By Karen Peterson

For Hans and Nancy Benning, of Benning Violins in Studio City, Los Angeles, making fine instruments for the world’s finest players is a four-generation family tradition—and so is giving back to the global community, in their case to orphans, incarcerated juveniles, and countless others in need in Baja, Mexico.

In their 70s, neither has retired from the lutherie business. Yet, as they have for more than 35 years, the Bennings continue to dedicate their time and considerable talent to build buildings—German-born Hans was a carpenter before he turned his skills to fashioning violins, cellos, and violas—and inspire music-making by teaching and donating scores of instruments to an orphanage and mission in the coastal village of Vicente Guerrero, about 175 miles south of Tijuana.

Along the way, they met, mentored, and nurtured a young talent, Tito Quiroz. Then eight years old, now 28 and an attorney, as well as a violinist, Quiroz has taken “the blessing, the teaching, and the values” he received from the Bennings to carry their legacy of service forward.

Six years ago, Quiroz founded a music school in Ensenada, Baja’s third-largest city, and commemorated his mentors by naming it the Benning Academia de Musica. By the end of the first year, the academy had 80 students and ten teachers—today, it boasts 700 students and more than 40 instructors.

Quiroz didn’t stop there in his own mission to spread music across the Baja countryside. He convinced the Mexican prison system to allow him to teach music and violin to the young, but hardened, inmates at an Ensenada jail. It was something of a miracle, he said, for the prison to allow an outsider in. Even more miraculously, not only was he given the green light, so was Hans, who still expresses amazement that “an American was allowed inside a Mexican prison” to build, as he did, a music studio for the incarcerated musicians.

“Music changes lives,” says Hans, for two decades luthier to violin legend Jascha Heifetz and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among many others. “I’ve been in music for 50 years. I know it changes lives.”

Building a Future for Others

“If you’d asked me 30 years ago if one day I’d be building houses and working with a rehabilitation center, I’d have said, ‘You’re nuts.’ But one thing leads to another,” he adds.

That initial “one thing” was ignited at a chance meeting in the late 1970s when the Bennings were seated next to another Los Angeles couple at a St. Patrick’s Day dance. Neither couple danced, Nancy recalls with a laugh, so they began to talk, which is how the Bennings learned about the orphanage and mission that Chuck, an LA fireman, and wife Charla Pereau had established in 1966.

From that encounter, the Bennings began what became a bi-weekly, 700-mile round-trip journey from their LA home to their friends’ mission, Foundation for His Ministry. Today, it serves 90 children, many of them not technically orphans, but children whose parents work in the nearby tomato fields for a major grocery chain. “They have to leave their kids in huts when they’re working,” Nancy says, “so they bring them to the mission. Others are abandoned children, who the government brings to the mission and they grow up there.”

The Pereaus’ ministry also has expanded over the decades to now include educational and daycare services; a community cost-free medical, dental, and vision center that cares for upward of 10,000; a learning center for disabled children; music and sports; print, upholstery, and auto shops; and an organic macadamia-nut orchard, one of North America’s largest.

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Nancy and Hans Benning

Hans helped build many of the structures on the property, and also a crown jewel, Rancho de Cristo, which serves as a drug rehabilitation center with living area, a church, and prayer room. Its residents, in turn, helped Hans build the prison music room. “There were some very touching moments between the Rancho fellows and the young prisoners,” Hans says. “The rehab fellows shared that drugs and alcohol don’t work. The young men could see where they could end up.”

A decade into their service to the ministry—both say that their presence there is “God working in our lives”—Nancy began teaching violin, spurred to action when a doctor from Quebec started a music program featuring horns and guitars, but no violins. “I felt I had to bring strings to the program,” she says, and she did—all of them from the Benning’s shop on Studio City’s famed Ventura Boulevard. Each student received a Benning violin.

“They could keep the instrument as long as they played,” Nancy adds. “It was theirs to practice on and use.” Nancy spent the next 20 years teaching the children at the orphanage, at one point spending an hour with 16 students spread over a two-day period. “I would talk to each one about taking music seriously. I gave them three months to decide [whether to continue lessons], and to see if they would remain engaged,” she said. “Even if they didn’t continue after that, they would leave with an understanding of music.” Her teaching method was straightforward: It was a classic music education focused on theory and instruction, and calling on the tried-and-true “Tune a Day” books. In the end, the upward of 80 children that Nancy taught over the years “knew what they were doing, musically” when they emerged from her tutelage.

An Enduring Friendship

Nancy had one initial criterion for accepting potential students: They had to be at least ten years old to begin lessons. Tito Quiroz, who became and remains a much-beloved presence in the Benning world—and vice-versa in his—was the first and only to break that rule.

Quiroz was eight when he approached Nancy and asked if she’d teach him how to play the violin. “I said no, that he was too young,” Nancy says. “And he started to cry!”

