I first heard Christine Brown’s music in 2004 when she sent me her Winter Tapestry
for review. I loved that album and have reviewed six more over the years. Christine released two great albums in 2011, Wishing Well
and Childhood 2
, and has three more in the works. We talked about all of those projects and more in this interview. Enjoy!
KP: Hey Christine! How are things in the Southern California today?
CB: It’s always nice here in San Diego! We feel blessed to live in such a beautiful area with great weather!
You recently released The Wishing Well
, your second release of 2011. The first was Childhood 2
. You’ve been busy! Let’s talk about The Wishing Well
first. What was the inspiration for this album?
(Click album covers to see the reviews)
CB: The Wishing Well is sort of a musical journal of the last year or so. My music is always inspired by emotions and life experiences, but this is probably the most personal album I’ve done, with all of the songs written during a difficult time. It began with a neuromuscular problem that prevented me from playing the piano altogether for several months, and later, I could play for only very short periods of time with limited right hand use. The frustration of not being able to play was agonizing for me, and when I finally was able to play, I wrote the title track, playing the right hand sometimes with the eraser end of a pencil!
Next, and far worse, was our younger son’s illness and diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes, which is a life-altering disease, especially for a young teenager. Most people don’t understand the difference between this and the more common Type 2 diabetes, which affects mostly adults. Type 1 is auto-immune related, and the pancreas stops producing any insulin. I watched my son’s childhood disappear as he faced daily injections of insulin and multiple blood sugar tests. Watching him tackle this head-on with strength and courage inspired the song “Stronger,” one of my favorites. He has handled this with amazing courage and responsibility, moving forward despite the challenges. My husband lost his job the same week (the same week as the diagnosis!) Truly a “Pendulum” of emotions for our family! Through it all, we tried to believe that things happen for a reason (“Blessing in Disguise”), and tomorrow is a new day (“Daybreak,” “Turning Tide”). The song titles really reflect the emotions of that year. The wishing well sort of symbolizes that place we can go to wish all our troubles away, which for me, is often the piano.
KP: It’s pretty amazing sometimes how much can be dumped on your plate in a very short period of time! I’m sure losing your creative outlet during that time must have been devastating! I can’t imagine not being able to go to my piano whenever I want! Hopefully the worst of all that is behind you now!
Oh, yes, I’m happy to say things are better now all around. But, yes, it was torture not being able to play the piano through some of the turmoil. I could use my left hand, and started composing many songs with one hand. In the song “Pendulum” I actually use one finger on my right hand playing the same C note for much of the song, my left hand playing around it! But not being able to play made me realize just how important the piano is to me.
KP: You released your first album, Winter Tapestry, in 1997, with seven albums following that one. Two are Christmas albums and the two Childhood recordings are your wonderful arrangements of familiar children’s music. The other four are your original compositions (my favorites!). Which albums are your best-sellers?
CB: Probably the original music, but it’s close! A handful of Childhood songs are always in my top iTunes downloads.
KP: What was the inspiration for Childhood 2?
CB: I arranged the first Childhood CD when my boys were young. It was really fun to take simple timeless melodies and give them a new age twist, often combining two similar themes or melodies to keep it interesting! Seeing how popular these arrangements of familiar songs are really inspired me to do another collection. People love giving them as gifts to new parents and at baby showers. I really wanted to create something that an adult would also enjoy - music that’s relaxing for both parent and child. Plus, I get to use my keyboard to add orchestration, guitars, etc. which is really fun for me - a different type of creativity!
KP: With so much children’s music out there, how did you choose which songs to arrange?
CB: I just chose the standard nursery rhyme songs I grew up with - timeless melodies that cross generations. Friends of mine who played these for their children actually still enjoy listening to them as a sort of comfort and nostalgia.
KP: Tell us about your musical background.
CB: I started piano lessons at age 7 and continued with them until halfway through high school. I always played for the school choir starting in 6th grade, as well as a high school “glee club” singing group. I didn’t study music in college and have had no composition training, just lessons. In fact, I disliked the theory portion of my lessons.
Most students do! When did you start playing the piano?
No review available for "Believe."
CB: I remember having a small toy piano and organ when I was little. I started playing a little by ear – I’m told I played “Happy Birthday” for my mother when I was three! I was fascinated by the piano, really drawn to it early on.
KP: Do you do much improvising in your recordings?
