Tona Brown is nearly halfway to her $3500 goal to be able to be the first African-American violinist to perform at Carnegie Hall, in the first ever LGBT Pride event at this location. GLAAD set up an Indegogo campaign to support Tona on her mission to get to Carnegie Hall.
Tona founded the Aida Strings in 2005 with the goal to showcase the talent of artists in African American and LGBT communities who had a harder time getting the same exposure or opportunities as others. Tona is also an advocate for transgender issue and the arts.
GLAAD got to have a conversation with Tona, asking her about her love of music, her advocacy for African-American and transgender musicians, and what she is doing after her historic performance.
What drew you to classical music and how long have you been playing?
I was introduced to classical music in the fifth grade during our elementary school program in Manassas, Virginia. The school program provided us with an opportunity to go to Washington DC on a field trip to the Kennedy Center for the performing arts to witness a concert designed for children. I remember seeing the concertmaster play solos from "Peter and the Wolf" and telling my orchestra director that I wanted to be just like him! He turned to me and said then you shall be but you must practice hard.
I didn't start to think about being a professional musician until attending the Governor's School for the arts for high school a program for gifted and talented students in the performing arts, dance and visual arts. At GSA I excelled in classes and focused on nothing else but music theory, music history and performance. After competing and winning the concerto competition at the Governor's School for two consecutive years playing Ziguernerweisen by Pablo Sarasate and the third movement of the Max Bruch's concerto no.1 in g minor. I learned that I could do anything I put my mind to. The Governor's School training was integral to me learning that I could pursue music as a career. I also had a teacher/ mentor Mr. Darryl Huskey at the Norfolk State Junior Music Program who made sure I stayed focused on my goals. Later I would meet Ray Fowler the orchestra director at Shenandoah University and he would be integral to getting me a scholarship to further my education and attend Shenandoah Conservatory of Music as a violin performance major.
Talk about your favorite piece to play or a favorite moment you've had as an artist.
My favorite moment has to be when I was given the opportunity to sing for the LGBT Leadership Conference for President Barack Obama's event. It was a surreal feeling to bring music and the arts to politics. I think we as artists have a responsibility to showcase our talents to the world but also to use our influence to make the world a better place. Artists are unique because we think differently and we need to be able to share our thoughts and views in a positive way. I will never forget that night!
Has there been a lot of support for you in classical music world? Have there been barriers?
The classical music world is not like other genres of music. I have had an interesting journey but I don't think me being a transgender woman held me back too much. Of course there would have been conflicts if I were trying to be an opera star or symphonic musician. I started Aida Strings and focused on chamber music performance and producing events.
But had I tried to be an opera star for example some opera companies have a fear of the unknown or of what they THINK an audience would say if I (a transgender woman) was cast as Carmen or Delilah. But that was never my goal to begin with. I'm a recitalist to the core and most of the time I put on my own events and sponsored them myself with the help of a few very giving organizations and non for profits. To me the show must go on. I'm not the type of woman that hears "no you can't do that" and believes it! One must make a goal and see it through.
Tell us about the advocacy work you're involved in, in Baltimore?
I am currently resident of Virginia but most of my advocacy work is outside of the state because Virginia is more conservative than DC and MD. I have volunteered with organizations like Hearts & Ears Inc, Glass Baltimore, and others. It's imperative to me to work with organizations that are trans inclusive. I find that a lot of LGBT organizations are not really trans inclusive and focus mostly on lesbian and gay issues and not trans issues. I have done everything from feed the homeless, to outreach and supported programs who do HIV testing. I also support organizations that help trans women and men get the proper information to change their names and gender markers on their identification.
Playing at Carnegie Hall will be a huge accomplishment. What's the next step in your musical career?
The next step for my career is to tour and share my message of love and tolerance with the world. I am also on a mission to share the music of African American composers to a global audience. Right now African American composers make up less than 5% of the programming on major stages around the world. That needs to change. The music of these composers will keep classical music viable in the upcoming years. As things stand right now we only hear the same masterworks over and over and even an avid classical music enthusiast will not want to hear the same opera or concerto live in concert 200 times. We need to seek out music of other cultures and points of view to remain relevant. I plan to get in the recording studio and record a lot of art songs, concertos and salon pieces of African American composers and connect with artists of various genres and perform around the world. As the great African American soprano Shirley Verrett told me when advising me on my career. "You have a voice that must be heard but you must do your homework and believe that it is possible first. Then find your own niche in this world of music and the performing arts. And you will succeed!" I plan to do just that with the help of my friends, family and fans.