The Music of
Ronald James Brown
Why I did not become a professional musician
I get asked that from time to time. To answer, I need to tell a couple of stories.
My parents, when I was born, were young and broke. My mother had been a very vitalized young woman who enjoyed parties, laughter, and a general good time. She must have felt trapped, at 21, with a controlling husband and a new-born babe. What happened when I was six months old depends on who you believe: my mother or my father. According to Mom, my Dad was abusive and she needed to escape, so she left me at my aunt's with a note buried in the stack of fresh diapers, saying she had to get away, and please take care of me. My mother's story is that my father hired a detective who located her and brought her home. My father had a different story. He was working in Sherbrooke, Quebec, as a bookkeeper for a circus when he got the news that my mother had abandoned me. He raced home (to Sarnia, Ontario where all this happened) and arranged for a couple to look after me. He claims Mom had run off with another man, and, when the money ran out, she called him from Sudbury, Ontario, pleading to come back.
It doesn't matter whose story is the truth--everyone involved is long dead. I suspect it's a combination of the two stories. In any case, I had been left in the care of another couple for several months, starting at 6 months of age. I don't know exactly how long this arrangement lasted, but, it did have a profound effect on me. Besides the obvious of leaving me with a life-long sense of insecurity and fear of abandonment, there was another effect.
When I was 12 years old, long after my parents' divorce, my father left me at my aunt's in Sarnia for a two-week visit. While there my aunt and uncle took me to visit an elderly couple. I had no idea who they were, except that I was somehow very special to them. I really enjoyed my visit: I got to ride on the back of a tractor, a thrilling event for any twelve-year-old, and, they had a piano. While the adults chatted, I started working my way through the books of beginner's exercises. That afternoon I finished the 2nd grade level and wanted to continue. The couple offer to let me stay overnight. I was thrilled, though my aunt and uncle were not pleased. The next day I was back at the piano, working my way through the third grade book. The woman was astonished at how fast I was picking it up. She was a piano teacher and told me that most of her students after a year or more of practice couldn't do what I was doing in the course of two days. She was very sad when my aunt and uncle came to pick me up, and hugged me long and hard, making me promise to visit again. I never did see them again, but, years afterwards from hints dropped here and there by older family members, I came to realize that the couple I had visited was the couple who had looked after me as a baby. There are some pictures of me as a baby that now made sense. Sitting on someone's lap while they played piano. I have absolutely no doubt that my life-long relationship with music began when I was a baby in this couple's care.
Throughout my childhood, up until I met this couple, I had demonstrated a talent. I recall being asked to sing solo before audiences a couple of times when I was very young. I had learned to read music in the early years of elementary school, as it was part of the curriculum. In middle school, I joined every choir in the area that I was qualified for (I wasn't allowed in the all-girls' choir). One, an all boys choir, was very popular and we used to go to rural churches to provide music for the service. Our mixed choir usually won competitions. When I started secondary school, I joined the operetta society and had a part in the choir which was onstage for most of G&S's "The Gondeliers." The next year, I had a small solo part in "Iolanthe." So, the question is, why didn't my parents arrange for private lessons for me in any instrument? Life when I was young was stormy with lots of fights, break-ups, and reconcilations. Then I was boarded out with another family for about three years. When I began living with my father again he mentioned music lessons a couple of times. Once he asked if I would prefer piano and guitar. Another time he said he would like to arrange for singing lessons, but he was worried that my voice would break when I hit adolesence.
After I left home at 14, one of the first things I did when I got a bit of money, was buy a guitar. I taught myself to play accompaniments for the popular rock songs of the day. When I got back into school, I took up violin in instrumental classes, and was offered free private tutoring in both violin and music theory. That continued through my adolesence, but, when confronted with the reality of being a weak violinist and having no keyboard skills, going on became impossible. Remember, I was broke, living on $54 a month on welfare, in poor health (from lack of proper food), and an emotional basketcase. When I gave up on secondary school as a waste of my time, music lessons became out of reach, except for my high school music teacher who tried to help. I was one of the first members of the counterculture movement, and became immersed in poetry and Eastern religions. When I went to university (contrary to popular mythology, you do not need a secondary school education to attend university) I studied English lit., then switched to comparative religions. I went on to become a teacher, then, later a high tech guru.
It is obvious that there are many "what ifs?" in my story. What if my mother had never returned to her baby and I was raised by the piano teacher and her husband. Would I have been playing Liszt and Chopin by the time I was twelve? If my father had arranged for piano lessons, would I have had a least enough skill to be accepted by a music school when the time came? What if I was not an emotional and physical wreck as a teenager, could I have focused enough on music to get my skill set up to scratch? What if, what if....
However, when I look back there are many other what ifs in my past that have nothing to do with music. This is a simple truth about everyone. What if someone did not become addicted to drugs, could he have made a good father and husband? What if a teenaged girl had not accepted a ride from a stranger, where would her life have gone? What if someone wasn't born with Downs' Syndrom? What if that person had not been hit by a bus? Who knows?
The plain and simple fact is that I did not take any other these other paths. How can there be regret? Oh, it's nice to fantasize about what might have been, but, it ain't so. I write the music that I now write because of my past. If my past had been different so would my music. But the music is real, and that cannot be denied.