Today we’re talking with Caroline Whiddon, the co-founder of Me2/Orchestra, the world’s only classical music organisation created for those with mental illnesses and the people who support them.
The mission of Me2/Orchestra is to erase the stigma surrounding mental illness, including addiction, through supportive classical music ensembles and inspiring performances.
As a society we are only just beginning to figure out how to talk sensibly and openly about mental illness. In this interview we wanted to be respectful and tactful while also addressing head-on some of the stigma that Me2/Orchestra is trying to mitigate, such as the assumptions people have about how an orchestra of people with mental illness can actually function.
We talk about:
- Caroline’s own story of music and mental health and how it led to her meeting the co-founder of Me2/, Ronald Braunstein.
- How after studying with the likes of Karajan and Bernstein, Ronald was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and encountered the stigma and discrimination which ultimately inspired the Me2/ project.
- And the specific ways Me2/ benefits its players and enlightens audiences – not in any kind of preachy way but simply by virtue of its existence and musical excellence.
One thing to clarify before we dive in – you might associate the phrase “Me Too” with the recent #MeToo movement about sexual assault but Me2/Orchestra was founded in 2011 and there’s no connection between the two. The name came from Ronald’s experience sharing his mental health diagnosis with other musicians and being surprised to hear them say “me too”.
Mental health is something we should talk more openly and honestly about. We are glad to have the opportunity to showcase this wonderful project. Whether this topic is of interest to you or not, there is a ton of insight packed into this conversation and we can all learn a lot from how Me2/ approaches running an orchestra.
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Caroline: Hi, this is Caroline Whiddon from Me2/Orchestra and this is musicality now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show Caroline, thank you for joining us today.
Caroline: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Christopher: So I have been really admiring your project, Me2/Orchestra from afar and I’m excited to have the chance to actually talk to you live about it. But before we dig into that, I’d love to understand a bit about your own musical backstory and where you came from as a musician.
Caroline: Sure. I grew up in a very musical family. My parents were professional musicians. They both are actually graduates of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. And some of my earliest memories come from hearing them recitalize as a really young girl. That was when I realized that music was going to be a part of my life forever. I would watch them perform and just felt so moved by it. And even though it would be several years before I would end up taking up my own instrument, which is French horn, I think it was those early years of just being exposed to music that really lit a fire in me.
Christopher: Terrific. And what was that process of learning French horn like for you, was it something you took to like conductor water? Was it a struggle? Was it the kind of classic childhood story of fighting with the parents over practice? What did it look like?
Caroline: I think it was sadly me deciding to play the French horn was kind of my rebellious stage as a youngster because my father was a pianist. My mother was a violinist. And so me deciding to be brass player was, no, that was my rebellious stage. Didn’t get much to work for me. It’s tough. I mean, I remember early on in middle school, sitting in my band director’s office after school and him working so hard with me struggling to play C in the staff and it was just so, so hard to do. But it was also so much fun. I had played piano for many years before that and it’s such a wonderful, but a very solitary practice to play piano. And so for me to be introduced to the joy of band playing and be on the horn and the band was really, it was very cool.
Christopher: Fantastic. And you went on to study music primarily after high school, is that right?
Caroline: I did. I ended up also going to the Eastman School of Music and receiving my bachelor’s degree in performance there. And I had such a tremendous experience at that school. I mean the opportunity to play with other great, great musicians, to tour internationally, to work with incredible staff, incredible faculty and staff there was really life changing. And then I had planned to go on actually and get my grad degree in performance but that was about the time that I was experiencing a lot of changes personally and would go on to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety. And I was actually having pretty serious panic attacks at that point. So it didn’t position me well to be a performing musician. I had to kind of rethink that plan. And at that point, my focus moved over to orchestral administration.
Caroline: I got a job working part time at my local symphony down in Columbus, Georgia and I was doing music library work and a little bit of marketing and communications and education work. And I absolutely fell in love with it. And so for the next 20 some odd years, that’s where my focus would be and where it continues to be really.
Christopher: I see. And I am curious to dig in a little more just because I think it’s pertinent to our overall conversation, but if we could go back to that stage where you made that change from, I’m a professional French horn player to moving into the more administrative side. You’ve made a comment to me in advance with the interview about French horn being a particularly challenging instrument or having a reputation. Could you talk a little bit about that? What was it about the life that maybe factored into you struggling on the mental health side?
