An American Dream

Five Kids At Juilliard?

For eight weeks there have been only two kinds of stories out of New York City: stories of tragedy and stories of heroism. This is a different kind of New York story, about young Americans beating the world's best.

Meet five of the best classical piano students in America. They were all admitted to the Juilliard School, the celebrated conservatory that chooses only the world’s most promising students. Scott Pelley reports.

All five of these remarkable musicians are brothers and sisters. The Brown family of Utah got all five of its children into Julliard. How do you get five kids in Juilliard? Practice, practice, practice.

Desirae and Deondra Brown are getting ready for what, in many ways, is the biggest date they'll ever have. They're going to a concert of the Philadelphia orchestra, one of the world's greatest. The century-old hall is legendary for giants of the piano: Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Cliburn.

They hope that talent agents in the audience will hear a perfect performance. A bad night would jeopardize everything that they and the Brown family of Alpine, Utah have ever worked for.

Desirae and Deondra began before their feet could touch the pedals. Desirae is the oldest - now 22. "We were practicing like seven hours a day probably together," says Desirae.

They have literally been playing the piano since before you can remember. Deondra is a year younger: "Some of the earliest memories I have are playing with Desi, my sister. Because, we have this connection between the two of us, so close in age."

They are the oldest of five, three girls, two boys with a singular gift. Each of the brown children started piano at age three. Their mother, Lisa, has a music degree in voice. She started the lessons just to give them an education in music—but, hard as this is for a parent to believe, the Brown children it loved it. Lessons led to recitals, recitals to competitions. Soon they moved five grand pianos into the house so they could all practice at once. It raised such a racket, their dad, Keith, had to go outside just to use the phone.

The 88 keys were taking over the family. "That is a true statement," says Keith. "I mean, literally, because it wasn’t 88 keys. It was 88 times two, times three, times four, and eventually times five."

Ryan is the youngest at age 16 followed by Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae. They rehearse six hours a day. When they were small their mother used to wake them up at 4:30 each morning just to fit in all the practice.

"They'd get about an hour worth of practicing, maybe an hour and a half," says Peter. "Eat breakfast, and rush off to school. And then come back, practice some more, do homework, eat dinner, and go to bed at 7:30 so we could wake up that early."

They took them out of school. Lisa and Keith calculated that public school was a waste of time - what with commuting, home room, study hall, P.E., they figured the kids spent seven hours at schol for three hours of learning. So all of the Brown kids have been schooled at home.

If you're a student of piano there is one school you are desperate to attend. It's the 95-year-old Juilliard School in New York City. The chance of getting one child into Julliard is slim. Veda Kaplinsky is chairwoman of the piano department.

"There are no gimmicks to admissions to Julliard. We do not accept anybody based on anything other than merit. “We admit ten percent of our applicant pool," says Kaplinsky.

The Browns couldn't believe it when Desirae and Deondra auditioned and both were accepted. The very next year Ryan, Melody and Gregory auditioned, and all three of them were accepted.

Juilliard has never had five pianists from one family. After all five were accepted, the parents rented a house just outside New York City and moved east with their five pianos so the family could stay together.

"If you count room and board, it's roughly $30,000. It's per-kid," says Keith. He couldn’t afford that on a salesman’s salary, so the Browns applied for every scholarship and student loan they could. Now the Browns pay the piper, and Kaplinsky calls the tune. She teaches all five. At 19, Gregory is the oldest boy.

"Gregory is the virtuoso. He's the one with the big hands, the one that storms, the athlete. Melody is a sweetheart. She's just the sweetest girl on earth. Ryan is a storyteller. Ryan has great imagination," says Kaplinsky.

Desirae and Deondra will be the first of the Browns to attempt to make a career of the family obsession. "When those girls play together it sounds like one instrument," says Kaplinsky. "They somehow read each other's minds. They communicate on a subliminal level on stage. They can hear each other think."

With the Philadelphia Orchestra, they will walk out on that stage armed with only the things that taught to them and everything they have inside. "That's a lot. What they have inside is a tremendous amount," says Kaplinsky.

Is it genetics that got them to Julliard? "It's a combination of factors, just like artistry's a combination of factors," says Kaplinsky. "Obviously it's genetics, but the biggest factor that got them this far is the parents."

"I know a lot of parents try to drop the kids off at school and the school's going to educate them, they drop them off at the music teacher and the music teacher is going to make them a violinist or a pianist and we haven't done that," says Keith. "We've more or less tried to take it on ourselves."

Did they push their kids too hard? "I imagine that's true," says Keith. "But if they knew the kids, and maybe from the story they'll see, they’re not frustrated, tense, uptight kids that are like a life full of stress and strain and torment."

What about those who accuse the Brown parents of being stage parents? "It was our mother’s goal at the beginning," says Melody Brown. "But then it became our goal when we - it was that turning point of do I really want to do this or not? And then from that point on it was ours."

They seem like typical American teenagers - from the 1950s. Some of that come from their devout Mormon upbringing - little TV, no video games, no caffeine. They are happy, optimistic, not at all self-absorbed like some artists can be. One of their predecessors at Julliard, Van Cliburn, once said "I'm not a success, I'm a sensation." You don't get that from the Browns.

Who's the best piano player? "We all respect each other's playing," says Deondra.

Their teacher worries they may be too nice. For all its beauty the stage is crowded and competitive. Survivors have nimble fingers and sharp elbows. Kaplinsky calls it a nasty business.

Is each one of the Brown children capable of being a great concert pianist? "That's a tough question to answer," says Kaplinsky. "They all have the potential. I don't know if they all will be able to realize it."

Which brings us back to the Philadelphia story, Desirae and Deondra Brown's chance to impress the right people and begin a career. The ambitions of all the Browns rode on this night and Francis Poulenc’s concerto for two pianos.

Andrea Segovia once said "The piano is a monster." But in the hands of the Brown sisters the performance was flawless.

"I know that they’re not type to step on anybody’s toes to make it. They’re the type that will work hard," says Kaplinsky. "The rest is up to fate. And hopefully, the world will be kind to them."

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