Transgender musician makes waves with voice, violin

On a YouTube video, Tona Brown is first seen playing some Bach on the violin. Then she breaks into song, delivering "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in a full-throated mezzo-soprano voice.

That Rodgers and Hammerstein classic makes a particularly fitting anthem for Brown, who has faced her share of hurdles. None of them, it seems, have fazed this transgender musician who moved to Baltimore about a year ago.

"You can't tell me I can't do something," Brown says with a broad smile, interviewed on a warm afternoon in the rowhouse she shares with a roommate half a block from Lake Montebello.

Brown has been making a name for herself in the classical music and transgender communities. Her profile is likely to increase after Monday night's appearance in New York at the seventh annual Out Music Awards, a program saluting the work of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists. Brown will be the violin soloist in a movement from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."

"It's the first time they've had anything classical on the show," she says. "I am so honored. It's going to be a big production number — Tona meets Beyonce, or something," she adds with a high-pitched, infectious laugh.

Among the string players backing up Brown at the awards show will be Robin Faye Massie, assistant principal violist of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. She's also an organizer of Musicians of Mercy, a Baltimore group that gave a concert last winter in memory of young people who committed suicide after bullying about their sexual orientation.

"When I was arranging that concert," Massie says, "I heard about Tona and thought she might want to join us. I went to a recital she gave and introduced myself afterward. Right away, it felt like we had known each other for years, which sounds like a cliche, but it's true. I had never known a transgender person. She's a fascinating, loving person, kind of an old-fashioned Southern belle."

Brown, who started playing violin at the age of 10, attended the Governor's School for the Arts in her hometown of Norfolk, Va., on a scholarship and went on to study violin at the Shenandoah Conservatory while also taking voice lessons.

Around the time she left the conservatory, in her early 20s, Brown knew she wanted a dual music career as a violinist and a mezzo, and to have that career as a transgender woman. "I was in-your-face when I transitioned," she says, laughing.

Brown, now 31, was in-your-face in her early years, too.

"I was a very flamboyant child, to say the least," she says, with another laugh. "I was androgynous. It was obvious very early that I was different."

Back then, when her name was Thomas Brown, that difference raised some eyebrows.

"My mother told me about an incident when I was 8 or 9," Brown says. "I was jumping rope with some girls — I was double-dutch champion. My mother was looking out the window and saw some boys come over and call me names. She was about to come outside, but she heard me say: 'If you're a bigger person, why don't you jump better than me?'"

Brown's dare paid off.

"The boys started jumping rope so they could meet the girls," she says. "They didn't cross me too much after that. I was a very resilient child. And I was so happy to be me."

That feeling remained the same when Brown decided to make the change from Thomas to Tona, to live as she wanted to live.

"I was raised in a family of country people," she says, "so you can imagine that my transition was new and different. But my mother was amazing. She didn't know what it was, but she wanted me to be happy. I have three brothers and one stepsister, and they're very protective. Only in the extended family are there issues."

One reason Brown chose to live in Baltimore is because "there's a very large African-American transgender community here," she says. "I do a lot of advocacy work. It's important that there are positive role models."

The recent attack on a young transgender woman at fast-food restaurant in Baltimore gave Brown pause.

"I feel situations like that come from social conditioning, a mind frame that says anything different is harmful and should be banished," Brown says. "My message to people who don't understand and feel the need to be violent is: Look inward. We all bleed the same way."

Brown has not feared for her own safety here ("I try to be as street-smart as possible," she says), and she has not faced open hostility.

"Being in the arts makes it a little easier," she says.

In addition to the violin playing and the singing, she gives private voice lessons, both in person and via Skype.

Brown's singing caught the attention of Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation founder Robyn Stevens, who plans to feature the mezzo in presentations.

"Tona has an unusual voice people should hear," Stevens says. "It's very powerful, with the cartilage and larynx of a man, but with a feminine quality. The timbre is unique."

Massie finds a common quality in Brown's singing and violin playing. "There's an old-fashioned vibrato to her tone," she says. "It's a warm, interesting sound".

Brown is working on a recording that will showcase that sound in a program of vocal and violin music by African-American composers. In her spare time, she also plans to work on a literary project.

"I'm too young for an autobiography, but I have a lot of stories about how someone transitions from male to female," she says. "So I'm writing a book, which should interest Hollywood. A movie about my life would be hah-lar-i-ous."