By Jeanette W. Bennett
Alpine’s first family of music has developed four rules for their five-piano ensemble.
Rule No. 1— No bad playing
Rule No. 2 — No bad
Rule No. 3 — Don’t be a lame-o
Rule No. 4 — Anyone who breaks Rule No. 1 or No. 2 automatically breaks
Rule No. 3.
This handful of siblings plays classical music, but their group approach is anything but traditional, stuffy and symbolized by a formal black-and-white tuxedo. In their own words, they’re like the Cadillac, which used to be an old man’s car and is now the vehicle of choice for celebrities and rappers. The 5 Browns want their peers to take a new look at classical music, and so they are giving it a new look.
Their debut CD titled “The 5 Browns” has made a big splash in the music pond since its release in February. This recording contract is the latest in what the family believes is a masterplan for their lives that has taken some unbelievable twists and turns.
“There is no question there is a direction laid out that we are trying to find and follow,” says Lisa Brown, the mother of the musical group.
The entire family feels like there are many important reasons for their musical success, although they’re not sure where everything will lead.
So far, their path has led to just about everywhere. Oprah has spotlighted the family, and they’ve appeared on “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America.” One of the big surprises was an invitation to perform on “The Tonight Show” on Feb. 8.
“You can imagine how excited we were to just be performing there, but to do it on the day our CD was released was a shocker!” Deondra says. “I’ve only just stopped screaming!”
Part of the appeal of this family is how united and structured they have been. All of the children started learning piano at age 3. Later, they were introduced to other instruments.
“But we were already good at the piano, so we weren’t excited about scratching away at the violin,” says Greg, the older of the two brothers. “Now the violin, flute, guitars and other instruments make great props in the piano room.”
Signing on the dotted line
Father Keith Brown co-manages the gang with Joel Diamond, who is credited with discovering the music whizzes. Joel saw Ryan and Melody on TV in the middle of the night performing in a competition, and he had visions of putting the “all-American redhead” in a boy band. He later learned Ryan’s fingers had more talent than his vocal chords.
In March 2004, the Browns signed a record deal with RCA Red Seal/BMG. In August 2004, they recorded the CD, and the DualDisc was released in February 2005. The pace has been crescendo-like, considering the group had to select music, have it arranged for five pianos, learn the pieces and then memorize five pianos worth of music.
“We prefer to memorize because it makes our ensemble tighter,” Melody says.
The DualDisc — which is a new technology — allows for one side to have music while the other side has music videos and old home movies of the Browns in their early music “careers” when their feet couldn’t touch the pedals and their hands couldn’t play full octaves.
The CD has 11 pieces totalling 60 minutes — which is quick considering many classical pieces usually run 15 minutes or longer. Of course, the Browns aren’t going about their music in the normal classical way.
Traditionally, a classical CD is considered successful if it sells 7,000-10,000 copies. The “5 Browns” CD is exploding onto the musical scene with 100,000 copies being distributed all over the country. And they expect to sell out and move on to a second and third printing.
Although the Browns don’t dress provocatively, they don’t dress like backwoods hicks, either. Their clothing choices, photography and attitudes fit their ages — 19 to 25.
“We want to offer a clean alternative, but we still want to look youthful and trendy,” Desirae says.
Melody points out that although the CD is marketed as more of a pop CD, the music is purely classical. The siblings have made it a goal to not alienate the core classical audience with an edgy album.
“It’s a fine line to walk,” Greg says.
“But we’re sure trying,” Deondra adds.
The goal is to bring new listeners to classical music.
“Classical is mostly listened to by older people — people who are getting even older and are not going to be here much longer,” Desirae says. “But we like classical music, and we think others from our generation will like it, too.”
From homeschool to Juilliard
All five children excelled in piano from the moment their fingers touched the keyboard. But the parents wanted them to have a normal childhood and still have time for extensive piano study. The solution? Homeschool. This way the children could complete their studies and their piano practice before their friends got home from school.
Outsiders often assume Keith and Lisa pushed their kids into music, which they completely deny.
“We did not raise these kids to be professional pianists,” Lisa says. “We didn’t take it seriously or think they would be good enough to go to conservatories.”
Life began to change when the oldest two girls — Desirae and Deondra — were both accepted to Juilliard.
Originally, going to Juilliard meant it would be easy to find piano students to teach.
“The reason we all chose Juilliard was for the name,” Melody says. “With that piece of paper, we’d be able to teach.”
“And we were going to be completely happy with that,” Deondra adds.
The thoughts of coming across a recording opportunity and needing a manager were laughable. Nobody gets classical recording contracts. But when doors started opening, they pursued the opportunity with the same persistence they bring to their music.
Although the Browns seem intense — and they are — compared to their Juilliard counterparts they’ve simply “dabbled” in piano. The Browns only study music during the school year, while most serious piano students do studies and attend music camps year-round.
“I can’t remember a time that any one of them thought they were on top of the heap,” says Keith, their father.
“The ‘best’ is relative,” Greg says.
The entire family moved to New York for a few years as a method of saving money. Younger Juilliard students either have to live in the dorms, which are expensive, or live with their parents. So Keith and Lisa moved to the Big Apple. Keith kept up with his business online and via phone. He also began operating as a piano dealer so his children could have access to Steinway grand pianos.
Ryan was 15 when his parents moved back to Utah. He was in the pre-college program at Juilliard, and simple math revealed that it was cheaper for him to live at home in Utah and fly to New York every weekend — which he did for two years. JetBlue found out about Ryan and gave him a scholarship of one roundtrip ticket per month.
Although New York is home, Utah is still home, too. The Browns like the simple fresh feel of the Beehive State.
“Ryan likes to come back and date,” his older siblings tease him. He doesn’t argue. Their New York LDS singles ward is full of accomplished young adults usually 26 years old or older, who might as well be 80, Ryan says.
Although the siblings are better known for their last name than their first names, they do have individual personalities and contributions to the group. The girls are known for taking the longest to get ready. Ryan and Greg are known for their senses of humor.
“Sometimes during practice someone will get offended about something, and Greg will say, ‘We’re all happy here!’” Melody says.
They all agree that Greg and Ryan liven things up.
Keith relates a story of when his five children were performing in Los Angeles at the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Awaiting the live performance was a bit nervewracking.
Greg came up with the idea to bounce a racquetball off the walls of the CBS studios.
“Oh yeah, that was an awesome game,” he says.
“Meanwhile, we were busy getting ready, so he had to somehow entertain himself,” Desirae says.
Their teachers have expressed concern in the past over how hyper the Browns are before a performance.
“We’ve had teachers freak out and tell us to settle down,” Greg says. “But we play better when we’re not stressed out.”
To ease any possible tension, at least one of the parents is nearby when the siblings perform.
“Someone’s got to make sure I button my shirt right,” Ryan says.
Melody and Desirae specialize in finding the right attire for performances and photographs. The boys try to avoid shopping.
Desirae’s role is to give cues to start the music, but then each of the Browns listen to each other and the silent cues within the music to know how to set the tempo.
Deondra’s role is to arrange the rehearsals. When the family is in Utah, they go to Dayne’s Music in Murray so they can play on five Steinways in the same room. In their Alpine home, their five Steinways are strewn on two floors and one separate building.
Greg coordinates most of the e-mails and correspondence that needs to take place among the five of them.
And Ryan? His role is to “make sure he’s clean when he shows up,” the other siblings say. They’re letting him “slide by” so he can maintain his busy school schedule.
The siblings have helped buoy each other up during difficult times when they have each at some point wanted to quit.
“When one of us is feeling like a failure, we get renewal from each other,” Desirae says.
At the high level they’ve reached, competition is fierce. Keith has taught his children that natural ability can only take them so far, and then it comes down to work ethic, which has been emphasized in the Alpine home.
Although not every family can churn out concert pianists in record numbers, the Browns contend all families can find unity and excitement together.
“Families should have something they can do together,” Deondra says. “Whether that’s reading books, playing baseball, going to concerts, boating or motorcross. A family needs glue to keep everybody from going in so many different directions.”
Another key to the Browns’ strength is their communication.
“We’ve always talked about things,” Deondra says. “We discuss what goes on in each other’s lives. There have been many times when we’ve had a whole family discussion about one kid’s struggles.”
The Browns know there is more to life than Bach and Beethoven. They follow the NBA Finals and the World Series — and they love Wimbledon.
“It’s a shame when women get married and don’t have a clue about sports, and then they resent their husbands for watching it,” Lisa says. “Boys and girls should be exposed to sports and the arts. It will make them better parents.”
The Browns have certainly concentrated on music, but the boys also played baseball with their father as the coach. They played until high school, when their piano teachers got worried about the boys jamming their fingers. The boys hung up their cleats and gave up their careers as pitchers and third basemen.
Staying in tune
The 5 Browns put on multi-stake LDS firesides as they travel around the country for performances and speaking engagements.
“This is our chance not just to play but to tell our experiences,” Desirae says.
Even in their non-religious performances, they share their personalities.
“We do on-stage interviews during the concerts because it helps pull the audience in,” Melody says.
Deondra feels like being themselves helps break down the barriers between them and the audience.
“We’re really conscious of how we reach the audience — it even influences what we wear,” she says. “We’re not as formal as most classical musicians are.”
Although an ensemble cast often results in a star and a spokesperson, the Browns say it’s natural for them to be in balance.
“All of them are so different,” Lisa says. “Their music styles differ and so do their personalities, so it is interesting to hear from all of them.”
Although they were homeschooled and attended the most prestigious music university in the country, the Browns consider themselves normal.
“We’ve tried to keep a balanced life,” Desirae says. “We watch TV and hang out with friends.”
Ryan points out that two of his best buddies have never been exposed to classical music.
Desiree and Deondra, who have both graduated from Juilliard and moved back to Utah, have husbands who add an important personal element to their lives.
Deondra’s theory is that they’ll all be happier after graduation if they have some non-school related fun and friends during the process.
Although all of the Browns have taught piano lessons, they have tried their hands at other careers, also. For a period of time, they worked as janitors at their uncle’s office complex.
“We did a crappy job,” Ryan says.
Fortunately, their hands have more unique talents. At age 14, Greg was teaching piano lessons to grown-ups. Ryan has taught teenage boys who would not take piano from girls.
The high note of their careers so far will be seeing how their CD is received and how it influences budding young musicians to stick with their piano lessons. For them, five pianos with 88 keys each has equaled infinite opportunities.
And the future certainly looks colorful for the Brown family.
The 5 Browns were formed because they were born under the same roof in a span of 6 1/2 years and were raised by each of them using their 10 fingers to plink out music on 88 Steinway keys. Now their talents are available on CD.
That’s My Name, Too
Utah County may not be home to John Jacob Jingle Heimer Schmidt, but it has its fair share of Johnsons, Smiths and Andersons.
Most common last names in the United States
Most common last names of families in Utah County
1. Johnson 1, 155
2. Smith 1, 044
3. Anderson 746
4. Christensen 572
5. Jensen 568