National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Gaining Support and Fighting Stigma through Music
By Maggie Smith, NAMI Information Assistant
You can hear the notes drifting through the air, the sound rising and falling as the musicians play their instruments, following the rise and fall of the conductor’s hands. It seems as effortless and natural as the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe in and out. It’s hard to believe that the music you are hearing is the result of nearly 30 individuals, ranging from age 8 to older than 70, playing about a dozen different instruments at the same time. And for some, it might be harder to believe that these individuals’ lives are all impacted in some way by mental illness. In fact, the members of this orchestra live with illnesses including depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia and addiction.
The combination of orchestral music and mental illness may not seem like an obvious one to many of us but for the creators of this group it makes perfect sense. The idea for ME2/orchestra, as the group is known, came from Ronald Braunstein, the group’s music director who is living with bipolar disorder. Over the past four decades, Ronald led a successful music career, conducting orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Swiss Radio Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, and the National Orchestra of Taiwan. In the 1980s he made New York his home while teaching in the pre-college divisions at the Juilliard School of Music and, later, the Mannes School of Music. Ronald came to Vermont in 2010 to lead a youth orchestra program but, only a few months later, while struggling with his illness he was asked to leave.
Caroline Whiddon, the executive director of ME2, first met Ronald when they worked together at the youth orchestra in Vermont. She later resigned from her position and the two of them left their jobs on the same day. Soon afterwards Ronald came to her with the idea to start an orchestra specifically for individuals living with a mental illness, “for people like me” he said. He explained that “I thought that there was a need for this since I’ve played in many orchestras and I’ve gone to support groups and I felt neither of them worked for me.” In the end, he said, “I simply felt a need to create an organization that is specifically geared for me and my tribe.”
At first Caroline had a hard time taking the idea seriously, but the more she considered it the more she began to think “why not?” Both Ronald and Caroline were unsure about how successful the group would be but any hesitations they had were quickly relieved when interested musicians began reaching out to learn more.
“The emails we received were so personal,” Caroline said, thinking back to the time after the press releases had gone out and the website was up and running. “People told us very personal details about their past experiences, so when we had our first rehearsal I felt like I knew everyone and wanted to be involved in their lives and help them. I want to stand, or in this case sit, in solidarity with others who have mental illness.”
Reflecting on ME2’s first few months both Caroline and Ronald are realizing the unique and amazing benefits this combination of music and mental health awareness provides for those involved. Both know that this group is one of a kind because of who they have chosen to serve, but it is also one of the few orchestras that don’t cultivate an arena for cut throat competition. Both described the environment within the average professional orchestra as extremely stressful and unsupportive.
“In professional orchestras, everyone has scorecards and every time you drop a note, everyone [marks that down]. No one would have the opportunity to say, ‘I need more time to breathe.’ That could never happen, it’s forbidden,” Ronald explained. However, “in our orchestra someone can ask for more time to breathe or more bowing time. … [ME2 is] a model for communication about our illnesses. In other words, we can share things about our illness without fear that someone is going to note that down on their scorecards.” ME2 taps into the natural community and family structure of an orchestra and uses it not only to make beautiful music but also to help its members build relationships and trust.
“It really goes hand in hand with the orchestra model and the support group model kind of coming together. That’s why I like it,” said Ronald.
Marek Lorenc, a senior at the University of Vermont living with bipolar disorder and a clarinet player with ME2, feels that “there’s a general understanding that we’re all in the same boat and that this is a safe space.” He explains that he enjoys not needing to focus on the issues; you can blend in and just play.
While ME2 members are learning to support each other through the experience of making music they are also fighting stigma against mental illness, “the final taboo” as Caroline describes it. Both Caroline and Ronald explained that over time stigmas and prejudices have been conquered but even in this day and age if someone brings up mental illness a hush falls over the room.
“There are groups that have overcome stigma,” recalled Ronald. “In the 60s [gay people] came out as a group, and they were stigmatized; some people didn’t like them. So they started to fight stigma. And here we are only [a few] years decades later and we’re getting gay marriages. So it means that stigma is beatable.” Caroline also mentions that the gay chorus movement has served as an inspiration to her as ME2 also uses music to fight stigma and cultivate support.
ME2 is also fighting stigma just by existing. Marek has experienced stigma and misunderstanding of mental illness; hearing people toss around the word bipolar without really understanding what it means. But he believes that “with an orchestra like this you see all these people who have mental illness … and they’re all working together… to build on something and make something beautiful. I think that’s a very good thing for people with mental illness everywhere.”
In the coming months ME2 plans to continue to serve people living with or supporting those with mental illness. They’ve been doing this since their first rehearsal with great success due in large part to the passion and dedication that both Ronald and Caroline have brought to this project. Caroline describes every week with the group as a “journey of discovery.”
“It’s so powerful; every Wednesday night I feel this renewed confidence” she said.
“Having worked with different conductors over the years you realize that the really great conductors …will try to convey, ‘ok what is this piece actually supposed to sound like? What emotions are we trying to convey?’” Marek explains. “Everyone will have different interpretation; there are a lot of opportunities for personalities to come through in how pieces are conducted. Ronald really puts himself into it; he’s really passionate about the music and that comes out in his conducting and that translates to us and our playing. I think that’s been really great.”
Every month more musicians join and ME2 has recently been approached by NAMI Vermont to see if they would be interested in performing at their state convention. Once the group is thoroughly established, they even hope to expand beyond Vermont into other states. “It’s going to spread nationally” Ronald said, “We’re planning by the third year to have five orchestras in five cities.” Based on their success in Vermont it seems likely that they will.
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