An interview with Sheila Browne, by Kathleen Crabtree

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During Sheila Browne’s recent visit to Denton, I had the opportunity to interview her over coffee. We covered everything from the world-wide decline of the honeybee and the geographical spread of dianthus flowers (or pinks, from which her Fire Pink Trio derived its name), to traveling (she toured China with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra in eighth grade as its youngest member), and the intricacies of putting out an album (these days, one does not simply and quickly acquire funding for a CD). Read on for a fascinating look into the life of one of the premiere violists of today.

Kathleen: You’re from Philadelphia, have dual citizenship in the United States and Ireland, and live in North Carolina. Where do you consider “home?”

Sheila Browne: I will always be from Philadelphia. There’s no question in my mind that that’s where my most formative years were spent. When I was growing up there, Philadelphia was a mecca for violists – Primrose, Karen Tuttle, Joseph DePasquale, and Kim Kashkashian were all there. Philadelphia as a city was totally seminal in setting up my values. It’s a nice city because it has more of a local feel even though it’s big, but it’s not New York. My dad’s side of the family is from New York – Brooklyn, Queens, all the five boroughs. I grew up spending a lot of time in New York, so those northeastern cities for me are very much a part of who I am. These are colorful places where you can walk down the street and see people from twenty-five different countries on one block.
In North Carolina, I live on a farmette with four acres. I’m a homey person. Since my mom grew up on a farm, I’ve always been fascinated by that lifestyle that is disappearing. I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I love animals. So a few years ago, I decided to move outside the city – I have one goat, four chickens (down from seventeen, after one of my two dogs decided that she likes to kill chickens). And I had a potbelly mini-pig – Cosmo – but he passed away this summer.
K: Were your parents musicians?
SB: My dad was a rocket scientist – a chemical engineer. But he listened to classical music constantly. My mother grew up with a piano in her house and she also played organ. So my sister and I grew up hearing her play piano, and she started us playing it at 5 and 6. We took to it very quickly because we loved it and thought it was so amazing that our mother could play piano, so we wanted to play it too. And my dad was all for it. We had a lot of creativity in the house – we also did drama, dance classes, and visual arts. My mom made sure that we were exposed to all these different types of art forms.
K: Since you had this rich cultural upbringing, did you imagine yourself going into the arts from a young age, or did you originally want to follow your dad into science?
SB: I was always more arts-oriented. I really enjoyed physics, which of course is so important to teaching and understanding how to play the viola. But I guess I always just loved the creative stuff. My sister very quickly surpassed me at piano because I never wanted to practice, and she always did. She got to go play outside because she had already done her hour of practicing, and I was still inside the house, whining that my mother was telling me to practice!
In the Philly suburbs (Main Line) school system, you got to pick an orchestral instrument to play in the 4th grade, and I picked viola because it was a really beautiful name. And then I had something to do that was my own: not my sister’s, not my mother telling me what to do, and that was very important to me, because I was always very independent, so it gave me a focal point where I could blossom on my own. And by the time I was in 8th or 9th grade, it was very clear that I wanted to pursue viola.
K: You’ve been in quartets, you do recitals alone and with your Fire Pink Trio, you’re an educator. What are your goals moving forward, and what do you think – or want – your legacy to be?
SB: Ah, the “L” word! I love the varied diet I have. I want to be known as a great teacher and a great player. I also want to be known for expanding the repertoire and to do a lot more recordings. We’ve all turned to recordings when we’re learning something. And I love listening to them to hear what other people have done, and it’s always fascinating to me to see how one artist solves a technical problem. To see what each individual brings to the table, is of course, why we love going to live performances, isn’t it? So YouTube is very helpful for that, and I definitely want to get more pieces on YouTube.
I love to do transcriptions, and they’re always great, but people don’t even think of the viola as a viable option. I think a lot of people have stereotypes about what a violist is or what the viola can do. Expecting respect and not getting it out of ignorance…it can be daunting. How many times do we get asked what instrument is in our case? And that’s where we’re starting from.
K: I had a guy ask me once if I had a tuba in my case.
SB: He knew what a tuba was, but not a viola?!
K: That’s our “norm;” that’s what we have to put up with.
SB: Yes. And one of these days, the world will find out what a viola is.There’s something about it that speaks to the human condition. It doesn’t have to be brilliant and flashy and showy all the time in order to be self-satisfying. It’s a very earthy instrument, and in our lives, we definitely need more of that as modern people. I cross my fingers and really hope that one day, there will be a shift and people will start to discover something that is so helpful for humanity. I wish I had some sort of master plan to put that into effect! At a meeting once when I was on the board of the American Viola Society, I said, “The other day, I was at the store and saw G-clef pasta. Maybe we can get C-clef pasta!”
K: You mentioned earlier about your pig Cosmo passing away this last summer. The death of a pet is, as we know, very traumatic just like any other tragedy. And you had to play a concert that night. How do you approach the mentality of “the show much go on” under those circumstances?
SB: Music has always been an incredible emotional outlet for me. And it is where we turn when there’s no where else to go. As a civilization, we turn to music because it provides an emotional connection when we need it most. So when you’re going through something personal as a performer, that can be the hardest time to open up, but sometimes it can be the easiest. It depends on the situation and the work you’re going to perform. But many times for me, it ends up being a kind of salve that helps to comfort me. In these situations, you don’t necessarily want to be in front of people, baring your soul, but it shows something incredible about us – a testament that you are still standing upright, with your bow in hand. It’s a testament to life – that life goes on. As hard as that may be, it is a step in the process to getting through it. It is who you are and what you do.
K: So do you draw inspiration from those times?
SB: Absolutely! As violists, we have so much sad music. And there is something about the nature, or at least, one side of the viola, that does draw out those emotions. There’s great beauty in that. We live in a society where everyone wants to be happy and pleasant all the time. Life is full of “negative” emotions, but we don’t have to classify them that way. People are afraid to talk about fear and anger, but it’s all part of the human condition. If we all spent the time acknowledging the fact that we have these emotions, we would be in a better place. So that’s what the stage can be good for – drawing out those sorts of emotions that no one wants to touch.
I thanked Ms. Browne for her time and we hurried off to the afternoon masterclass. I felt so lucky to get a glimpse into her mind and creative process. As a student, it seems as though people are constantly telling me what we as musicians can or can’t do (“You won’t make money at this profession unless you play in an orchestra!” Or, “Viola soloists don’t exist,” etc.) Yet, our time together proved that you can indeed have it all and stay grounded. Passion for performance, while pushing the limits of how violists are imagined, makes for a fulfilling, thrilling, and successful life.

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