Young pianists converge in Bennington
BENNINGTON -- With accommodations for 42 campers and a staggering total of 30 pianos placed strategically in bedrooms, hallways, closets and even the laundry room, Polly van der Linde's home on Catamount Lane invites the students of her Summer Sonatina piano camp to completely immerse themselves in music for up to five weeks at a time.
Now celebrating their 45th summer, the van der Linde family started Summer Sonatina in 1969 at their home in North Bennington when they couldn't find a piano camp elsewhere for their own children. In 1978 the family relocated the camp (and their home) to Old Bennington, taking over a 42-room former convent and packing it with as many pianos and bunk beds as it can fit, along with a professional kitchen to feed all the hungry pianists who visit.
After starting out as Summer Sonatina's first student when she was 10 years old, Polly van der Linde is now the owner of the house and director of the summer camp, which welcomes young pianists ages 7 to 16. She also runs year-round Sonata and Intermezzo piano study programs for adults, which she started when parents of her young Sonatina students said they wanted their own camp.
All of the camps are open to players of all abilities, including complete beginners. Students come to Bennington from around the country and the world for the Sonatina camp. Some of this year's campers are traveling from Spain, Russia and Turkey.
"We can pretty much promise that in one week, a total beginner can learn almost a year's worth of work," van der Linde said. "We really like having all different levels here at camp, so there's no pecking order. That way the beginners can hear the advanced students and think that one day they can play like that, and the advanced ones see really how quickly the beginners learn."
Summer Sonatina starts up during the last week of June and runs through the end of July, giving campers the option to study for as long as they want, from one week to all five. Each week includes at least four private lessons with the camp's staff of piano teachers as well as a wide variety of classes on performance, music theory and other related musical topics. On any given day at camp, students spend at least three hours practicing independently or working with instructors.
"Some of the kids have never practiced more than a half hour, so this is a big jump for them," van der Linde explained.
Every day the students are assigned to a new piano to play, so they may move from the house's Monster Room, which contains three grand pianos for group pieces, to an upright in the upstairs linen closet or the tiny Harry Potter room, which is tucked under the house's main staircase.
Van der Linde describes the group practice time as a particularly noisy and sometimes challenging process for some of her students.
"They all find their place to go, and you hear all the pianos going at once," she said. "For some people that's difficult, because the rooms are not soundproofed, but in some ways it's very important for them to learn how to focus in on their piece and tune out everything else. If they can do that, they're golden."
Sonatina students perform two concerts every week, including a formal performance at 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Bennington Center for the Arts -- where students get to play a rare, Italian-built Fazioli piano -- and an informal performance in the house at 10:30 Sunday mornings. Both performances are open to the public each week.
"One of my favorite things is after the students perform, everyone claps and they're excited, and then they walk back to their seat and they get like 20 high fives," said faculty member Claire Hamilton, who started as a camper and has now been involved with Summer Sonatina for 15 years. "I think that it's the funniest thing, they're like ‘Yeah! You nailed that sonata!' They're so excited about everyone else's music. I think it's so nice to watch -- they're so proud of themselves, and their peers are so proud of them."
Daniel Krane and his twin sister, Rebecca, are also Sonatina veterans -- 11 years after they started as campers, they both now work as junior counselors.
"It's like a second home," he said. "It's just a place where people can really be themselves and be comfortable being who you are. I call this the place where nerdy kids come to be cool, and I really like that."
If you go ...
What: Summer Sonatina piano camp performances
When: Through July
Formal performance at 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Bennington Center for the Arts
Informal performance in the house at 10:30 a.m. Sundays
Where: Bennington Center
for the Arts, 44 Gypsy Lane, Bennington
5 Catamount Lane, Bennington
Information: Concerts are also streamed live online at
sonatina.com and archived.
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