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PERPETUAL CHANGE — Tona Brown

| Jul 6, 2009
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“People need to know you can be a trans woman of color and still have a successful career,” said Tona Brown. While that might read like an overly obvious statement, coming from a minority individual who is part of yet another minority, it belies the talent and tenacity that is the foundation of who Tona Brown is as a person.

Tona is an accomplished vocalist and violinist, who is also proficient on viola and piano. She started playing violin at age 10, and went on to win several competitions and scholarships since the age of 14. Her education is quite extensive: she has attended the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Virginia; Old Dominion University; the Shenandoah Conservatory; and as a youth participated in a program known as the “Juliard Experience”.

Tona currently resides in Norfolk, Virginia. She is a founding member of the Aida String Quartet,and performs with the ensembles Elegance By Deux and Radiance. She is currently also developing a local group called the Hampton Roads Community Orchestra, and is working on an album of African-American art songs and spirituals. On top of all this, Tona is also a freelance journalist.

It has been a real pleasure to interview Tona for TGForum. She brings a very unique perspective to the table; not only that of an African-American trans person, but also that of a musician working in the highly conservative genre’ of classical music.

TGForum: You came out first as a gay male while in high school. How old were you before you knew what was going on with your gender issues?

Tona: That’s a fantastic question to be honest with you. I was 23 years old when I really came to terms with my gender identity and myself. When one tries to identify with oneself they assume they are gay when they know they are not heterosexual. So that is why I came out as gay in high school…also I never had any transgender friends, role models, etc.

TGF: Your family managed to obtain a violin for you in the 5th grade, right? When did you first discover your musical ability?

Tona: My first violin was a rental instrument from the local music shop and it was around the age of ten. It was not until the age of 14 that I realized that I had a talent for the instrument unlike others. I started to perform in my first recitals at Norfolk State University’s Junior Music program, then later was accepted into the Governor’s School.

TGF: What kind of music did you listen to as a child and while growing up? What do you lilsten to now for your own enjoyment? Who are your musical influences?

Tona: As a young person, I was raised on soul, blues, r&b, rap, and hip-hop. It was later that I went to the Arts high school and learned of opera and various forms of classical music and I found that I loved the melodies so much and I realized how much of a challenge it was to perform such repertoire and was hooked! After this discovery, I stopped listening to the radio altogether and only listened to classical instrumental solo and chamber music for a few years.

TGF: Let’s talk about the performance opportunities that you’ve had. You’re a founder of Aida String Quartet, correct? How often do you work with them? You also perform with other groups a s well, correct?

Tona: Shenandoah String Quartet was the string quartet I performed in while attending the university. After my four years at Shenandoah, I formed the Elegance By Deux ensemble with violinist Wendy Henri. I later started the Aida Musicians Network and from that group of artists we formed the Aida String Quartet. Inside the Aida Musicians Network is the Radiance String Quartet. I perform as their first violinist when needed for major functions.

TGF: How did you get involved with the Tranny Road Show?

Tona: I got involved with the Tranny Road Show by accident. They advertised on one of the transgender online social networking site I was a part of called “Transistahs and Transbrothas”. I sent them my resume’ and information and was hired to be a part of their core group of eight people that would perform the entire month (April 2006).

My objective while touring with the Road Show as to provide their audiences with classical music selections both on violin and vocal music. I would often sing Negro spirituals, English operatic arias, and African-American art songs. I really enjoyed my experience touring with the Tranny Road Show and will never forget it.

TGF: Since you are also a vocalist, what is your main focus…voice or violin?

Tona: My main focus currently is the development of my voice. I have a very unique instrument and to feel it age gracefully and to continue to sit back and lit it grow has been a pleasure. If I had to choose between the two it would be really hard. I love both equally, but I think I would choose being a singer over playing violin. I’m hesitant in saying that because the voice is so “moody” and tricky sometimes, depending on your environment, the weather, etc. This is one of the reasons I will never stop playing violin completely. But I feel the same immense pleasure as performing an operatic aria or singing an art song when I’m performing classical chamber music repertoire. I feel free and on top of the world.

TGF: Talk a bit about the album of African-American art songs and spirituals that you’re working on. (By the way, what is an “art song”? )

Tona: African-American art songs and Spirituals are where my passion lies primarily because it’s the music of my heritage. It’s the music I heard my grandparents and great grandparents singing in the kitchen while cooking. These art songs are also a relevant part of American history.

An art song is defined as a part set to music-usually for trained voice and piano.

The African-American art song touch my soul because African-American composers composed them. The subject matters vary from composer to text, but usually speak of slavery, prejudice, racism, spirituality, love and relationships. I feel it’s my personal responsibility to share the music of my heritage with the world.

TGF: How far along are you on the recording process?

Tona: I’m still doing research on the perfect songs for the album. I’ve also received word of an Emmy Award winning engineer that if he can make time, is interested in the project. It’s too soon to speculate right now.

TGF: In an interview with The Advocate, you talked about the issue of racism within the somewhat staid, ver conservative classical music world. Since you’ve already dealt with prejudice, what have you had to deal with by coming out as trans? What is the attitude you face from fellow musicians, conductors, and the organizations that run orchestras?

Tona: No one can deny that I have talent as an instrumentalist and vocalist. Yet, classical musicians and conductors put people in categories. I am a mezzo-soprano. There are a number of wonderful roles that fit my voice perfectly but some of these more conservative companies would have a problem with my playing the lead heroine because I’m transgender. Those days, however, are slowly changing and I feel in the next 20 years we will see thing crossover in all directions for trans people.

I am paving my own way and finding my own niche. I will not force myself to sing or perform anything because people feel it’s something “I should do,” or because it’s a pant role (women that play men’s roles…) If the repertoire doesn’t fit my voice then it won’t be sung.

TGF: What advice would you give to other musicians, both transgendered and non-trans?

Tona: First and foremost, do your homework and know your craft. Second, don’t be easily distracted, stay encouraged and focus on the bigger picture. Third, NEVER GIVE UP!! Shoot for the stars and land on the moon. Always follow your dreams because anything is possible if you truly believe.

TGF: If you had one thing to say to the transgender community, what would it be?

Tona: We must unite and be more supportive of each other. I feel that whether a trans person is stealth, pre or post op, we are all the same.

TGF: Any final last thoughts or comments?

Tona: I would just like to say that there has been no other time in history where it has bveen a better time to be transgender and out and working! I encourage all to take full advantage of all the opportunities and resources available to them. Live life to the fullest!

Tona Brown can be contacted through her MySpace page. We’ll let you know about the status of her recording project.


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Category: Music

Pam Degroff

About the Author ()

Pamela DeGroff been writing for TGForum since the start of 1999. Her humor column, The Pamela Principle, ran until 2005. She started the Perpetual Change music column in May of 1999, and in 2008, Angela Gardner came up with the idea for the Transvocalizers column and put Pam to work on that. Pamela was a regular contributor to Transgender Community News until that magazine's demise. While part of a support group in Nashville called The Tennessee Vals she began writing for their newsletter, and also wrote for several local GLBT alternative newspapers in Tennessee. Pamela is currently a staff reporter for a small town daily paper in Indiana, and is also a working musician.

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