Healing Song

Middle School Remembers Slain Browning Family

April 27, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Student musicians from Cockeysville Middle School gathered Sunday for a benefit concert to remember classmates Greg and Ben Browning, and their parents, lost last year in a spasm of family violence that horrified their suburban community.

Toward the end of the concert at Goucher College, during the performance of a specially commissioned piece, four chimes rang out from the percussion section, where Ben and Greg should have been.

Composer Brian Balmages said the same notes are repeated throughout the section, "a metaphor to illustrate the unbroken bonds of the family."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions incorrectly added the word "Valley" to the name of Dulaney High School. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

The concert will benefit music scholarships for Cockeysville alumni, the latest in the community's efforts to extract something positive from the Browning family's tragedy.

In April last year, hundreds of friends, students and teachers gathered at Cockeysville Middle School to dedicate a memorial garden of flowers, evergreen shrubs and a weeping cypress after 200 volunteers spent two weekends preparing the ground and planting.

"This is a way of moving on," said Principal Philip W. Taylor.

Organizers hoped Sunday evening's concert and a concurrent silent auction would raise $10,000 in scholarship money for Cockeysville and Dulaney Valley High School graduates.

Their effort sounded a chord of hope after a crescendo of family violence last week in Maryland. Two incidents claimed a family of five in Middletown in Frederick County, and a New York family of four in a Towson hotel room.

Those crimes rekindled memories of the Browning murders last year. Gregory, 14, his brother Benjamin, 11, and their parents John W. Browning, 45, and Tamara Browning, 44, were shot to death in their beds Feb. 2, 2008.

Their brother and son, Nicholas, then 16, later pleaded guilty to the crimes, saying he was the victim of abuse at the hands of his father. He was sentenced Jan. 23 to two consecutive life terms, with two more to be served concurrently. He will not become eligible for a parole hearing for 30 years.

Both murdered Browning brothers were students of Jonathan Sindler, 36, band director at the middle school for the past eight years.

"They were extremely talented," he recalled before Sunday's 5 p.m. concert. "Both of them played every instrument in the percussion family. I believe Gregory was planning on continuing with band at Dulaney."

Fourteen months of preparation for the benefit concert provided "an enormous amount of healing" for his students, Sindler said. "What better way to celebrate their lives than through music?"

Almost 290 students - current Cockeysville students as well as alumni now at Dulaney and Loch Raven high schools, Calvert Hall College High School, Towson University, the University of Maryland and Gettysburg College - returned to participate.

"Given the situation, it's a great honor," said Connelly Doan, 17, a junior at Dulaney and a percussionist who performed Sunday evening. "Everyone is trying to put their heart into the music, because we all know what we're representing here."

Chloe Adler, 14, a ninth-grade trumpet player and former classmate of Gregory's, said she was "appalled at what happened" but excited to be part of the benefit concert. "What Mr. Sindler has done is such an extraordinary thing. I'm very proud to be here, and to be [premiering] the piece 'Kindred Spirits.' "

The new work commissioned for the occasion is "beautiful, really melodic," she said. "It's got some sad tones, but it's moving. The audience will love it. Some will even be in tears."

When he began to organize the performances by eight instrumental and choral groups, Sindler asked Balmages, a Dulaney graduate and composer, to write the piece for the combined seventh- and ninth-grade bands.

Balmages, 34, is director of instrumental publications at FJH Publishing Co. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He has written and premiered works for the Baltimore and Miami symphony orchestras.

He said "Kindred Spirits" was "probably one of the most difficult pieces I've ever had to write." Although he has eulogized young people before with music, he said, it was "never something so close to home."

As part of his composing process, he invited students in Greg and Ben's classes to write a paragraph or two expressing their feelings in the wake of the killings, and their memories of the two boys. They responded with remembrances both sad and funny, and "the music tries to portray a little of that," Balmages said.

He knew the resulting six-minute composition would also be a technically challenging piece for a student band to play. "I was trying to communicate a lot of emotion for students who are still growing into their emotions," he said.

Even so, he said, "they're doing a very nice job with it."

Donations to the Browning memorial scholarship fund, payable to Cockeysville Middle School, may be mailed to the school at 10401 Greenside Drive, Cockeysville 21030.

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