Yes, I'll admit, it was early July when I spoke to the quintet of dynamic young pianists, but their story just seemed so right to publish around the holidays. These siblings know and live the meaning of family. They're nicer than nice and it's not just some act for the press-- I've met them in person and they are sincere, sweet and just, well, gosh darned wonderful. The 5 Browns' effort, "No Boundaries" (RCA Red Seal - a division of Sony BMG Masterworks), had a good run at #1 in the charts, which isn't something most of us rockers think about when we ponder classical music. But the group has style and personality when it comes to performing their tunes, which they do as one, in two and up to all five tinkling the ivories at the same time. And after hearing them live I love them even more.
The 5 Browns are Ryan, 20, Melody, 22, Gregory, 23, Deondra, 26, and Desirae, 27. I thought it would be chaos with all five of them on the phone at once, but they made it easy, announcing their names as they shared fielding my questions. I started our conversation by asking how they coordinated their piano practices during childhood.
"We just started out with one piano," Desirae answers. "I started taking lessons first when I was three and then when Deondra turned three she began taking lessons. And so the more people that turned three and started taking lessons, the more pianos that my parents bought. So they went from one piano to two, three and eventually we ended up with five family grands."
I can't hold back a laugh, "What about all the noise?"
"We just did it all at the same time usually and it was just pretty noisy." Desirae explains. "They were in different rooms, somebody would be in the living room, somebody would be in the master bedroom, somebody in the den, somebody in the basement, but it was just a lot of noise. My dad had to go outside to talk on the phone."
Knowing they were home schooled, I wonder what it was like being together all the time.
"It was totally fine for me," Gregory replies. "Once the practice hours were increasing my parents saw that we weren't having time to be like normal kids, going out to play with our friends. The home school was nice because we could get things done in themorning, our practicing done in the afternoon and by the time we were done with that, everyone else would be getting out of school and we could play with our friends. So we had a normal social life and we would hang out with a lot of the kids from our church and Ryan and I played sports a lot so we were on the city baseball leagues. It was a lot of fun."
Then it must have been tough when they started leaving their home to attend Julliard.
"It was really hard for me especially when Desirae and Deandra went off to school because we were all out in Utah and they went off to New York," Melody assents. "It was really hard because I had shared a room with them my whole life and when they went off I was all by myself. But I have to say that my mom and I got really close during that year they were gone. it was only a year and then all of us were out in New York with them. It wasn't too long."
So how did they get discovered?
"It started when we were at Julliard," Desirae tells me."The BBC did a story on us and then the New York Times found out that we were in New York and it just kind of snowballed, '60 Minutes' read the New York Times. When Deandra and I were about to graduate from Julliard we were contacted by a manager and he wanted to work with all of us. He set us up with auditions for all the record companies, then we signed a record deal. It just happened, we never really planned it. It wasn't like some great master plan, we just stumbled into everything and it's working out."
As Mormons, most young men usually go on a two-year mission, but Gregory and Ryan haven't yet, I asked them to share their feelings about it.
"It's not like a requirements, it's just something that most 19-year-old guys do in the Mormon church," Gregory says. "When I was around 19 or 21 when I almost went, I was still focusing pretty heavily on my school, but I figured that once The 5 Browns started happening I realized that this could be a really good opportunity to do a lot of good not only for the church, but for people in general. To help get wholesome music out there and portray a nice healthy family with a good lifestyle. We've noticed that on the road when we're going out and talking to lots of kids that we really maybe are succeeding in change people's lives for a lot of young kids and it's meant a lot for us."
And Deondra and Desirae are married, which can be tough when you're on the road.
"It's hard, but we have very supportive husbands who really are excited about what we're doing with our music," Deondra replies. "Desirae's husband is actually a violinist, so he's got his own crazy touring schedule. He's played all over the country and he's amazing. My husband is still in school. He's working toward law school. Two different types of guys, but two really supportive people who are happy to be along for the ride."
With the siblings spread out in different parts of the country now, I wonder how they practice for their shows.
"We have five pianos in our house in Utah and that's where we do most of our practicing together, that's where we learn all of our music for our CDs and concerts," Ryan explains. "It's a little tough on the road, we don't have much time to rehearse because we don't get the pianos in the concert hall for days at a time because we are moving from place to place."
And on the road with one night here, another there, I have to ask about how they handle hearing each other in a new environment all the time-- it's tough enough for rock bands, but classical musicians often come under much harder scrutiny from their audiences.
