50 summers, 88 keys and thousands of students

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BENNINGTON — It was four weeks into the summer of 1969 when Rein and Rosamond van der Linde looked out from their house and saw their daughter Polly playing outside with her friends.

The decade known for Vietnam, lunar exploration, assassinations and other societal tumult was drawing to an end, but life had remained peaceful in Polly's North Bennington neighborhood. Still, her parents were of a mind to give her something more constructive to do with her summer days.

"They didn't want to separate me from my friends, so they said come on in and let's do piano together," Polly van der Linde recalled.

This impromptu gathering of van der Linde, her four siblings and youngsters from the neighborhood evolved into the Summer Sonatina International Piano Camp. Fifty years later, the sounds of piano are reverberating from every room in the house during the day. About 5,000 students have gone through the program, which is now run as a camp where all students live together.

The 2019 version of the Summer Sonatina International Piano Camp began June 23 and concludes July 27. The 140 students registered for this year's camp are spending between one and five weeks living in a former convent at 5 Catamount Lane. The program has been based there since 1976.

"I think the reason why it works is there's the commonality of the piano," van der Linde said. "That's where you're making your friends. It's all about the piano."

There are more than 30 pianos and two electronic keyboards in the house. The instruments have been placed in nearly every room. During a recent tour of the premises, van der Linde opened doors on students playing pianos in a linen closet, a laundry room, a space under the stairs, in bedrooms and even a mudroom next to the kitchen. They were playing an assortment of music, including various classical pieces and modern compositions.

This year, there are students attending from Japan and France. One of the instructors is from China.

"The students want to come here," van der Linde said. "Parents don't dump their children here."

The summer piano camp's director described the program as non-competitive. Students attend in order to become better musicians, but also to have fun. Such an arrangement means a 7-year-old with incredible skills can be practicing down the hall from a novice player of 15.

"The beginners see what they can become, and the advanced players see how quickly they've learned," van der Linde said. "And that's why it works."

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Tuition is $1,225 a week, but some of the students attend on scholarships. One of the scholars, Gabriella Giorgi, 13, from Shaftsbury, recently sat in front of a piano in her room. She was singing the lyrics and playing "This is Gospel," a 2013 song by the rock band Panic! At The Disco.

"It's kind of crazy how much people can learn in one week, and how many friendships and bonds are created here," Gabriella said.

The academic day begins at 8 a.m. and concludes at 6 p.m.

Students practice for an hour, three times a day. A bell is sounded in the house to let the pupils known when the practice session has ended so they can rotate off a keyboard to free it for another student. Other time is spent receiving individual instruction or in classrooms. Non-musical trips and activities give the students respites from the piano.

This year, van der Linde put 60 people on the payroll to work during Summer Sonatina.

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"I started my teaching career here, 20 years ago," said George Lopez, taking a break from working with a student at a piano in one of the downstairs rooms. "And it took me three years to figure out how to navigate this house."

Lopez, a Brooklyn native now living in Maine, became involved with the school after meeting van der Linde's mother while he was a piano teacher in New Hampshire. Lopez has imparted his piano knowledge to hundreds of Summer Sonatina students since 1999, but has also gleaned plenty about the human condition.

"I've learned a ton, dealing with so many different types of personalities," he said. "I've learned a lot about people. It's really a people game, teaching."

Polly van der Linde has been involved with every Summer Sonatina since 1969. She continued attending the sessions until she graduated from high school. She then became a counselor for a few years.

When she was 22, her parents allowed her to run the camp for a week. The following year, it was for two weeks.

"In the third year, my parents kind of said, 'It's yours,'" van der Linde said. She is also an instructor during the summer session, and enjoys teaching from the Romantic repertoire.

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She and her husband, Dale Cobb, purchased the business from Rosamond van der Linde in 1998. Rein van der Linde, a longtime Bennington College mathematics professor and dean, died in 1996.

"It's amazing, because there never was a plan to create a piano camp," Polly van der Linde said.

Summer Sonatina is not the only musical activity undertaken at 5 Catamount Lane. Beginning in 1979, adults have attended 10-day camps.

"This house is occupied parts of every month, except for February and December," van der Linde said.

To celebrate a half-century of summertime musical schooling, various commemorative events and performances have been scheduled to run until Summer Sonatina's end of session.

Alumni have been asked to come to Bennington for a reunion, and van der Linde hopes hundreds will show up. One alumnus, Mackenzie Melemed, will appear and play a solo concert at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., on Friday, July 26.

"He's right on the doorstop of going big-time," van der Linde said. "It's so exciting to watch that."

The following morning at 10:30, Summer Sonatina students will gather at the Piano Key Compass at Bennington's Four Corners. "The Bennington Stomp," written by faculty member Joel A. Martin, will be premiered at the event and played on four pianos.

"The kids are going to be singing a chorus line in which the lyrics are all talking about the history of the camp," van der Linde said. "It'll be really fun."

Charles Erickson is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.


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