The African American Folklorist: Dean Terrance Brown, Educator and Opera Singer
The life journey of Terrance Brown, Western Kentucky University’s Dean of Potter’s College of Arts & Letters, encapsulates the concept of the voice as a significant instrument of liberation and legacy. Brown accomplishes this through both academia and performance.
Starting his musical journey as a trombone player in high school, he would soon pivot from his goal of pre-med.
“I was going to go to Birmingham Southern...I was just blown away by the music. And I said I can't really leave this. So I went home and I talked to my mom and I said, I'm not going to [pursue] pre-med. I'm going to [aim for] music and she looked at me and said baby, whatever you want to do, we will make it work.”
With a strong foundation and support from fellow musicians and music teachers, Brown’s endeavor was met with what he says was an opportunity outside of his comfort zone. “I was singing His Eyes On The Sparrow with Jurrell. And he was playing, we were singing gospel, and I didn't really know how to sing! Honestly, I was just singing.” Yet, he was heard by a choir director who offered Brown an invitation to join the choir.
After some convincing, Brown joined, and shortly after was given his first solo performance. That lead to Brown’s love for classical music, opera, and meeting his wife Tiffany Bostic Brown, who is also a singer, and who keeps him on his toes. “She really encouraged me to develop my voice, because she was always honest with me.” Dean Brown and his wife are singers and perform a great rendition of Bessie Is My Woman from the opera Porgy & Bess.
I had the honor of sitting down and speaking with Dean Brown about his journey as an educator and opera singer in his office where I noticed the Porgy & Bess book on his shelf. Brown says, "Porgy and Bess is really a good financial tool to help bring a company into the black in terms of budget-wise. The reason why I think, [is] because of the music. The music tells a story of human passion. It tells the story of [the] human nature of black culture and the black experiences.”
Brown approaches the voice as a vessel, saying, “when you train as an artist you train to be a conduit of whatever genre you choose to do, [to] practice at that moment, whether [it] being a traditional black American Spiritual, or singing German opera.” He takes the same approach as an academic who works to give his students the agency to find, build and cultivate their voices, “It's always this duality. What are we doing? We're learning our culture, but also we're communicating our culture. And we're being constantly asked, What is your culture at the same time. So I think that with that, that's why it's important to create a space for those voices because you need freedom for those voices to develop, and, to learn how to communicate their story to others.”
Below you will find an excerpt from the Weekend Edition African American Folklorist segment with Dean Brown:
Lamont Jack Pearley: That silky baritone bellows from Terrance Brown, Dean of the Potter’s College of Arts and Letters at Western Kentucky University. As I sat in his office, setting up my audio equipment, I glanced around and noticed a large book titled “Porgy and Bess” sitting on the shelf. The folklorist in me became even more intrigued. Dean Brown says Porgy and Bess is a favorite of him and his wife, and that they perform a great rendition of ‘Bessie Is My Woman Now’ from the opera.
Dean Terrance Brown: My biggest thing with Porgy and Bess is that most people have viewed it as a musical. Which sort of was clarified when they did come out with a musical. But the original is an American opera, American folk opera. And I think that opera gave a platform for black American singers to take the stage.
Lamont Jack Pearley: Dean Brown has performed in the Porgy and Bess opera many times, even debuting as a tenor with the New Orleans Opera. [Brown] Starting off as a trombone player in high school, in his hometown of Alabama, [his] support system led to singing in the choir. And the choir led to singing opera.
Dean Terrance Brown: So with that, I went to LSU and got into opera big time. I met my wife, Tiffany Bostic Brown there. And she really encouraged me to develop my voice because she was always honest with me. From there, I got into opera and classical music, and I have a strong passion for opera, and also the concert stage. Singing small chamber ensembles, singing with an orchestra, or a solo. It's always one of my favorite things because you can connect directly to the audience.
Lamont Jack Pearley: As Dean brown connected with his audience and his art form. It was the performance of a Brahms Requiem opera that played a part in galvanizing his music and academic [vision].
Dean Terrance Brown: And there were two black American singers on stage as a baritone and a soprano, and I saw them and I was enamored because I didn't know that you could do that, as a black American singer. [I didn’t know] that was an option. Though I was sitting in the choir singing, I didn't realize [it] as a soloist. So when he opened his mouth [it was] awesome. And when he started that opening, Lord help me! I was like, wow, I was just blown away.
Lamont Jack Pearley: As someone who uses his voice, Dean brown works to make sure his students are able to find and use theirs. When asked how important it is to give a voice to students who are underrepresented. He says,
Dean Terrance Brown: history and the practice of learning history informs us as we move forward in the future. And if you don't have a full grasp of [the] history, then you can't find a way to effectively move forward and to affect the change and the positive changes needed in the world. That's why those voices are important and those black voices are important because they tell the story of the black experience. And I know that it seems like sometimes that well what is the black experience it's constantly being written.