"It's different in each place," Ryan says. "It just takes a while, but we get used to the sound and we just listen to each other. I think the biggest part is being accommodating to each other and trying to figure out what works best."
The other big stopping block for some groups can be agreeing on what music to play.
"We won't pick a five piano piece to have arranged for the five of us unless we can all agree on it and the five piano pieces tend to be a little more familiar." Deondra clarifies, "We want to mix the familiar pieces with maybe not so familiar pieces. You'll se
'Rhapsody in Blue,' but then maybe you'll see something you haven't heard before on a solo or a duo of any of us. It's quite a process trying to decide on those five piano pieces, but we feel like when we pick one that we all can agree on that it's something the audience will really enjoy because we believe it."
I wonder if they ever pen any original compositions.
"We've all had to write for different requirements in school, but it's so difficult just getting together and trying to mesh five different people's ideas," replies Melody. "I think it would just be a mess if any one of us tried to write for the five of us. We leave it to other people to do it for us just because it makes the process easier, also we don't have a lot of time to sit down and write something."
To get a little more insight to The 5 Browns, I ask them to go down the line sharing their hobbies and what careers they would pursue if they hadn't been so successful with music.
All five are big tennis fans. Desirae likes indie films and goes to Sundance Film Festival every year. She enjoys reading great literature and shopping and would have probably gone into law or politics, especially international politics.
After being on tour, Deondra likes to stay home, eat dinner in and watch movies with her husband.They prefer being together at home instead of on the road in a hotel. Deondra would have gone into some sort of business or management and it would be a great option for her, as she loves to be organized and keeps everyone on schedules.
Greg is studying Chinese on his own after taking a class last summer. "It's going more slowly than I would have liked," He admits. An avid reader, he also is into playing sports and he and Ryan enjoy basketball and tennis.
"I probably would have gone into medicine," Gregory says. "When I was growing up I wanted to be either a veterinarian or a pediatrician."
I tease him that perhaps he could combine the two.
"That's a really good idea," Gregory laughs. "That would be a great way to calm the kids down."
Melody loves reading as well as writing, "I love having a quiet night writing in my journal reflecting on past things in our lives."
She enjoys going out dancing with friends and is thinking about writing short stories, but not as a career. Her passion is actually more in the sciences and she would have gone into something to do with biology and an opportunity to seek cures for diseases.
"What I like to do in my free time, and it's always the big talk of the family, is play computer games," Ryan shares, adding that he also enjoys basketball, baseball, dancing, hanging out with friends and going out on dates. He would probably do something with computers, but isn't sure whether it would be in building them or programming.
Deondra pipes up, "When Ryan was a little kid, he always said he wanted to be a weatherman. He was so up on all the weather all we had to do was just ask him, 'So what's the weather going to be tomorrow?' And he'd be like, 'The temperature is going to be this.' The Weather Channel was his favorite channel."
Ryan tells me that he checks the weather on his computer now. He doesn't care for the online role playing games as they are too time consuming, he prefers first person shooters and some of the strategy games.
The 5 Browns are looking forward to more touring- England, Germany and France, then on to Japan and are even hoping to secure a stint in China.
"We're excited to see what the future holds," Desirae says.
I tease Ryan about being ready for China trip and he chuckles, saying he hopes he'll be better at the language than he is now.
Before we part, I offer the group to share any last thoughts.
Desirae is looking forward to their 4th of July concert at the Rose Bowl with the Pasadena Symphony, "We're really excited about the whole July fourth thing and working with VH1 Save the Music. Our goals when we set out to do this project, reaching a younger generation; reaching our generation, have actually come to fruition. The concert audiences we have been playing for have been our ages and younger. It's been cool to turn a new generation on to this music."
The 5 Browns happily give their time and talent for the VH1 project, which works to put instruments in children's hands and get music back into schools. In fact, the proceeds of the 4th of July performance were donated to Save the Music.
"Music really creates depth in a person and it brings such fulfillment to kids' lives, so we're excited to be a part of it," Desirae chirps. "When I was growing up there wasn't very many true concert artists that I could really relate to who were playing classical music. So hopefully we can give this new generation someone to relate to that sounds a little more like them."
"We're just so excited because we know how much this music has meant to us and it's really created us as individuals," Melody adds. I don't think any one of us would be the people we are if we didn't know and love classical music to the extent that we do. We just want to pass it on to a new generation."
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