An Evening with Tona Brown

The applause of over 500 community members filled the Oyster River Middle School (ORMS) Concert Hall as students bowed alongside the acclaimed violinist Tona Brown. 

The Oyster River High School (ORHS) orchestra hosted Brown to perform with them at 7:00 pm on Friday, March 24th. For students, who had been perfecting the performance pieces for weeks, Brown’s visit was an opportunity to learn from and play with a professional. For Brown, however, the performance was more than an opportunity to teach; it was a way to display the value of investing in performing arts education.  

Brown, 43, whose accolades include being the first transgender woman to play at Carnegie Hall and sing the National Anthem for former President Barack Obama at the 2011 LGBTQ Pride Gala, has been a professional violinist and mezzo-soprano for nearly 20 years. However, despite her professional success, Brown says that “being an instructor and an educator was never a question.” No matter what she was doing, she was always “going to be teaching and advocating for education in the fine and performing arts.”  

Turnbull (left) standing beside Brown (right), receiving a standing ovation from the community.

In the two days leading up to the performance, Brown worked individually with five student soloists, offering technical corrections. Additionally, Brown held a masterclass for the entire ORHS orchestra the night before the performance on Thursday, March 23rd, along with two rehearsals, each an hour and a half.

“There are endless possibilities for student musicians if we, as educators, take the time and train them correctly. As experienced musicians, we need to care enough to encourage learners to really let themselves go and explore. That’s not done enough, and a lot of people who end up having a mainstream career feel like they’re too good to do that type of work. That, to me, is so unfortunate,” said Brown.  

Student violinist Mary Jeong (‘23), who has been playing violin since the age of six, kicked off the night with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins,” a duet she was selected to play with Brown. Although Jeong admits she was initially “overwhelmed with nerves”—which she ascribed to the concert’s abnormally large turnout and the limited amount of rehearsal time with Brown—she said it was a “true honor” to play with a “well-known performer who’s taking time to […] work with you on a personal level.”  

Jeong explained that, among the technical corrections Brown noted, the joyous energy Brown radiates when she plays was a lesson in itself. “When I perform, I tend to rush under pressure. Even if I’m playing and I don’t feel nervous, I’ll still start rushing without even noticing. I felt like, after playing with [Brown], I’ve learned to take my time and also feel the beauty and the emotion behind the music,” Jeong said.  

From left to right: Jeong, Turnbull, Brown, and student violinist Uma Gibson (’24)

Soloist Erin Turnbull (‘24), a violinist who, like Jeong, has been playing since she was six, said she was equal parts honored and nervous to end the night beside Brown playing Antonio Vivaldi’s “L’Estro Armonico Concerto X in B Minor for 4 Violins.” 

For Turnbull, who said the performance was “the best orchestra concert in her high school career,” the stakes were higher. “Having a solo and having the pressures of performing next to [Brown] were a lot, but this concert was also so much more than music because it involved Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) and was connected to [Brown’s] advocacy.” 

Brown explained that, as a black transgender woman, using her music platform to advocate for DEIJ has been “essential.” On top of being an instructor, Brown also spent her week in Durham participating in two DEIJ-focused question-and-answer sessions, one at ORHS and one at the University of New Hampshire. 

“It’s unfortunate that so many women like myself are not allotted the opportunity to do things like this because of how divisive our political world is right now. […] Some of the greatest voices, or instrumentalists, or teachers are being discriminated against for who they are, and they feel like they can’t share their music because of it. I’m very grateful that I have the space to teach and to share my music,” said Brown.  

Brown said she believes we all have something we can learn from each other, and that understanding this will unite entire communities.  

Jeong, who has been part of the ORHS strings program since music teacher Andrea von Oeyen started it nine years ago, explained how von Oeyen has emphasized this idea of “uniting people through music” since the program’s beginning.  

In fact, it was von Oeyen’s former student Aaron Hoag’s (‘21) valedictorian speech that highlighted this message and first caught Brown’s attention. Jeong said, in his speech, Hoag connected von Oeyen’s music philosophy to Brown’s advocacy, in the sense that playing in an orchestra is “not about the individual. It’s about what the individual contributes to the whole orchestra, and how one listens and learns from those who are also part of that whole.” 

Aside from playing with Brown and feeling a tremendous amount of support from the community, Jeong said one of her favorite moments of the night was Superintendent Jim Morse’s speech, which applauded von Oeyen’s dedication to the strings program. The program, which now has about 240 kids, is eight times the size it was when it began in 2014.  

“This was all about getting the community together to appreciate the talents of one another, so to have [Morse] and the community recognize the growth of the program, and to give the students the opportunity to play with this caliber of musician, allows me to reflect on how far we’ve come and feel proud of the work myself and so many other wonderful people have put in these nine years,” said von Oeyen. “Without the support from others, there is no way that growth would have happened.” 

Von Oeyen hopes to continue providing opportunities like this to future students, as the strings program continues to grow. “I think that big events, like having [Brown] come, are so important. Seeing my older kids learn and work with [Brown], and seeing my younger kids (a lot of whom attended the concert) start to think about where their dedication to music can take them, was just so worth all the effort it took leading up to the night. It made me think about future performances and the other opportunities I can provide,” said von Oeyen.  

von Oeyen admiring Brown’s flowers after the performance

Brown said one of the best parts about performing at Oyster River was working with a music educator like von Oeyen—someone who invests extensive time and energy into her program. “The student level here is just so high […], especially for a public school. I mean, it’s like a mini conservatory, and I feel that if we all continue to invest in these students like we have been, then one day it could possibly be. You never know, the kids who are sitting here, the ones that we inspire today, they could be the next big thing,” said Brown. 

-Abby Owens

Images courtesy of Cathi Stetson

Performance video courtesy of ORCSDVideo