SALT LAKE CITY — For The 5 Browns, playing piano together isn’t as easy as it used to be.
With the siblings now spread out across Utah, New York and Washington, D.C., piano practices aren’t the spur-of-the-moment get-togethers they were when they all lived in Alpine or when they were all simultaneously attending the Juilliard School in the early 2000s.
Now, practices require forethought and plane tickets — something not always feasible considering some of the siblings are raising their own families.
But as The 5 Browns approach the 15th anniversary of performing together later this year, their motivation to defy the odds is simple: They love what they do and they love each other.
“We hope people … not only appreciate the fact that we’re a family still continuing to perform together and still love each other (but also that we) have families of our own and have continued to make this work,” Deondra Brown, the second-oldest sibling, told the Deseret News during a rehearsal break in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Although all the siblings grew up in Utah — Deondra and Melody Brown still live along the Wasatch Front — The 5 Browns don’t often perform in the state. The last performance came in June 2018 at the Kenley Amphitheater in Layton. The Browns were all in the state for a screening of the documentary “Digging Through the Darkness” that showed the siblings opening up about their father’s childhood sexual abuse of the three daughters and the healing power of music.
While The 5 Browns are looking forward to upcoming international dates that will take them to Korea, Moscow and Taiwan in the next few months, they’re eager to return to Utah on Jan. 26 because it gives them the chance to perform at Abravanel Hall — a stage that meant a lot to them during their childhood.
Deondra and Melody Brown caught up with the Deseret News about the upcoming Utah concert and new music on the horizon. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: Throughout the year, how often are you touring?
Melody Brown: We usually do one to two weeks every month throughout our season, from September to May. We’ve always capped it at two weeks because it just gets really hard with families at home. You’re just gone too much. And (then) we’ll usually try to do two weeks off of the road to give equal amount of balance to our (spouses) and children at home.
DN: Is it hard to balance family life with touring life?
Deondra Brown: It can get challenging at times, but what we've agreed to as a group and also as brothers and sisters is that we want to continue to re-look at the schedule year after year and adjust it as need be for everyone's personal lives. … We all make sure that we check in with one another, and if somebody needs less concerts or people are open to booking a few more, we always are cognizant of that. … Especially as we embark upon our 15th season starting at the end of 2019, we realized that to be able to continue to do what we do, we have to be happy and we have to still feel fulfilled in our personal lives as well as our musical lives.
DN: With all of you living in different places now, how long does it take, practice-wise, for you to get in sync with each other?
MB: … We’ve really got to do all of our practicing on our own, and (when) we come together it usually takes a day to get everything solidified. And then we usually will come together in the summer to learn all of our new repertoire for a new season or a new year … and we'll do (that for) about two weeks.
DN: It must be tricky putting that all together — especially if someone had maybe been practicing at a different tempo than the others.
MB: That was happening today, actually. We’re getting ready to do a new program after this tour with some concerto repertoire … and I was practicing the Bach Triple Concerto on my own while we were getting ready for rehearsal today, and (my brothers) were like, “Woah, woah, woah, you’re playing it really fast.” And I’m like, “I like it that tempo.” So this is going to be interesting when we actually get together and rehearse this. … (But) that happens a lot when we practice on our own — we kind of get married to certain ideas and then we come together, those things have to change.
DN: Could you talk about with this tour and the Salt Lake concert specifically, some of the music that you are doing?
DB: We programmed some of our most favorite pieces. There are several pieces over our almost 15 years of performing together that have been consistent pieces that are requested or that people have been drawn towards. … So we will be playing everything from the first movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to “Rhapsody in Blue.” We have some “Flight of the Bumblebee” and “(The) Firebird.” (It's) … almost like our greatest hits or something like that.
We really do love seeing families attend our concerts together, and so we're always programming our repertoire in terms of what we feel would be powerful for the next generation listening to the music as well. So we've got some fun five-piano pieces … and each of us will do a solo or a duo. The three of us sisters will be playing our arrangement on one piano of “Clair de Lune.” … Even though everyone lives across the country now, everyone has extended family (in Utah), so it’s a coming-home type feel and we really appreciate being able to share the music that we love with the audience we grew up with.
DN: You mentioned loving to have families come to your concerts. A lot of what you aim to do is spread classical music to younger generations and increase that appreciation. Have you been able to witness firsthand people who have been inspired to pursue classical music because of your performances?
DB: It’s really funny that you should mention that. I sent my brothers and sisters a text just last week. It was about 7 p.m. on a weekday night, … and I was standing in line getting my daughter some dinner at the food court in Fashion Place Mall when a woman came up to me and she said, “Excuse me, I'm so sorry to bother you, are you one of The 5 Browns?” And I said “Yes!” And she said, “I just have to tell you, I grew up listening to your music and it was so influential for me. I just recently came across a notebook that was filled with poems that were based off of different pieces of your music. Your music is the soundtrack to my childhood, and I just had to thank you for all that you've done, and for the beauty of music that you shared with my life.”
It was so sweet and genuine. And I had to share it right away with the rest of my siblings, just to remind us of why we continue to do what we do, and the beauty of being able to share this wonderful music with people — especially as we look towards our 15th season. To see that those kids 15 years ago that were listening to our music are all grown up and they’re moms and fathers themselves … (and) to think that the next generation of their children will be able to appreciate classical music — any way we can be a part of that we’re very grateful for.