Caroline: Oh gosh. I mean I think I was probably predisposed to some degree of anxiety and depression regardless of what instrument I played. My mother also during her lifetime suffered with symptoms of depression and anxiety. So I think to some degree that’s where I was headed regardless. But it is kind of funny to me that I chose to play what is such a difficult instrument. And particularly an instrument where you need to be able to breathe and anyone who’s struggled with any level of even just performance anxiety knows that you tend to sort of close yourself off and not take deep breaths. So here I was playing this beautiful brass instrument that’s such a beast to try to play and hit all the right notes and there’s so much pressure on you, it’s so exposed. And yet I was kind of closing in on myself because of the anxiety and the panic disorders.
Caroline: So the two really didn’t mix that well at the time and it just got to a point where I didn’t enjoy playing. So for me, when I made that decision to make a break from performing and teaching to go purely administrative within the orchestral world it actually, I remember I sold my horn to one of my students at that time and I had about a day full of tears. And then I never looked back for 18 years after that. I just loved being one of the people behind the scenes making the music possible.
Christopher: That’s tremendous that you were able to make that shift in such a positive way because I was about to ask a follow up question which was, how did you cope with making that choice? Because part of why I was drawn to your project is the fact that you were working to remove a lot of the stigma and misunderstandings around mental health and mental illness. And I know that a lot of what we’ve talked about on the show before in terms of the emotions and psychology of performing and learning music to a high level, becoming a professional musician, a lot of those issues can be so wrapped up with people’s identity and their sense of self and their sense of self-worth. I would have imagined making a major shift like that would’ve been really hard as a life transition, but it sounds like you moved on to something even better in a sense that you managed to put an entirely positive framing on it.
Caroline: I do feel like I found my place, the right place for me in the performing world. And I still very much love, the stuff that so many people are frightened of. The marketing, the fundraising, the production aspects, I really thrive on that part of it. And then it was just very interesting to me the way playing the horn kind of introduced itself back into my life after a very extended break because of my work with Me2. And with this very unique setting of making music with this social mission goal to erase the stigma around mental illness. I didn’t see that coming for myself. I never got back into this, into playing because I thought, well, I’m going to create an orchestra where even I will feel comfortable playing. It just happened.
Christopher: So tell us that story a little bit. Why did Me2 come into the picture?
Caroline: Me2/Orchestra came about because I met Ronald Braunstein, a brilliant conductor, a wonderful man who is living with bipolar disorder. And in the interest of full disclosure, he is now my husband. So yes, I am very biased. He is absolutely brilliant whether I am his wife or not. He’s a great musician. And Ronald had reached a point in his career where he was no longer employed and in fact was worried because of the discrimination that he had experienced. Discrimination and just really misunderstanding that he had experienced in the professional world. He was worried he’d never get back on the podium again. And it was clear to me that was the most important thing to him. So he came to me with the idea that in order for him to keep practicing music, he wanted to launch an orchestra of people like him.
Caroline: And in fact, his first statement was, “Caroline I have a great idea. We should start an orchestra for people with bipolar disorder.” And I said, “Well, you know we’re in Vermont and there’s probably more cows than there are people living with this specific bipolar diagnosis. So let’s talk about this idea. Let’s kind of massage it a little bit and see where it goes.” And what it came down to was that he wanted to be at a stigma free environment. He wanted to be in a supportive rehearsal area. And that meant that he wanted to bring in people who are also living with various challenges, especially mental health issues. And the more we talked about it, it was very important to both of us knowing Ronald’s history of workplace discrimination.
Caroline: We wanted to bring people with and without a diagnosis together to really show the world that it is entirely possible to work professionally right next, literally side by side with people who have bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, addiction, schizophrenia. And so that was the dream. Could we create a group of people who would work side by side and then utilize our performances to erase the stigma, to actually share our stories and change people’s minds about maybe what they thought it meant to live with a mental health challenge.
