2016 Brown Music Competition unfolds as battle among friends

The senior winner of the vocal portion of the local Brown Music Competition on Saturday seemed to forget moments after his victory that the prestigious event remains a battle of sorts — and one for a $3,500 scholarship at that.

Columbus East High School senior and tenor Luke Major diverted attention to his singing peers when he was asked about his performance of Kurt Weil’s “Lonely House” and Leo Delibes’ “Bonjour Suzon” before judges from some of the area’s top music schools, including Columbus native Eric Stark, Butler University’s director of choral activities.

“Everyone in my category was absolutely so good,” Major said. “And we’ve all known each other so long, and many of us go to the same voice teachers. So we’re very good at always supporting each other.”

So good that, moments before a panel of six judges pronounced their decisions before a gathering of friends and family of the 45 participants, students gathered and chatted warmly and laughed easily as if they were at a laid-back party.

“That just blows my mind,” said Dan Wallace, a longtime organist at First Christian Church, site of the competition. “They’re definitely competing — and yet, look at that. They’re obviously still friends.”

Sax player and senior instrumental winner Devan Rhoades performed as if he were among friends as he played Paul Creston’s “Sonata Opus 19 for E-Flat Alto Saxophone.”

“I’m sometimes nervous as I’m waiting (to perform),” Rhoades said. “But after that first note, I’m good.”

Rhoades also received a $3,500 scholarship for winning the instrumental competition.

His mother, Kelly Rhoades, humorously wishes these competitions were as easy on her as him.

“For me, it’s almost like a sporting event,” she said. “As I was pulling in this morning, my stomach was turning with butterflies.”

The competition that began with the vocal segment in 1985 has lasted so long that one of its former vocal winners, Julianna Jerome-Drerup, has been preparing her own vocal students for each of the past several years. She enjoyed a worldwide career in opera before returning to Columbus. Former winner vocalist Alison Bates has also enjoyed a career in opera.

Several former winners including Kate Hamilton and Rachel Mercer Holland have returned home from professional careers to perform as favorites a few times with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.

The orchestra also figures in the competition because it gives the top-finishing vocalist and instrumentalist the chance to audition to perform with the ensemble in concert before 1,000 people.

The annual Brown Music Scholarship Competition was the brainchild of the late Robert N. and Betty F. Brown, in honor of Robert’s mother, Anna Newell Brown, a talented vocalist. Betty F. Brown was a polished player of piano, organ and recorder. Robert was the longtime chairman of Home News Enterprises, former parent company of The Republic.

The event includes the Betty F. Brown Awards For Instrumental Excellence and the Anna Newell Brown Awards For Vocal Excellence.

Jeff Brown, the son of Robert N. and Betty Brown and also the president and CEO of AIM Media Indiana, mentioned that his father probably never expected the competition, administered by The Heritage Fund: The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, to last 31 years.

“It’s always fun to come here and see the talent that comes up through the school system and to see the overall talent in Columbus,” Brown said.

To participate, students must be recommended by their high school choral or instrumental director, a private instructor or the director of a community music organization. Students perform with the hopes of earning scholarships for private music lessons or music camps.

Such guiding hands attending Saturday talked of pride of seeing their charges showcase their talent. Bill Stultz, longtime Columbus North High School band director known to be a meticulous listener, mentioned that he dispenses with his music teacher side at the Brown event.

“I usually just sit back and enjoy it,” Stultz said.

Longtime local pianist Ed Bruenjes, an accompanist for many competitors for nearly the past 25 years, said he loves the competition and what it does for the students.

“They get to hear each other perform,” Bruenjes said. “And they get ideas of pieces that maybe they can perform later in two or three years. And I think all of it is just really encouraging for them — and gives them a great background and becomes a great confidence builder.”

The winners

The Anna Newell Brown Awards For Vocal Excellence


First place: Luke Major, $3,500; second place (tie) : Shelby Bricker, $1,250; and Caroline Luehrmann, $1,250. Annelise Guenther, $300.


Emily Sipes and Joseph Robinson, $750; Erin Erickson, $500; Tristan Grider, $200; Samuele Beggs, $200; Sarah Pankratz, $200; Pavithra Venkataraman $200; and Brittany Davis, $200.

The Betty F. Brown Awards For Instrumental Excellence


First place: Devan Rhoades, $3,500; second place (tie): Tiger Fu, $1,000 and Adam Ruble, $1,000.


Richard Liu, piano, $600; Clayton Stine, alto sax, $600; Machi Takeda, trombone, $600; Matthew Allman, percussion, $200; Caleb Bray, trumpet, $200; Samuel Heichelbech, clarinet, $200.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.