On the Monday after that horrible winter weekend last year, when everyone was still in shock about the Browning family - a mother and father shot to death by their teenage son, two boys shot to death by their older brother - Jonathan Sindler, the band director at Cockeysville Middle School, saw a hand go up among his students. The shootings had claimed two from his percussion section - Greg, 14, and Ben, 11 - and the boys and girls who had played with the Browning brothers wanted to do something.
"Can we dedicate a song to them?" one of the band members asked.
Mr. Sindler thought for a moment, then said, "I have an even better idea. Let's commission a piece." Dedicate it to the Brownings. Perform it in concert. Raise some money for scholarships in the process. Let's rise up from this awful winter moment, he thought, and do something beautiful and memorable. Let's do what musicians are supposed to do: help a community heal.
Thus began "the Browning project," as it came to be called.
Money had to be raised. A concert had to be arranged. And music had to be written - an elegiac piece that would speak to the complex emotions evoked by the tragedy, but within the reach of a middle school band.
The first person Mr. Sindler thought of was Brian Balmages, a gifted composer who lives in Timonium and a member of the diaspora of professional musicians and educators who once attended the Baltimore County schools and who had themselves been members of bands. Mr. Sindler, 36, had played clarinet at Pikesville High. He remembered Mr. Balmages, who played trumpet at Dulaney High, from all-county and all-state bands. More recently, Mr. Sindler knew Mr. Balmages' work for the music publisher, FJH Music Co.
Before going to work on the piece, Mr. Balmages went to Cockeysville Middle and met the members of the band. In addition, Mr. Sindler asked the students to write their memories of Ben and Greg Browning. He collected them and mailed them off to Mr. Balmages.
"Some were just three or four sentences, some were entire pages," Mr. Balmages says. "A lot of the stories had to do with comical moments at school - jumping out of lockers, putting hand sanitizer on your tongue to see if it makes it tingle - and one of the students talked about having transferred into Cockeysville and the two brothers being very welcoming and saying hello and, 'Hey, sit down and have lunch with us.'"
Forming in Mr. Balmages' mind was a short piece that evoked that juvenile joy while acknowledging its loss, and the loss of a family. Mr. Sindler wanted a slower, expressive work with one or two percussive highlights, a paean to Ben and Greg.
Mr. Balmages went to work and finished "Kindred Spirits" in January. It starts with a mournful whisper, and to my ear runs a full arc of emotions within its 6 1/2 minutes, suggesting conflict and sadness, with nods to youthful joy, and at last spiritual peace.
"I was floored by it," Mr. Sindler says, recalling his reaction to the score. "It exceeded all my expectations. It is a substantial piece."
The boys and girls who had once played with Ben and Greg Browning performed "Kindred Spirits" in concert last Sunday in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College. It was the last piece on the program. Mr. Sindler conducted. Mr. Balmages listened from the audience.
"Well," he says, "the audience was incredibly quiet, which is what I was hoping for. For all the other performances on the program, the audience had clapped immediately. But, when 'Kindred' ended, there was silence, and it stayed there for several seconds, until [Mr. Sindler] dropped his arms, and then there was all this applause and people around me saying, 'Thank you, thank you for writing this.'
"This certainly was one of the most emotional pieces I've ever written," adds Balmages, the father of two small children, one only 11 weeks old. "In terms of my own personal growth, I rank it very high - being able to communicate really difficult emotions with very young kids. ... Here was a chance for me to eulogize a family and help mend people."
Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.