Quiroz also remembers that first encounter, but before his conversation with Strings begins in earnest, this interviewer hears rustling on the line. Quiroz was reaching for the violin that the Bennings had given him 20 years ago. “When I talk about them, I like to have the violin next to me,” he explains, continuing with his reminiscence. “I had heard an American playing ‘La Cucaracha.’ It made me fall in love with music. So I asked Nancy if she’d teach me, and she said ‘No.’ I started crying, she gave me a hug, and said, ‘You will be my first student aged eight.’”

What emerged was a classical-music education and a passion for music and violins that Quiroz has showered on the city of Ensenada and beyond, not just at his music academy, but at frequent community recitals and free concerts, both impromptu and celebrated—like the one featuring mariachi great Jose Hernandez and his Sol de Mexico.

Hernandez didn’t charge for the concert—Quiroz remains in awe of the generosity, remarking, “Nancy taught me classical; Jose taught me mariachi.”

The academy itself is alive with musical talent, from its instructors to its students, but also its visiting artists. Master violinist and pianist, and Heifetz’s last accompanist, Ayke Agus performed and led a master class there in late March. Violinist Mitchell Newman of the LA Philharmonic regularly leads master classes, and also plays inside the prison with Quiroz. “He comes every year to teach the kids,” Quiroz says, “and to the jail to teach a master class.”

Not bad for an endeavor that began in a garage, though it wasn’t primarily borne out of Quiroz’s love of and talent for music—initially, it was started to earn money to pay for the pain medicine his dying father needed but couldn’t afford.

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Tito Quiroz instructs the jail’s most hardened inmates

A Wide World of Music

In the beginning, Quiroz had no idea who the Bennings were, beyond the work they were doing for the Pereaus’ ministry—that is until they took him to their shop in Studio City when he was in his early teens. “To me, they were just two angels,” he says. “I didn’t know they were famous luthiers.”

Indeed, the Bennings come from well-known luthier stock: Nancy’s father, Paul Toenniges, studied violin-making at the urging of his brother-in-law and luthier, the late Carl G. Becker Sr. of Chicago, working at the prestigious Chicago-based Carl Becker and Son Ltd. before moving to Los Angeles and opening Studio City Music in 1950.

Hans and Nancy met at Germany’s famed, 150-year-old Violinmaking School in Mittenwald, where both were students, and took over the family business when Toenniges retired in 1978. Their children and grandchildren are following family tradition: son Eric took naturally to violin-making; son Brian is a professional violinist and also works at the shop; grandson Nathan last summer, at age 14, completed his first violin; and his brother, Garrett, is a cellist.

As far as their retirement, either from the ministry work or the shop, neither is on the agenda. For Hans, retiring from Benning Violins would be a waste of his peak years. “You don’t retire as a violin-maker. Age is a benefit,” he explains. “After 40 years, your reputation starts. Reputation is everything. It [means] you’ve proved yourself time after time.”

The Bennings’ prominence in the classical-music scene offered Quiroz the opportunity to expand his world—they took him, and later students from the academy, to LA Philharmonic performances and introduced him to star players as well as to the philharmonic’s star music director, Gustavo Dudamel, himself a product of the El Sistema education system in his native Venezuala. It was meeting that came at a time when Quiroz was feeling weighted. “He encouraged me to keep going. It was an important moment for me,” he says, adding of Dudamel, “He was so humble.” Energized, Quiroz pushed ahead, with his prison project in particular. As well meaning as it was, going into any prison can be unnerving. “The first week, one of them tried to stab me with a pencil,” he said, noting that the warden had chosen young men who were serving the longest sentences, “the hardened ones.” Admittedly intimidated, Quiroz told the first 23 students he would be teaching them classical violin and the meaning of music.

“They looked at me as if I were crazy,” a sentiment that the prison itself possibly shared when Quiroz later asked if he could build, with Hans’s help, a music room inside the jail. They did build the music room—the money was raised through donations—and the prison music experiment has been a resounding success, so much so that other prisons in Mexico are taking a look, Quiroz says. The reason: recidivism has been reduced by more than 50 percent, from the average 70 percent return rate, among student inmates.

More Than a Music School

Quiroz’s music academy attracts hundreds of students, yet he continues his outreach, from a young prostitute he located on the mean streets of Ensenada working to earn money for her mother—the 14 year old is at the academy now—to 12 nuns, who happened by the academy and asked how much classes cost, also mentioning how much they’d like to form an ensemble, adding, “but we can’t pay.”

They didn’t have to: The academy offers sliding-scale scholarships—and Hans, said Quiroz, “donated $5,000 worth of violins, cellos, a bass, and flutes” for the sisters to play. Looking to the future, Quiroz sees the academy as more than a music school. His vision is a place where “kids can have a quality education, with a regular curriculum.” To that end, he’s getting the needed permits and launching the effort this year with a kindergarten.

Like his mentors the Bennings, Quiroz’s deep spirituality guides him and his work at the academy. “Music is used to seek God,” he said, adding, “This isn’t about me. It’s about bringing God’s grace into these kids’ lives.”

 

This is one of an ongoing series of articles on classical-music players reaching out to the incarcerated.

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