Born to Play

After recording an album that spent eight weeks at number one on the Billboard Classical charts, what do you reach for next? For the 5 Browns, the answer was their second album, No Boundaries, which spent 21 weeks at number one. Now this piano quintet is back with their newest album, titled Browns in Blue. They’ve appeared on Oprah, 60 Minutes and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. All five attended Julliard School of Music and have toured across the globe. Oh, and they’re all siblings.

The 5 Browns are Desirae, Deondra, Melody, Gregory, and Ryan. Raised in Utah, they each began playing the piano at age 3. Their mother, Lisa Brown, is a trained opera singer and wanted the kids to have music in their lives. In the Mormon family’s attempt to “raise five good people,” the Browns raised a home of extraordinary musicians. The five were home schooled to allow for more practice time, and before most teenagers were driving, each of the Brown children had debuted with a symphony orchestra.

Not only is their age and virtuosity astonishing, but an ensemble of five pianos is relatively unheard of. Since the group signed with Sony BMG and released their first album in 2005, they’ve filled concerts halls to the brim, drawing adults and children alike. They perform their share of Rachmaninof, Debussy and Chopin, but they also throw in pieces more familiar to the populace, including Rhapsody in Blue and Westside Story. They’re passionate about showing young people, often jaded on classical music, that Brahms is fun too.

The 5 Browns are thrilled to welcome one of their generation’s most electric pianists as a permanent member. Gold medalist at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition and frequent soloist in concert halls around the world, Stephen Beus has performed with the group during four previous seasons. He brings impeccable technique, effortless musicality, and an unquenchable joy for music in every performance.

Aisha Burns: The five of you have a mission to open up young people's eyes to classical music. Have you seen the fruits of your labor? Can you share a success story?
From Greg - Yes, this is our mission as The 5 Browns, and as we first set out to accomplish this seemingly lofty goal, we weren't really sure that we could ever see any sort of success. However, we have been very pleasantly surprised to find that, to a large degree, we have seen changes in the attitudes of a lot of young people concerning this wonderful music. First off, we're finding that about a third of the audience in every almost every concert we play has consisted of people of college age and younger, and for classical music, this is very uncommon. After every concert we go out to meet the audience and sign stuff, and the line is always filled with the sweetest little kids who ask us cute questions like "do you ever get tired of practicing" or "what pieces were you playing at my age". We also get a ton of kids and adults who are coming to a classical concert for the first time in their lives, and they'll say things like "I never knew classical music could be so much fun". All people need in order to realize this fact is a vehicle to introduce this music to them in a way that they can relate to, and after that, they're more likely to want to search it out on their own. I hope we can be this vehicle for some people.

You've said marketing is an important tool, but do you do anything else to catch the attention of a younger crowd? How do you pull them away from the Top 40 radio for a few hours and into the audience at your concerts?
From Desirae - I think we play music similar to the music a lot of kids out there are actually practicing and playing, if that makes sense. There are so many kids taking piano lessons, violin lessons, singing in the school choir or playing in the band. A lot of those kids are coming to our concerts and are really excited that someone they can relate to is playing classical music. If they've ever been bored at a piano lesson, we try to change that for them at our concerts and get them emotionally involved in this awesome music. I think the kid out there taking music lessons wants the music to come alive for them, and so they give us a chance. We've had a lot of kids come up to us and tell us they were thinking about quitting music, but came to our concert and were inspired to go home and practice.

Can you talk about your involvement in VH1's Save the Music program?
From Melody - We've had a great time working with VH1's Save the Music program! One concert, in particular that we did in connection with them, will forever be one of our most amazing experiences. Taking place in the Rose bowl in Pasadena on the 4th of July, we'll never forget walking out on stage to a completely packed event of close to 60,000 people! We've never played for an audience so huge! Not only was it so amazing to be there playing for all of those people, but the whole event was done to help six different Pasadena schools receive musical instruments, as well as making it possible to instate music programs and teachers. We realized right then that in giving of our effort and time, so many kids could find the same joys and opportunities we had in growing up with music. We always knew that VH1 had very similar views to us, but in working with them we realized how their goals and ours lined up perfectly.

Are you active in any other programs to keep music programs in public schools? If so, what've you done?
From Deondra - We as a group realize the great importance of working to keep music programs in schools, and are always willing to help out in whatever way we can. We have performed for fund-raising events in schools to help raise money for instruments, as well as donating our time and fees to perform in special student concerts to help raise interest and enthusiasm for classical music. We are always looking for more ways to get the word out there about how amazing AND important this music is to the upcoming generations, as well as to our society as a whole.

