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Ronald Braunstein, Me2/orchestra's music director and co-founder, leading a rehearsal in September 2013. Photo: John Siddle
Ronald Braunstein, Me2/orchestra's music director and co-founder, leading a rehearsal in September 2013. Photo: John Siddle

At Me2/orchestra, "acceptance is really the norm"

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In Burlington, a unique group - Me2 ("me, too") - is using music to help people with mental illness (roughly one in four adults has a diagnosable disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.)

Me2 calls itself "the world's only" orchestra of its kind. The organization blurs the lines between public education, therapy, and musicianship. The story of Me2 begins with its music director, Ronald Braunstein.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Photo: John Siddle, 2013
Photo: John Siddle, 2013
A lot of artists wrestle with their personal demons throughout the creative process. For Braunstein, a conductor from Pittsburgh, those demons came from bipolar disorder. People with the disorder go back and forth between feeling larger than life, and feeling depressed.

"Every five or 10 years, I hit a bad spot, and maybe will disappear for several years. Come back, have another decade of fabulous conducting," Braunstein says.

He has silver hair. He wears glasses and dark clothes. He says the high points in his bipolar disorder may have helped his career.

He studied music at the Julliard School. He won a prestigious competition in Berlin. He got to perform as a guest conductor with top orchestras around the world. But one big issue Braunstein was always confronting – orchestras are often competitive and high pressure. It’s stressful for anyone trying to get ahead as a conductor, and for Braunstein, his bipolar disorder was dragging him down. In 2011, he says it even cost him a job.

That’s when he decided to start his own orchestra – one that reaches out to people like him, people struggling with mental illness. It’s called the Me2/orchestra.

"We’re just making beautiful music together, but in the context of acceptance, rather than competitiveness. In this orchestra, acceptance is really the norm," he says. Braunstein co-founded Me2 with French horn player Caroline Whiddon.

"When he said to me, I want to form this orchestra, I thought, well, okay that’s pretty far out there," Whiddon says. "I wasn’t really sure it would work. But as soon as we put the word out, almost – I mean, within hours, people started emailing us and saying, "‘This is totally what I’ve been waiting for.’"

Whiddon says she’s struggled herself, with chronic anxiety and panic attacks. She, too, felt the need to create a safe space for musicians with mental illnesses. But anybody can join. In fact, Whiddon says that about half of the musicians don’t have any kind of diagnosis. It’s not music therapy, she says. It’s just an orchestra that happens to be just a little more compassionate, and understanding.

Photo: John Siddle, 2013
Photo: John Siddle, 2013
"I think when people come to hear a Me2/orchestra concert, they don’t really know what to expect," Whiddon says. "But they come through the door with this idea that this is – it’s ‘that mental health orchestra.’ And that probably in some cases lowers their expectation as far as quality. And I think people are really surprised and pleased when they hear the quality. It’s an orchestra."

Whiddon says there’s also an activist element in Me2. The orchestra performs at mental health conferences and prisons. Concert Master Kate Ford says that’s her favorite part.

"Just being there, playing for people that wouldn’t otherwise be hearing classical music or being in that close proximity to a musical instrument," Ford says, "was very unique and special" for the participants as well as the audience.  

Whiddon says the orchestra tries to send a clear message: The public shouldn’t be scared of mental illness. "Very often when there’s something violent in the news, that someone gets singled out as being someone who’s living with a mental illness. And the truth is, we get focused on those major events, but most people who live with a mental illness are not violent, and they’re more often the victims of crime," she says. "So, we do have a skewed view of what it means to be living with a mental illness in this country. This orchestra is a perfect example. I mean, you’ve never met a room full of happier, more joy-filled people."

After about an hour or so of practice, it’s time for a break. Annie Coppack, a French horn player, is taking a breather at the front of the room. She says Me2 is much warmer than other classical music groups, where "people are huffy about what seat they’re sitting in, or they wonder how many years you’ve been playing." At Me2, she says, "You just show up here and just do your thing. You can be weird, you can say funny stuff. You can lie on the floor with your dog during break, you know. Anything goes, it’s great."

Coppack recalls a difficult time, about a year ago, when rehearsal was a comfort. "I was in the car, ready to come here, and I found out that a close friend of mine’s mother had just died. I was shocked, it was sudden. I was like, ‘Well, the best place I could be right now, is to be coming here.’"

Nearby, another orchestra member wants to chime in. "Ronnie," she says, referring to music director Ronald Braunstein, "is really good at getting a pretty amazing sound out of amateur musicians. Who – you’d think that it’s not going to come together that well. But it does, because he just – I don’t know. It’s magic."

She won’t give her name, and she says she has a good reason: "I won’t let my name appear in print, next to the words ‘mental illness.’ Because I know that nowadays, employers google you routinely when you’re interviewing for something. And I can’t have that stigma work against me when I’m trying to get a job."

Me2/orchestra is a diverse group, with members ranging in age from 12-88 years old, including students, health care workers, professional musicians, school teachers, and retirees. Photo: John Siddle, 2013
Me2/orchestra is a diverse group, with members ranging in age from 12-88 years old, including students, health care workers, professional musicians, school teachers, and retirees. Photo: John Siddle, 2013
She says she used to be embarrassed about her multiple overlapping disorders. That started to change when she joined the Me2/orchestra.

"I was afraid even to go to a support group," she says. "I was too scared to open up. Then, when I came here, and got to be around people who were mentally ill and willing to talk about it, and see Ronnie, it just – I just started to open up gradually, and I finally started going to those support groups. This has opened up a piece of my life that I wanted to explore."

"I mean ultimately, I think all of society needs to be like this. And Caroline’s said that. She describes this as a model organization. I mean, if everybody who has mental illness could just admit when they’re having a bad day, and not be afraid that everyone’s going to start whispering behind their back."

She hopes the Me2/orchestra and other advocacy groups will encourage more people not to be afraid anymore.

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