The Five Browns
By Bob Keefer
Published: Thursday, June 28, 2007
Five pianos, plus five siblings, plus one stage, equals one unusual concert.
That's the math behind the Five Browns, who are five 20-something brothers and sisters - all trained or still training at Juilliard - who play five pianos together on stage at the same time.
They'll play at the Oregon Bach Festival on Friday, July 13.
From young to old, they are Ryan, 21; Melody, 23; Gregory 24; Deondra, 27; and Desirae, 28.
We talked to all five of them at once by telephone the other day - they're accomplished enough at this sort of interview that each of them starts each comment with his or her name. They were at their parents' Salt Lake City-area home, which contains not five but 10 Steinway pianos.
A few of the things we found out:
• They were mostly home-schooled until high school. Their parents, Keith and Lisa Brown, thought school and homework were taking up too much of their children's days, leaving them not enough free time to play - that's play as in play, not play as in practice piano.
• They all began piano lessons at the age of 3, thanks to a teacher in Texas, where the family lived at the time.
"When we finally did start entering school, it was a shock for us to realize not everyone took piano lessons,'' Deondra said. "We started realizing that there were aspects of our family that other families didn't have.''
• Their father left dental school when he realized he was making more money buying and selling foreign cars than he might eventually have made as a dentist - not to mention enjoying more free time.
That gave Dad the time to oversee home schooling, which occupied the children each morning from 7 o'clock to 11 o'clock.
"After that we would practice piano for three or four hours,'' Ryan said. "Then we would go out and play with our friends.''
• The five Browns have all grown up and moved out of their parents' home, but not very far. Deondra and Desirae are married and live with their spouses in a house next to their parents. The boys live nearby.
"All of us are in Utah even though my sister and brother also have an apartment in New York City,'' explained Gregory. "My parents' house is where we have all our pianos. There are 10 pianos: five Steinways that are ours and dispersed through the house, and five on loan from Steinway. They are in almost every room, and then five together are in one big room in the basement.''
• Piano has always been and most likely always will be the Five Browns' instrument of choice.
"Our parents tried to get us to try out violin and guitar and flute,'' Ryan said. "We just didn't take to them very much. We were pretty far into the piano at that point. It seemed hopeless.''
• They are devout Mormons.
"Faith plays a very important part in our family,'' Desirae said. "Music binds us together, but faith is a stronger bond. I don't know if music is a calling. But if we can be good examples out there, that's great.''
• They love New York City.
"It definitely is an eye opener when you first step into the city after living in Alpine, Utah,'' Gregory said. "It's definitely different, that's for sure. But I really loved it. People say you love it or you hate it. Well, there is so much energy in the city. The arts scene is incredible. One year instead of regular presents our parents got us tickets to a bunch of concerts at Carnegie Hall. That was the coolest Christmas ever.''
• There's very little music written for five pianos.
"So all our pieces are arranged, of course,'' Melody said. "Except on our CD coming out in October we'll have the first piece specifically written for the five of us, by (pianist and composer) John Novacek.''
In Eugene, Gregory will play a solo piano rag, "Full Stride Ahead,'' written by Novacek.
When they perform, the Browns typically mix it up, playing one number with all five of them on stage and then switching to a solo, duet or trio.
The Bach Festival program also includes arrangements of such works as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue,'' Aaron Copland's "Simple Gifts,'' Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story'' and Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird.''