DN: Are your own children pursuing piano at all?
DB: (Our older sister) Desirae has two children, she lives in New York City with her husband. They have started taking piano lessons. … I have an 8-year-old. She plays around a little bit for fun on the piano, but it’s been fun for me to be able to watch the artistic gene transfer to her in a different way. She’s so passionate about ballet and it’s beautiful for me to be able to see how much she loves the arts in a different way than I did. And for her (Ballet West) teachers to tell me that she has a solid sense of rhythm is a compliment to me because my brothers and sisters have always said that that’s one of my strong points. So to be able to see it trickle down and have her make it her own through ballet is pretty powerful. I always said that I didn’t want her to feel she had to do music; I wanted her to find her own voice so that she didn’t feel she had to duplicate or replicate what we’re doing with piano. That’s a lot of pressure, so for my daughter, ballet has been her form of artistic expression.
DN: What is the latest on your album “Little Tin Box?” Is that coming out this year?
MB: The “Little Tin Box” is about (our) childhoods and memories, and so we thought it would be such a fun project to pair with a children’s book. It was supposed to come out this year, but the publishing world is so severely different from the music world. … Our author, who is a New York Times best-seller, she’s tweaking some things right now and still working with publishers. So it’s delayed the whole project, and then also you have to think of illustrations. There’s just a lot more that takes place in that world, so we’re thinking it might not be released until 2020 — maybe even 2021. So what we’re working on right now in the interim is a Christmas album. We are recording that hopefully this summer (for) a hopeful December 2019 release. So that’s what we’re shooting for now.
DB: “The Little Tin Box” is one of those projects that we continually had discussions amongst the five of us about. We were very confident in the idea that the music and the power of the children’s book will intertwine so beautifully that we want to see that all the way through. So the fact that it’s taking longer is disappointing, but at the same time, we want to do it right and we’re excited about the end result. So stay tuned, it is coming.
DN: Last year when the “Digging Through the Darkness” documentary came out, you mentioned how the “Rite of Spring” was an “angst” album and how “Little Tin Box” has been one of healing. Could you talk about how creating this album has been healing?
DB: Well, I think you're absolutely right in that quote. … (The “Rite of Spring” album) happened to come across at a very difficult time for the five of us, and the piece as a whole is so challenging — technically as well as musically. But it was a wonderful outlet for us to just sink all of our emotions into. Because the piece is so involved and has so many intense emotions it really very much reflected what we were going through at that point in our life.
… And then when you fast forward and you look at this new album on the horizon, we had worked through those emotions, we had worked through that point of our life. And we are at a point where we can reflect upon the beauty of childhood and the mixture of emotions and how all these memories go into who you are and how you view the world. And I think we can relish in that in a way that we maybe couldn't before. Those who have followed our careers from the beginning I think will see a progression in terms of not just the type of music that we’ve chosen, but in terms of our musical abilities, and our relationships and our personal connections together.
DN: How long did it take you two to become comfortable with going through with the documentary?
MB: I was probably the one that had the most qualms out of all of us. I’m much more private about that side of our life. I’ve always just kind of wanted to stay in the background with all that stuff. My sisters — as you’ve seen with Deondra in (Utah) and what she does for advocacy, and same with my sister Desirae from New York — when they pair together, they’re a powerhouse team. I choose to live my life a little more privately. So when the director approached us, yeah, it was a really difficult decision to decide to be more vocal about that side of our lives. The only reason I decided to go forward with it was so that I didn’t have to talk about it ever again.
People laugh whenever they hear that because the documentary has opened the door for me to have to talk about it. (But) I’m hoping that soon all the doors will be closed and I can just go back to living my own personal life.
DN: What do you hope people take away from your performance in Salt Lake City?
DB: We’re very blessed to be able to continue to perform together, to do music that we love and tour the world. … We hope that little kids will be inspired to take up an instrument or even to just include classical music in the music that they listen to on a daily basis. … We just really appreciate being able to come home to perform together. This is where it all started for us. We were born in Houston, Texas, but the majority of our years growing up were spent in Utah. So we feel like the Utah audience has traveled this journey with us and we’re excited to come home and share the music that we love with them.
MB: I’ve been thinking about this recently as we’re coming up on our 15th year: It’s really just a weird sight to have five huge Steinway grands on one stage and people playing multiple piano music. Nobody else does this; it’s quite the sight. It’s funny because a lot of my friends have asked, “When are you going to be performing in the state?” And it’s very rare because we’re usually performing all over the rest of the world. … So a lot of my friends are super excited to finally see what I do.
DB: We grew up as kids playing at Abravanel Hall. At different points, all of us have played with the Utah Symphony, and it’s particularly exciting for us when we get to play at Abravanel. … We’ve performed in halls all over the world and we still consider Abravanel … one of our most favorite halls. So to be able to come home and play in a wonderful hall like that is always a dream.1 comment on this story
Note: “Digging Through the Darkness” director Ben Niles told the Deseret News via email he hopes to have some Salt Lake City screenings in the next few months. Niles has also launched a “host your own” program for individuals and organizations to have screenings in their communities for the price of a ticket, in efforts to raise awareness about statute of limitation issues in the country, he said. Those interested in hosting a screening can reach out to Niles at [email protected] or visit the5brownsmovie.com/copy-of-host-your-own.
If you go …
What: The 5 Browns in concert
When: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $18-$54