CB: No, unlike most of the pianists I know, I actually write down all of my songs by hand - otherwise I would forget them! So there really isn’t much improvising. When I record, I am usually reading from my own hand-written sheet music. I may come up with a different ending for a song and try it out. I now find that writing out ideas on paper really helps with the whole process. Sometimes I can write a song from beginning to end in one sitting, but often I write bits and pieces and end up putting them together like a musical puzzle! I really admire those who can play “off the cuff” and wing it! I’d like to try more of that.
KP: I think that’s a drawback with traditional classical lessons. I can’t do it either, but I sure envy those who can!
CB: Yes, I agree. It’s fascinating to me that I’ve met so many pianists who compose that cannot actually read music, which I guess is why they are probably so creative! Accompanying choirs for many years, I learned to sight read music, but improvising is way out of my comfort zone! I’m slowly warming up to it, though, as most Whisperings shows end with a combined improv at the end. I was terrified the first time I had to do this!
How many of your albums have you recorded at Joe Bongiorno’s Piano Haven Studio?
CB: Two now! The first was Promise, and the piano sound is amazing! I had an instant connection with Joe’s piano, like my hands could just fly over the keys. There was no question where I would record The Wishing Well. Joe is great to work with. I looked for studios everywhere and nothing compares. The fact that he is also a pianist (and an amazing composer) is such a bonus – he knows to produce an amazing sound quality. I have found the perfect studio and a wonderful friend and colleague – just love him!
KP: I’m so glad that Piano Haven is doing so well. As you say, Joe is such a nice guy and he gets a phenomenal piano sound. Artists seem to really relax and enjoy recording there. Do you play other instruments besides the piano?
CB: No, but I did play clarinet in the fourth grade and took one semester of classical guitar in college! Don’t ask me to play them now though!
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
CB: I was born in Frankfurt, Germany (my dad was in the Army there), but soon went home to Colorado. I grew up in the Denver area, and went to college at the Univ. of CO in Boulder. I moved to California after college.
KP: Are any of your family members musicians or musically-inclined?
CB: My father was a drummer, played in several local bands, and loved music. My mom briefly took piano lessons as a child, but no one really played the piano while I was growing up.
KP: How did you get interested in music?
CB: I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, and they had an upright piano - a giant music-making toy! I actually begged my mom to let me take lessons! Once I started, you couldn’t get me away from the piano! Practicing was never an issue for me – it was making me stop that was difficult!
KP: How I wish I had more students like that! Do you teach piano?
I just started! I actually only have one student (my guinea pig!). I want to see how it goes. If I enjoy it, I will probably add more students. My new student is a young girl who heard me play at a Whisperings concert at our church and came up to me and said, “When you play, it’s like I’m dreaming in heaven!” Later, her mom said she had been begging for lessons for months. How could I refuse! So far, so good – she is so excited to learn, which is the key!
From left to right: Joe Bongiorno, Michele McLaughlin, David Nevue, and Christine Brown
From left to right: Christine, Scott D. Davis, Joseph Akins, and David Nevue
KP: Hopefully her enthusiasm will stay high. There is nothing more satisfying than teaching someone who is eager to learn and who does well! Were you encouraged to compose or improvise by your teachers?
CB: No, not at all. I strictly learned to read music, playing mostly classical and occasionally contemporary music. Sheet music back then wasn’t necessarily for solo piano, so I began to play my own versions of pop songs by ear.
KP: How old were you when you wrote your first piece?
I made up little songs even before I had lessons. I remember writing a song - actually writing out the notes - called “The Flower Ballet” – when I was 8 or 9. I was in college when I wrote a little song called “Turning Point.” I recently dug it up on an old cassette and maybe I’ll record it on the next CD. But I wrote my first true composition, “Silent Tears,” right after college. I moved to CA for my first job and didn’t have a piano in my apartment - couldn’t afford it! I used to go to piano stores on the weekends just to play. My landlord and roommate heard me play a neighbor’s piano, and rented one for me – a gift. I will never forget that. I wrote the song “Silent Tears” after that.
Then, my mom died in 1990. I was 28, and I think I wrote more than twenty songs in a matter of months. It was a great comfort to me to be able to express my emotions on the piano, and it was a real turning point for me. My mother was very ill, and for her 50th birthday, she asked for a cassette tape of me playing the piano. So, I went to a studio for the first time to record five or six songs (three were originals) and made her a tape. Sadly, she died a month later. I found myself pouring my emotions into the piano, writing twenty plus songs in a very short time. These songs were on my first CD several months later, so my gift to her was actually her very inspiring gift to me! As I turn 50 this month (yikes!) she is in my thoughts.