Christopher: I see. And I heard Ronald say something really interesting in an interview which was in the early years, maybe around the time he was first diagnosed. It maybe wasn’t obvious to people that he had a disorder of any kind because we have this image, this kind of romantic image of the Maestro conductor who has these intense mood swings and ups and downs. And I think part of what you were saying there about the workplace discrimination, part of the challenge I think is that we don’t always know where to draw the line and when is something a disorder and when is it part of normal kind of workplace stresses or mood swings. And I think probably a lot of people in our audience would be confused on that point. And I’d be really interested to know what your perspective is on that. Like how anxious should we be about whether someone has the label or doesn’t have the label?
Caroline: Yeah. I think you have to just pay really close attention to what a behavior is. Of course I didn’t know Ronald back in the earlier days of his career when he was very misunderstood. He was studying with Carianne, he was studying with Bernstein, with Seiji Ozawa and these, with people who are larger than life. And I think when you’re kind of in that place, in that zone, especially as a conductor, you can be somewhat flamboyant or even egotistical and larger than life, and people just say, “Oh, he’s just being a stereotypical Maestro type.” But for Ronald, there were times when he would just do things in rehearsal that were very odd. Rehearsing the same measure over and over and over again for like an interminable amount of time. And, the orchestra manager would come to him and say, “You’re not well. We can’t bring you back.”
Caroline: So there were people who were able to kind of pick apart what was maybe the stereotypical kind of Maestro behavior and what was really an indication of an illness. But back then people were not comfortable talking about it. So he has stories of people saying, “You’re not well, I think you’re sick.” And he was very confused by that because he would say, “Well, I feel fine. I don’t have a cold. What do you mean I need to go see a doctor?” And they wouldn’t take it from, you need to go see a doctor to I think you need to see a psychiatrist. And there were certain places you didn’t go in that time in terms of the language and in terms of just what you suggested to people. So he definitely had a big personality I think when he was manic and sometimes that was self-destructive in a professional sense in there.
Caroline: Ronald somehow has been very lucky in his career not to have ever really endangered himself in any way. I mean, you do hear some stories of people with unchecked mania that can take on some very risky behavior and Ronald’s actually never been hospitalized and he’s been able to sort of keep things within a certain reign of safety. It’s been better, the last probably 10 years I’d say. I feel like society is turning a little bit and people are becoming more comfortable with addressing what they think might be beyond just a little bit odd behavior, but to something that is actually an illness. And yet I was with Ronald when he was dismissed from a position 10 years ago and he ended up pursuing a lawsuit against our former employer because it was really clear that there was discriminatory practice happening. It’s hard to be too positive about the changes in society because discriminization and stigma it’s still real.
Christopher: Absolutely. And I really, I applaud the work you’re doing on that front to remove some of the stigma because there’s so much misconception and misunderstanding. A moment ago you threw out a bunch of diagnoses that people who joined Me2/Orchestra might have. And I think any one of those, our listeners and audience would have kind of mental image of what that means and like the extreme case of the behavior or how manageable or unmanageable it might be to work with someone who has that label. And I think it’s really valuable. Thank you for sharing a bit of that kind of backstory and behind the scenes of what it looked like for Ronald to have bipolar disorder and to have it in an industry where to some extent that behavior is tolerated or expected.
Christopher: But at some point, obviously it was helpful because I’m going to step in and question whether it was a healthy way for him to continue. I feel like we jumped a bit of this story from when you first met Ronald to this project coming about, how did your relationship with him develop and did you learn from him along the way? You’ve talked about how wonderful he is as a conductor and a musician and I’d be curious to know how things developed.
Caroline: I remember the very first time I sat and listened to him in rehearsal with a group. It was with a youth orchestra and there were about a hundred kids, mostly very advanced high school musicians on the stage. And I was immediately struck, they rehearsed a few measures and then he stopped and he got off the podium which first of all was … I mean that was just kind of different. You don’t see the conductor leave the podium that often. But he really got down into the front group of strings and got them listening to each other and got them playing. He said, “This is chamber music. I don’t care if you’re looking at me, look at each other. Look across the orchestra at each other. You’ve got to connect with them. You got to connect with her.” And I’ve never seen anyone on the podium do that.
