My Experience at Autumn Sonata in Old Bennington, Vermont

by Carol Barth

In October, 2001, twenty-two adult pianists gathered for eight days of a morning to night immersion in playing the piano. What an exhilarating experience! Friday night dinner was in progress when we arrived at the 42-room turn-of-the-century home. People seemed genuinely pleased to see one other again, and each newcomer was soon made to feel welcome as a member of the group.

I was to share a room with three other women: Nancy (whom I have known for many years), Helen, and another first timer, Ann. Immediately, I sensed a good connection. In our getting-to-know-you questions to one other, I learned that one of Ann's closest friends was my college roommate.

The daily routine started on Saturday. All of our names were on "The Wheel." This assigned us to a piano, a practice shift and a chore. The wheel was rotated one turn each day. After breakfast, we had an hour and a half to practice and a theory class. After lunch, we again had an hour and a half practice session and a special interest class. During the late afternoon, we attending monster rehearsals, which were an assortment of four-hand pieces played on multiple pianos. Alternating with this was another hour-long practice session. Before dinner, participants gathered in the living room to chat and munch on appetizers. Dinner was excellently prepared by Hans, an affable Dutch baker and chef, and usually served buffet style around 7:00 P.M. After dinner there was a masterclass or lecture-recital held in the living room.

There were at least two dozen pianos in the house: eight grand pianos, the rest studio uprights--Boston, Kawai and Yamaha. The practice wheel thoughtfully rotated each of us from grand to upright, from extremely fine instrument to quite acceptable piano.

On Saturday morning, everyone was up and ready to start the routine. It felt good to really plunge into practicing. I had spent a substantial amount of time at home considering how much music and what pieces I would concentrate on improving. I had a plan and I wanted to make noteworthy strides towards achieving my goals. After attending the first theory class, I was pleased to find out that a more advanced session would be offered. Eric, the teacher, had a very solid understanding and presented the information simply and logically. I really enjoyed analyzing different piano pieces and was somewhat surprised that I remembered as much as I did from college.

The afternoon and evening classes were varied and interesting. We heard repertoire that's not commonly performed; scale fingerings were reviewed; general concepts in interpreting phrases, dynamics and other aspects of musicality were discussed; and the different faculty members played piano quite beautifully. One faculty member spoke about her originally composed and published pieces, another about her involvement in jazz. Two masterclasses were presented which gave participants the opportunity to get some guidance to improve their performance.

Polly, Sonata's director, has a remarkable ability to approach each adult student in a manner that makes that performer comfortable, quickly evaluate what needs improving, explain what she'd like to hear in a way that allows the pianist to understand how to play it differently, and keep the audience involved and interested. She is truly a gifted teacher! In my case, she decided to have the audience sing the main melody from the opening section of a Rachmaninoff Prelude in a resounding "bomm" while clapping and stomping the rhythm. I was instructed only to play the chordal accompaniment. Wow! I could really tell what was supposed to be primary and what was to be secondary to any listener. Hopefully, now I convey that difference when I play the piece.

As the days passed, I learned the personalities of my fellow pianists, and learned who played what music. It became an intriguing game to stop practicing for a few minutes, listen to what else was being practiced, and try to decide who was playing. Sometimes, I immediately figured it out and sometimes I was quite surprised to learn who was playing a particular piece. The others were also learning about me, were encouraging and showed interest both in me and my piano playing. I recognized and appreciated this camaraderie.

During the week, I had five lessons from five different teachers. I wanted as much guidance as I could get on Rachmaninoff's Prelude in g minor. Each of the teachers focused on a different aspect of my playing of the piece. I received very good guidance and no contradicting advice. I decided to perform three movements from Borodin's Petite Suite in the final concert, and only wanted to play it for one of the faculty. I liked the suggestions given to me and feel that the new refinements allow me to play it quite musically.

The final concert was a marathon! Twenty-one musicians performed thirty-five pieces as piano solos and duets, along with singing and flute playing. I loved listening to all of it. So much was presented exquisitely. "Monsters", fourhanded piano music played on multiple pianos, comprised the final segment of this truly special performance.

I met many new friends at Autumn Sonata, 2001. They are very fine pianists, and I respect their musicality. Once before, I experienced this incredible, soaring feeling. In July, 1990, when I returned from Vienna, Austria, after participating in a month-long seminar about Mozart and his Vienna, I knew my own personal paradise--to learn about and experience music, and to be with others who love it as much as I do--had been reality. My own personal paradise has now been reality twice, eleven years ago in Vienna, and, very recently, in Old Bennington, Vt.