overachiever! But I love people and have especially enjoyed working with children all my life. This is how I get to live my passion, immersed in the timeless flow of great music!”

 
 

 

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