Caroline: And then he just left and he said, “You’re on your own. You’ve got to communicate because no matter what I’m doing, if you’re not communicating with each other, we’re not going to make great music.” And the change in the sound of that orchestra over the course of 10 minutes was huge. And so right from the beginning, I feel like I’ve been watching him and getting this huge lesson on tackling orchestral music as if it is chamber music. And there’s just something about the way you listen across an orchestra. I think it’s very easy for so many of us if we’re one of 80 or 100 players to feel like we’re just one of a huger number of players and to sort of forget that we’re part of this huge moving living music-making organism and that it really does have to be kind of like a string quartet or a wind octet, and to really be paying attention and listening to the people around us as they breathe. And Ronald just has a beautiful way of bringing that out in people.
Christopher: Fascinating. And was that a contributor to you picking up the horn again, or did that come naturally out of starting Me2/Orchestra or?
Caroline: It didn’t occur to me that I would start playing the horn again until we were, I believe probably in the second season of Me2 in Burlington, Vermont, and I was listening to rehearsal one night and there were a couple of horn players in the room. And suddenly I just found myself thinking, I think I could help them a little bit. Which was pretty gutsy since I hadn’t even picked up a horn. I hadn’t owned a horn in 18 years at that point, but it was the first time that I had even contemplated wanting to play again. And I give Ronald that credit. I mean, he really, he created this atmosphere, this orchestra of complete support. So if you miss a note, if you kept something here or just forget to come in, it’s okay. And I thought, okay, now that’s an atmosphere I could make music in again.
Caroline: And besides that, he just really ignited my love of music again. It had kind of been muted in some way for many years. And yet as soon as I started listening to him rehearse, I found myself wanting to go out and buy scores for everything that he was rehearsing so I could just sit in the room and hear what he was doing and learn from it. And I hadn’t experienced that kind of hunger for music education in so many years, but he lit this dormant thing inside me. And so yeah, we got on eBay one night after this rehearsal where I kind of had this epiphany that I might want to play again and found a con 60 really beaten up listed for a couple of a hundred bucks. I mean, it looked like it had been rolled over by a truck and then they backed over and rolled over it again. And I said, “That’s my horn.” So I got it. I got a little duct tape on a little place where it probably should have a little bit of work done on it. But it’s so much fun to be playing again. And I just, I didn’t see it coming. But Me2 gave me that gift again.
Christopher: Awesome. And you commented on something there that’s distinctive about Me2/Orchestra which is the atmosphere and the attitude of the musicians and Ronald himself. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the starting of the orchestra. I mean, obviously now it’s a very established project with multiple orchestras and it’s growing and growing. But if we go back to the early days, you and Ronald had this idea together or he had the idea and you jumped on board immediately, what did it look like to start that orchestra?
Caroline: We had very meager beginnings. I think there were probably between eight and 10 musicians at our first rehearsal and it didn’t grow a lot after that for several months. And it really, what we found is that it takes two or three years to have one of these orchestral programs really start to gain momentum. So it’s small in the beginning and for Ronald that was a challenge just in terms of finding music that would make sense for kind of a hodgepodge of different instruments and people of different ability levels. We were-
Christopher: Sorry, forgive the interruption. I wonder, is it a stupid question to ask, but how do you advertise for an orchestra where the defining trait is it’s accessible for people with mental illness? Do you just go out and brazenly say, look, this is what we’re doing. Come along.
Caroline: You just say it. Yeah. I mean we literally in the beginning wrote press releases and did press interviews that said, we’re starting an orchestra for people with and without mental illness and nobody has to tell us what they may or may not be living with. They’re welcome to. But we want everyone to know it’s a safe and stigma free zone. There will be no auditions, there are no fees. We want to remove all the barriers to participation. And then we kind of held our breath and waited to see what that would turn into, who would be interested. And it was so interesting to me from the very beginning that people would write me emails and say, hi, my name is such and such and I’m interested in joining the orchestra. Then they would tell me their diagnosis and in some cases would write like a complete medical history.
Caroline: And I thought, wow, I think there are so many people living with mental illness who are so hungry to be able to be open and talk about it. So when you say you’re in a safe place often you get an awful lot of information, which is really helpful. It lets us know, I mean, honestly it plays into where they’re seated and what kind of stand partner they might have because we want everybody to have the most supportive and warm and comforting experience they can have. So having as much information upfront is great. But then we’ve also had people join who, last year we had a violinist who came to several rehearsals, and I never knew her last name. Never knew a thing about her and it was kind of a fun mystery for me, but she would just come and sit in the back of the second violin section.
