by Theresa Litz
Ronald Braunstein’s conducting career has taken him around the world, as far as Oslo, The Hague, and Tokyo. He has trained with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. In 1979, he won the gold medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition and spent four years apprenticing with the Berlin Philharmonic. But the unpredictable effects of bipolar disorder presented the biggest challenge in his life, one that just a few years ago left him unemployed and suicidal.
Bipolar disorder is marked by episodes of extreme mood swings, highs (mania) and lows (depression). During periods of mania, Braunstein says he was extremely productive. Invariably, though, the highs were followed by severe depression, leaving him incapacitated and unable to work. After a final stint as music director and conductor with the Vermont Youth Orchestra (VYO), he realized his life and career needed to take a different direction.
He found a partner in Caroline Whiddon (VYO’s executive director at the time and a French horn player). Together, they embarked on a new venture they hoped would change the lives of other people living with mental illness. In 2011, Me2/Orchestra (“me, too”) Music for Mental Health was launched. Largely funded by donations and grants, there are no auditions or fees to join, and everyone is welcome. The group focuses on people with mental illness, but includes family members, psychiatrists, psychologists, amateurs, and professionals alike.
“It looks like any other community ensemble,” says Braunstein. “The primary difference is we openly acknowledge the fact that everyone in the room has different needs, and we’re there to support each other. We seek to ease the stigma around mental illness and to create a safe work space.”
Me2/ has a core group of 25 or 30 musicians ranging in age from 12 to 88, with varying skill levels, who attend the weekly rehearsals. “I have learned to change the focus of my conducting work,” says Braunstein. “Previously, I focused on musical execution above all. Now, the most important thing is to work with my friends in the orchestra—and the results are staggering.” He explains, “We have the willingness to forgo the immediate artistic goal in deference to the process by which one attains that goal. This orchestra is based on acceptance, not technical perfection. Still, almost every time, they knock it out of the park!”
Like most orchestras, Me2/ performs in concert halls, but outreach efforts also focus on those who are struggling with mental illness. According to Whiddon, now Me2/’s executive director, this has led to performances in all eight of Vermont’s correctional facilities statewide, as well as a juvenile rehabilitation center. This month, several of the group’s
musicians will provide music during the open house for Vermont’s new state psychiatric hospital.
Concertmaster Kate Ford does not live with mental illness, but values the social mission of the ensemble. “I love being part of this orchestra that I feel serves the community in much more tangible ways than any other music ventures of which I’ve been a part,” she says. “Using music to further awareness and open the conversation of mental health issues in such a direct and articulate way is so much more satisfying than just playing and hoping that people will like it. I feel like I’m part of something really great.”
It still amazes Braunstein that, in a few short years, the fledgling ensemble has garnered so much attention. In addition to the media coverage—the Associated Press, BBC’s First Person, and Al Jazeera English, to name a few—he gets dozens of inquiries from people asking how to replicate the program in their own community. So much interest, in fact, that branding efforts are underway to market Me2/ nationwide. The organization will be producing a tool kit expressly designed for Me2/ affiliate ensembles, with components that include a formal mission statement, logos, conductor notes and instructions, and a carefully graded five-piece repertoire to start. The first step toward expansion is the launch of a Me2/Orchestra in Boston this fall. A choir in Burlington, Vermont, is also on the horizon.
Although it specializes in classical music, the ensemble occasionally adds pop, jazz, and show tunes to its programs. A recent performance featuring a Boston-based opera singer living with bipolar disorder featured “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha and Sam Cooke’s civil rights-era hit “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s no coincidence that the message of hope is notably present in the ensemble’s repertoire. Of its success, Braunstein says, “We’re constantly pinching ourselves.”