Let me tell you about the Me2/Orchestra! No, not that Me2. This organization was founded in 2011 in Burlington, Vermont, by music director Ronald Braunstein and executive director Caroline Whiddon. Braunstein has spent his whole life struggling with bipolar disorder and felt that he was uniquely positioned to start a new type of orchestra for people with mental illnesses. He wanted to create a stigma free zone for those musicians who needed a positive outlet for their art, and to support them on their road to better mental health.
Braunstein is an incredibly accomplished conductor and educator who has traveled all over the world, was the first American to win the Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, and taught for many years at the Juilliard School and the Mannes School of Music preparatory division. His and Caroline Whiddon’s goal with the …
“… Me2/Orchestra was to serve as a model organization where people with and without mental illnesses work together in an environment where acceptance is an expectation, patience is encouraged, and supporting each other is a priority.”
The organization has now grown to include over 160 musicians in three orchestras, chamber music groups, and a Flute choir.
This past weekend I had the honor of witnessing the incredible work that the Me2/Orchestra is doing. I happen to serve on my city’s Commission On Disability, and to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month in May we hosted the Me2/Orchestra at one of our local high schools. In addition to partnering with Me2/ we worked with the Eliot House to help us host this event.
“Elliot House is an employment and recovery center that offers people with mental health challenges hope and opportunities to achieve their full potential through peer support and rehabilitation.”
What made this concert event so special, besides the music of course, was the atmosphere of kindness, sharing, and support. We had a few members from the orchestra share a few words about their journey through mental health struggles and how staying with their musical practice helped them move forward. One orchestra member who has struggled with Dissociative Identity Disorder described how because of her deteriorating mental health over a decade ago, she had to stop working as a professional musician. She then found Me2/ and with their support, and by having the chance to play again with other musicians, she was able to get better and move forward. Another orchestra member shared that he is a music teacher in our city, and expressed how important it is that his students see him on stage because those of them who also struggle with mental health see themselves represented in a positive way.
I think I always liked to believe that I was resilient when faced with the sometimes stress inducing classical music education training I grew up with. But no doubt I struggled with the aim to always be perfect, never make mistakes, and the criticism sometimes felt like an attack on my character or persona. Despite getting to a professional level I struggled enough to know that I would not be able to stay in that world. I simply couldn’t live up to the expectations that my musical upbringing had shaped my brain to foster. I found myself craving freedom to express music more creatively, which is how I found myself in the Contemporary Improvisation program for my Masters at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, now named Contemporary Musical Arts.
But the missing part of my story is that I myself was walking around with an undiagnosed mental condition. I have just recently been diagnosed with ADHD, and it is safe to say that it has put my whole life into a new perspective. I am more forgiving and understanding of myself, I am letting go of the control I thought I had to have, and as a good friend wisely suggested, I am embracing the mess. This diagnosis for sure sheds light on some of the struggles I had along the way, and to be fair it also somewhat explains some of the strengths I enjoyed. Hyperfocus under pressure anyone?
The Me2/Orchestra concert was therefore a true place of safety and joy for me to experience, where over 200 people came to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, and to support musicians with mental health challenges who did an incredible job sharing their love of music with us, the music of Beethoven, a genius composer who himself struggled with mental health his entire life.
Please enjoy this short video I recorded from the sidelines of the Me2/Orchestra performing the end of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.