Caroline: She seemed to enjoy the rehearsals and then she would always get up and leave about five minutes before the rehearsal ended. So it was very clear she wasn’t looking to be quizzed or really to even make connections. She just needed to be, she needed a place to go once a week and be in a group setting but she wasn’t ready to connect with us on a personal level. And one of the things we’ve learned is to just kind of accept people where they are and so that was fine. We’ve had another violinist who played with us, played rehearsals for probably two years and never played one of the performances because they felt like that they weren’t ready for that. That was too nerve racking. And we said, “Great, you’re rehearsals only, that’s fine.” So it’s a very different expectation that we have of our musicians.
Christopher: Sorry, I interrupted you there. Please do continue. So you got started in your first season and musicians started to find you. You said it seemed to take a couple of years before the word really spread and people knew to come along.
Caroline: Yeah. And I think it’s been very interesting. Probably our most successful recruitment tool is word of mouth. It’s people coming in, they love working with Ronald. They form such great partnerships and friendships within the orchestra. And I think largely for the people who join us who don’t have a diagnosis, it’s so very interesting for them to be able to play in some of these nontraditional venues. Because while we do play in city halls and recital halls we also place a lot of emphasis on reaching places where people might be self-stigmatizing. In other words, mental health hospitals, recovery centers, correctional systems, prisons, so we try to split our time kind of 50/50 in terms of the audience. Whether we’re reaching a kind of a broad general audience with these stigma erasing messages, or reaching kind of our people, people who are living with a diagnosis and need to have a positive example in front of them.
Christopher: And I’m going to be totally honest, I’m sitting here trying to be very careful and respectful and tactful about what I say in this interview because as I said to you before we started, like this is a topic that’s really important to me personally and I want to make sure we present it in the most effective and impactful way. But for a moment I want to play the part of the baffled audience member and I’m sure there’s at least one who hearing that this project is a bit unsure how that could possibly work. If you have a room full of people all with their own mental health challenges, how can that possibly result in a concert ready performance?
Caroline: Right. And I think a lot of people come to their first performance and they expect much less from us. And for now that’s okay. I mean, that’s addressing the stigma. People expect less when they hear there’s an orchestra where at least half of the people are living with a mental illness. And so I think the first real aha moment for people is when they come in and they’re seated and I’ll do an introduction of the orchestra and explain that half of us are living with trauma and anxiety and addiction et cetera, et cetera. And you almost, you kind of see the light bulbs going off in people’s heads, like they’re scanning the orchestra. And we’ve even had somebody say to us, “Really, because I can’t tell who they are.” And I said, “Exactly. That’s the whole point.” And I don’t feel angry about that. I feel like that’s what we’re here to do.
Caroline: Because frankly, if they were watching Law and Order or any number of television programs last night or reading the newspaper, all you hear are the negative stories. You don’t hear about the gentleman with the bipolar disorder who is a successful attorney and goes home at night and cooks dinner for his kids and has won awards and has a wonderful family life. We don’t hear the good stories so it’s up to us to put those out there. So yeah it can be very shocking for people to be in our audience and to hear our stories and even just as I say, have that visual of this group of people where they can’t tell. They think they know what schizophrenia looks like and it turns out they don’t because it doesn’t have a look.
Christopher: Wonderful. And at the same time I wonder are there any practical considerations? I love the way you talked about the permissiveness of if you don’t want to do the performances that’s fine. Obviously that has to be balanced somehow with Ronald trying to organize a program, as you said, for a hodgepodge of players of different ability levels and who might have different desires or behaviors in terms of rehearsals or performance. How does that work on a practical level?
Caroline: Yeah, absolutely. There are sometimes accommodations that we make to help people be comfortable in this setting. And it’s really no different than the kind of accommodations that are required by law if you have someone with a mental health condition in your workplace. If someone says that they’re not comfortable with something, then we just find a workaround. So that may mean that they don’t perform. Maybe in every setting there may be someone who has some kind of trauma and does not want to go into a correctional facility with us. That’s fine. It’s a little bit trickier if that’s your principal flute player as opposed to one of a sea of violas or something like that. But we’ve yet to find a challenge that we can’t work around.
