OLD BENNINGTON, VT. — For a piano student, playing the sonatas of the greats — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart — remains a majestic triumph: reaching a goal that makes years of practicing worth it.
But even musical geniuses have to start somewhere. The sonata's simpler cousin, the sonatina, often is the way for a young player to find themselves on the ivory keys.
In summer, what this means is children playing piano in the international standard bearer for keyboard immersion: the Summer Sonatina piano camp. Its teachers work under the guidance of owner and director Polly van der Linde.
In 1969, van der Linde's parents, Rein and Rosamond, founded what is known today as Sonatina Enterprises, in North Bennington, Vt. They moved it to its present Old Bennington location in 1976. Sonata (10 day) and Intermezzi (five day) camps for adults run throughout the year, and Sonatina (one to five weeks) sessions for children occur in summer.
Van der Linde said that Sonatinas in particular are opportunities to develop the whole child at the piano.
"Teaching young piano students is different because we need to make sure we're supplying them with a balanced diet of technique, repertoire and music theory," van der Linde said. "It's our responsibility to offer young pianists as much information as possible. With Summer Sonatinas, we're only able to work with students on a yearly basis. Because our return rate is so high, we enjoy observing how the young pianists grow and mature each year."
This dynamic of "return" and "coming home" seems legion among anyone associated with Sonatina. In fact, a word heard most often among the faithful is "family."
One such true believer is 20-year old Siena Facciolo, a music education and piano major at Montreal's McGill University. Facciolo came to her first Sonatina as a young girl, and found a music experience that affected the rest of her life.
"As a student, I remember feeling like Sonatina was the only place in the whole world where I could be truly myself," Facciolo said. "Nobody cared if I just wanted to sit in a corner and read books during my off shifts. Other kids would totally get my random dancing and singing outbursts. Spontaneous sing-a-longs at one of the pianos were a daily activity."
It was the first place, Facciolo continued, where everyone around her understood and shared her love of music. She said Sonatina felt "more like home than public school or any other camp ever did."
George Lopez, Artist in Residence at Bowdoin College and a Sonatina faculty member for 15 years, said music is tied up with powerful emotions and more of a personal journey for the adult learner.
"But with kids, learning the piano is anything from fun to achievement to the sheer pleasure of playing one's favorite song," Lopez said.
Even so, the Sonatina experience is not just at the keyboard.
Forty-two students per week from ages 7-16 attend the one-week Sonatinas, which run five times each summer for an open enrollment of five weeks where students can come for any combination of weeks. While emphasis is on all aspects of music, forming lasting personal relationships with fellow musicians is one of Sonatina's stated goals.
The atmosphere is truly one of family: in a historic mansion that already houses 30 pianos, everyone — students, faculty, staff — lives under one roof. The students eat on-site prepared meals, and participate in an extensive array of recreational activities.
Today, Facciolo "comes home" not as a student, but as a junior faculty member. As a budding member of that cohort, Facciolo said the joy of teaching five different students every day is unsurpassed.
"Imagine being able to teleport to five different countries and have dinner with a local family each day," Facciolo said. "Or think about being able to see your five best friends who have all moved away in one day, and you can start to imagine how awesome it is."
Over the years, the school has been featured the New York Times, Seventeen, Stratton, Yankee, and Vermont Life magazines.
Further media exposure included spots on "CNN News Night with Aaron Brown," NPR host Noah Adams' book: "Piano Lessons: Music, Love and True Adventures," and co-founder Rosamond van der Linde's memoir, "A Piano in Every Room."
From June 25 — July 16, Summer Sonatina students will perform free public piano and choral concerts every Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Bennington Center for the Arts.
"Some people think that we only have camps for a few weeks each summer, but, in reality, over one-third of the year there are piano camps going on here," van der Line said. "Over 4,500 people have come through our doors. That's 45,000 fingers."
IF YOU GO ...
What: Summer Sonatina students perform public piano and choral concerts
When: 7 p.m., every Thursday, June 25-July 16
Where: Bennington Center for the Arts, 44 Gypsy Lane, Bennington, Vt.
Information: 802-442-9197, or visit sonatina.com
—Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist