In 1977, shortly after they were married, Lisa and Keith Brown bought a piano for $1,000. The young couple didn’t have much money, but, says Lisa, “we were thinking it would be something fun to do with our family.”
That turned out to be a rather modest ambition. The Browns’ five children-Desirae, 23, Deondra, 21, Gregory, 19, Melody, 17, and Ryan, 16-turned into such proficient pianists that they became the first sibling quintet to study at the Juilliard School, New York City’s famed conservatory. On Feb. 22 they will perform together in Salt Lake City as part of a concert series cosponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee. “We wanted to showcase local talent,” says program director Iain B. McKay. “And this family is unique.”
Right on down to their musical niches. Desirae and Deondra are partners, either playing duets on separate pianos or side by side on the same instrument. Gregory’s large hands-his fingers can span 12 notes-allow him to perform the most diverse repertoire, from Bach to Rachmaninoff, while Melody’s playing, says Veda Kaplinsky, who chairs Juilliard’s piano department, shows “sensitivity and heart.” As for Ryan, the youngest Brown, he still is developing his style.
At school, where each is on partial scholarship, the Browns-all of whom love Britney Spears and dancing-are inseparable. “When we say, ‘There’s Brown,'” says Greg Anderson, 19, a classmate of Gregory’s, “we mean all of them, even if you only see one.” Yet they dismiss any suggestion of rivalry. “We are all in this together,” says Deondra.
That attitude reflects the Browns’ tight-knit Mormon upbringing in Alpine, Utah, about 30 miles outside Salt Lake City. Lisa, 46, a home-maker, and Keith, 46, a financial manager, started each child with piano lessons at age 3. When they showed a passion for the pastime, Lisa began homeschooling them to accommodate four hours of daily piano practice each. “There’s a point where you think they’ll quit,” says Lisa, “but they never did. They’ve chosen this.” The Browns also encouraged other activities. Gregory and Ryan played Little League, Desirae enjoys camping, and Deondra and Melody have tried snowboarding.
Last fall Desirae and Deondra moved on to Juilliard’s master’s program, sharing a room in one of the school’s dorms. Gregory and Melody, who also live on campus, are in the undergraduate program. And Ryan, who will finish Juilliard’s precollege conservatory in June, auditions next month for a place in the college. During the week, he lives at home with his parents in Alpine, and on Fridays he commutes to New York City for 10 hours of classes. “Sometimes it’s a little hard if I have a date or something,” he says. “Otherwise it’s fine.”
It will also be fine, the Browns say, if despite their talents-and the nearly $350,000 in debt their parents have racked up to cover Juilliard’s costs-not one of them ends up a concert pianist. “Whatever happens,” Lisa says, “they will never lose their music.”
Maureen Harrington in Alpine and Jennifer Frey in Manhattan