What do you get out of classical music emotionally that is different or absent from popular music?
From Greg - I think classical music is capable of touching the human spirit in a way that no other genre of music can. It is one of the most unexplainable phenomenon I can think of, because this music can speak to any human being in the world, and somehow, they'll understand it. Even though there are no words, no pictures, no directions, somehow it speaks to the soul in a language that everyone who lives and breathes knows well. It tells us things that words cannot - things that go deeper than any other form of human communication could ever express. Playing this music and listening to it is an experience that I truly believe can briefly take us away from the reality of words and experiences and bring us to a world of the heart and of the soul - a world far less tangible and comprehendible, but no less real and meaningful.

Melody was quoted saying making music is a spiritual experience? Can anyone describe that idea (experience) more?
From Desirae - I think the feelings you get from good music are very similar to what you feel when you are spiritually uplifted. Our faith is a very big part of our life so obviously it is a big part of our music as well. We identify with the spiritual aspects in music and thus come to express that at times when we play. We express many things when we play, everything along the range of emotions, but for us spirituality is involved in many of those emotions, and tied into our memories associated with those emotions. Because we try to constantly emote while we are playing, you can see how beautiful music could be spiritual for us as well.

Do the five of you ever write music together for performances?
From Ryan - No, not yet at least. We have done writing individually at school for our classes and training but not as a group. I would imagine that if we did some day, we would all be capable of doing it but I think the toughest thing for all of us to do would probably be coming to an agreement of what we would write and how we would write it. You never know though, maybe we will dab in that sometime in the future.

What's one challenge you face in performing in such a large ensemble? Did it take lots of getting used to in the beginning?
From Melody: Oh my goodness... people always asked us growing up if we ever played together. We thought it was a crazy idea... who would play on 5 pianos at the same time? Not to mention, where would you find so many pianos to actually get together and play? But beyond this, there were so many other issues; one being that the piano is a percussive instrument. If you don't play the notes at the same time it could be a disaster. We all knew how hard it was to fulfill requirements at school in playing with 2 pianos, but 5? We thought it would be impossible to line so many fingers up to hit the key at the same time.

So yes, playing together has to be the most difficult thing. Also all of us have such dominant personalities and ideas that it made rehearsals in the beginning difficult because it was like anarchy. But through time we realized that things would go so much more smoothly when we just stopped arguing and took a vote. Having five always meant that there would be a majority (and yes - a minority. I always hate it when I'm a part of the losing vote).

Do any of you play other instruments or play in other ensembles of different genres? If so, can you describe your experiences?
From Ryan - Sadly, we actually don't play any other instruments. We all started out on the piano and it just kind of stuck with us. Our parents did give other instruments a shot though. They bought us a guitar, flute and a violin. some of us even tried singing as well but none of these things really felt right, not to mention, we already were a few years into the piano, so those other instruments just made it seem like we where starting all over again. We have played in other ensembles before as well. School was the place where all of us delved into that. It was interesting for all of us to play with other instruments and also adapt to others and their personalities. It's a very different experience but I think it taught us a lot. It also helped us move up to playing together with five extravagant percussion instruments such as the piano.

You worked with two classical soloists (Gil Shaham and Chris Botti) on your newest album Browns in Blue. If each of you could collaborate with any artist, in any genre, to play any song, who would you choose and why?
From Deondra - Our experiences in recording this album with these guest artists was nothing short of amazing all around. We've always had such respect for Gil and Chris, although they are so different in terms of the type of music they play. It is, of course, quite a challenge to add an instrumentalist to a group consisting of so many already, but we feel it was a challenge that has only made us grow as musicians. We are definitely open to more collaboration in the future, but we have to feel very passionate with whatever project is presented to us. We have to be able to feel like it is something that will challenge us, and that the music is up to the standard that we are used to. It would be amazing to work with the cellist Yo Yo Ma, or working with the violinist Joshua Bell would also be a sweet opportunity. And a project with Sting or the band Coldplay could prove to be nothing short of a dream!!

Would you like to add anything else to what you have already said? About your fans, or your musical future, and of course what did you learn while working with Gil Shaham and Chris Botti.
From Deondra - Collaborating with artists that we've looked up to and have had so much respect for on Browns in Blue was an experience that we were excited about, but also kind of nervous about.

We know how difficult it can be to keep five pianos together, much less when you throw another instrument into the mix!! The goal is to be able to make beautiful and artistic decisions with the music, and still keep everyone rhythmically together and meshing as a whole.

I'd also like to add that this whole experience thus far has been something we all would have never thought possible! It's been so cool to see so many kids from our generation and younger coming to our concerts, and saying that they didn't realize how much fun classical music really can be. That has been a big goal of ours, and it's been so amazing to be able to see it happening consistently wherever we perform. And who would have ever thought that we'd be able to travel the world together sharing this wonderful music with so many people, and that this would be our JOB??

During 2008, the 5 Browns were currently the touring the U.S. in support of Browns in Blue.
by Aisha Burns

This interview was shortened for length.