Christine with David Lanz
KP: How old are your sons? Are they showing any interest in music?
CB: Our son, Corey is 18, a freshman in college studying Environmental Engineering. He is a terrific piano player, and recently picked up the guitar and harmonica! He is actually playing my new sheet music! His friends formed a band in high school, so he can play a variety of styles! Luke, who is 15, is more sports-minded and loves baseball. We have great boys, and I’m so proud of both of them.
KP: Who and what do you consider to be your biggest musical influences?
CB: Well, my classical background influences my music certainly, but I think the many years I spent accompanying school choirs has influenced my music in terms of structure of melody and harmony and sometimes the layering of phrases and melody. I guess you can say I hear voices when I am composing! Then, in college I heard George Winston, and I used to listen to Peter Kater play at a hotel in Boulder (near the University of Colorado where I was a Business major). It was the beginning of the “New Age” piano genre and I loved it, thinking to myself, “I want to play like that!” But, I got a regular job, keeping the piano as just a hobby. It’s funny how things turned out – I later realized my real passion.
KP: Obviously, it’s never too late to find your passion! Do you perform often with Whisperings?
CB: Not as much as I’d like (mostly because of the nerve issues which still affect my arm). I usually do a few performances per year, a couple in the San Diego area, and at Piano Haven in Seattle. I really hope to do more, as the kids are older now and my arm condition continues to improve.
KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment so far?
Personally, probably performing for the first time in front of a real audience (folks that actually bought tickets to hear live piano music!). David Nevue gave me that opportunity four years ago. I had never performed (not since little piano recitals decades ago!) - I was just a stay-at-home mom who played as a hobby. It was way out of my comfort zone! I practiced my four songs for months! I didn’t miss a note that night, despite my shaking foot on the pedal, and I was so proud of myself – and so relieved I didn’t disappoint David, who really took a chance on me, having never met me or seen me play. I began to take myself seriously as an artist after that. I love performing now, and am so grateful to David and his incredible talent and vision for creating Whisperings Solo Piano Radio.
KP: I can’t say enough about how much David has done for the piano world! Who are your favorite composers?
CB: I’ve really enjoyed getting to hear many more pianists through the Whisperings community, so now I have lots of favorites - too many to count. I admire so many people just in the Whisperings group. For years I admired David Lanz and Wayne Gratz, and to now be on a CD with them (Whisperings Sampler, Volume 1) is just thrilling for me! I still pinch myself sometimes!
KP: That’s an incredible album! Who are your favorite performers?
CB: Again, I have so many favorites! I have shared the stage with David Nevue, Joseph Akins, Michele McLaughlin, Joe Bongiorno, Louis Landon, Joe Yamada, Star Parodi, and Philip Wesley – they are all wonderful and unique in their own way. Plus, I met and heard David Lanz at Piano Haven, and his performance was stunning. I look forward to meeting and performing with many more Whisperings artists in the future.
KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?
CB: First and foremost would be good health for my family - most importantly a cure for Type 1 Diabetes. I hope this happens in my son’s lifetime. Watching a child struggle with any illness is difficult. As a mother, just to have your children safe, happy and healthy is most important. After, that, I just hope I am able to play, compose and perform for many more years! I can’t imagine ever NOT playing the piano. It is and always has been such a huge part of my life. My husband recognizes this and has been so supportive of my music! Okay, one more – someday I’d love to upgrade to a new piano. I have a very old baby grand, a Kawai, and it’s ivory color! Now that I’ve played some larger, better sounding pianos, mine doesn’t sound as rich, and it has a heavy action, which doesn’t help my arm. But at least I have a piano now!
KP: What’s up next for you?
CB: Well, a private house concert here in January, and a performance at the Encinitas Library for a local concert series March 8th. Also, I will be playing at the JDRF Benefit in April (a fundraiser for curing Juvenile Diabetes). I am working on a new Christmas CD which I am excited about. I’m really trying to give it a personal twist. I am always composing and probably have enough new material for another original album. Also in the queue, Childhood: Christmas, which is holiday music for kids, arranged again on my keyboard. Lots of fun stuff! But three releases one year might be pushing it!
KP: They are all different ideas, so it could work! Best wishes with all of that, and I’ll be looking forward to some new music from you when you’re ready! I’d love to have you come and play a concert at my house, too, so keep me in mind when you are heading north!
Many thanks to Christine Brown for taking the time for this interview! To learn more about Christine and her music, be sure to visit her website
and her Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com.