Local Lifestyle

Friday, Aug 23 2013 09:35 AM

HERB BENHAM: Sound of music was what made teacher's day

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    By Photo courtesy of Venturino family

    Sandy Venturino at the piano in December 2007 with, from left, granddaughter Ally, granddaughter Jessica, and daughter Laura Hill.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

She was about the only one who didn't think I was crazy when I asked if I could take voice lessons. That made me like her right away. However, she didn't coddle you or tell you that you were something you weren't.

Sandy Venturino, who passed away recently, taught voice and piano lessons from her home for 35 years. I was one of her students.

Our first disagreement was after we'd had a few sessions together and she'd heard enough to label me a bass.

I told her I didn't want to be a bass and that I had always seen myself as a tenor.

"No, you're a bass," she said firmly, turning the page from the scales we had completed to "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," one of the English songs good for voice training but that always made me wonder how many basses had taken their own lives after singing it.

"You hear about the Three Tenors," I said. "They fill large auditoriums. Have you ever heard of the Three Basses?"

She shook her head. I was a bass. All the pleading in the world couldn't make me a tenor.

Lessons were 4 p.m. Thursday or Friday. Like my Grandmother Benham, Sandy would meet me at the door unless she was playing her baby grand, which she bought with her lesson money. She was proud of that piano. When I arrived, there would be a glass of iced tea on her side and ice water on mine.

After greeting one another, she asked for my lesson book, a small notebook in which she kept track of my progress. We worked on songs that included: "Fur Musik," "Love Has Eyes," "O Bellissimi Capelli" and "Silent Noon."

"Did you practice?" she would ask.

Sometimes I was truthful. I had practiced. Sometimes I would fudge and say I had practiced even if practicing consisted only of what I did in the car or accompanying Vince Gill while working on refinishing the floors. It was all singing, wasn't it?

When I had mastered a piece, or not mastered it but exhausted both of us in the process, she would ask what kind of sticker I wanted in my lesson book. Stickers included yellow happy faces, musical notes, silver stars and a blue star that had a big enthusiastic "Yes," in the center.

It was like being 10 again. I liked being 10 again. I would have paid for the feeling that I had shed 50 years alone.

When the weather was warm I looked for Gert, the male tortoise she found walking down the street on July 4 more than 40 years ago. Gert, who lived in a hole underneath a plywood lean-to in the backyard, liked the sun, but did not care for the wind. Sandy had Gert and masses of doves, robins, blue jays and sparrows, which she fed.

"You can't believe how much I spend on those birds," she said.

She was married to Dick Venturino, the late, "thanks for holding" voice so many heard when calling Bakersfield businesses. Sandy had friends in her church choir, grown children and grandchildren who checked in on her, but Gert, the birds who grew accustomed to her generosity and her students were important to her, too.

I wanted to ask her if I was her favorite student, but like the conversation about being a bass or a tenor, I wasn't sure I was prepared for her answer. After the lesson concluded, I'd take my water glass to the sink and she'd give me a Ziploc bag of goodies: chocolate raisins, sweet crisps, chocolate mints and Halloween or Christmas candy.

"Sandy, I see you've been bad again," I would say.

After the lessons, she'd show off her collection of windup singing animals and figures.

She had hundreds and they included a sheep that sang "The Lonely Goatherd" from "The Sound of Music," a duck that did a credible version of "You Are My Sunshine," a lion family with a cheesy rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and a toucan that would repeat anything you said to it. She delighted in showing her students the new toys or the ones that made their annual appearance during Halloween or Christmas.

Some of our best moments together were when we got out the white binder and sang songs from musicals like "There's a Small Hotel," "On the Street Where You Live," "Send in the Clowns," "What a Wonderful World" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."

She particularly loved "Bring Him Home" from "Les Miserables."

I told her I wanted to sing those songs because my dad had sung many of them in local musicals.

"Have you sung for your family, yet?" she'd ask.

I told her I hadn't but would. I took her question as encouragement that this was something I should consider.

A few months ago, I noticed she was having trouble talking, especially on the phone. However, in person, even though her hands didn't work like she wanted them to, she was a fine teacher who was in control of the lesson. She could still play, which was better than talking anyway.

She'd apologize for her mistakes.

"Sandy, you're just trying to catch up with me," I said.

When I couldn't make the lesson, she'd say, "I really missed you last week." She was firm, but sentimental.

Sandy Venturino died in her home a few weeks ago. She was where she wanted to be -- close to her piano, her songbooks -- rows and rows of them; and Gert, the scattering flocks of birds and her windup musical toys.

I never sang for my family, but I sang for Sandy. She was my voice teacher. I'd like to think that one day, I'll be singing tenor in her choir. We shall see.

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