Caroline: Sometimes we will be in a rehearsal or in a concert setting and someone is just having a bad day. And that anxiety or even some type of hallucination can come to the forefront. And probably the most important thing that this orchestra and the people in it have taught me and that we’ve taught each other that we’ve all learned together is that when someone is not having a good day or if they are currently in a reality that is not the one that the majority of us are experiencing to put it in one way, the best thing you can do is just join people where they are. You just got to meet them where they are and meet them with compassion and friendship. I had someone early on ask me what kind of security we had at rehearsals. And I said, “Excuse me, what do you mean?” “Well, you’ve got all these people with mental illness, you must have security.” And I said, “No, we don’t have security. We are in no greater danger at our rehearsals than you are when you go into your place of business every day.”
Caroline: Again, it just feeds into the misconceptions that people have about what it means to work with people who have mental illness. And sadly, most of the people in our lives that we know are surrounded by people who are living with some type of diagnosis. And the only difference there is that they’re not talking about it because they live in fear of the ramifications if they were to be public in their place of work or their place of worship or their school. So we provide a place where people can talk about it. And honestly, I think that’s a much safer and healthier environment for all of us.
Christopher: That was something that really jumped out at me reading descriptions of the meet to rehearsals and the environment, the atmosphere, the attitude is, it’s not black and white. This is how the normal world does it. And this is how this weird orchestra does it. In so many ways you’re exemplifying what should be the attitude anyway. Like this is how we should treat human beings regardless of a label or disorder or classification.
Caroline: Yeah, I mean people say, “Well, if you don’t have auditions, how does that work?” If you’re not kind of feeding the competitive nature that is so natural. Even in community music organizations, I think a lot of amateurs go into community orchestras or choruses and you still experience a bit of that diva quality of people kind of looking around like, why is he sitting there and why did she get that solo? And we work really hard to just cut that off right at the beginning. We rotate people around a lot. And every once in a while we’ll have someone walk through the door and I’m not sure what they were expecting when they arrived, but if they were expecting a more competitive environment and some people really want that, they thrive on that in some kind of probably unhealthy way.
Caroline: Usually within a few weeks, they find their way back out the door because we just, we can’t accommodate that. We can’t have somebody always playing the cellos or always leading the section. It’s not in the DNA of the organization where we’re just, we’re there to support each other. We’re there to learn from each other. And that’s another interesting thing to me is that there’s so much learning and this addressing of stigma that happens not only when we get in front of an orchestra and we’re performing and we’re sharing our stories, but also every week when we’re, there’s kind of the interior work that we’re doing with this group of 50 or 60 musicians getting to know each other. And if you walk into one of our rehearsals, any week, it’s going to look like a community orchestra rehearsal. That’s all it appears to be.
Caroline: But then I think if you listen closely during the break, you hear some of the discussions about medication and doctor recommendations and heart-to-heart, how was your day kind of thing. Where the automatic reply isn’t just, “Oh, I’m fine.” That’s where it gets a little more serious and more supportive and helpful. So it’s just been a wonderful kind of experiment to launch this thing and to figure it out as we’re going along. Unfortunately, when you set good intentions out front, I think you automatically attract people who also have good intentions and are interested in going along on this ride and figuring things out. And it’s for both Ronald and I. I would say it’s our life’s work now. I mean, we’ve found what we were supposed to be doing.
Christopher: Fantastic. And I want to pick up in a moment on what you just said about setting the intention, but first you highlighted there how there’s a function of the orchestra beyond the music that it’s giving people that social environment and that opportunity to connect with other people. And obviously you’re also having this impact on audiences and the general public in terms of removing stigma and putting a new message out there about mental illness. But I wonder, can you talk at all about the particular benefits of music for doing those two things? You’re not organizing a stigma free soccer team, you’re doing an orchestra and obviously Ronald and you have that in your background. But do you see any ways in which music is unique for having that kind of effect on the audience and on the members of your orchestra?
Caroline: Well, I have to say that Ronald and I upfront wanted to make it clear to people, we are not psychologists, we are not researchers. We are professionally trained musicians. And so that’s what we have to offer this. So I can’t get, kind of too lofty in talking about, scientifically the benefits of music. Although I know there are a lot of wonderful people who are studying that right now. But what we really see on a weekly basis is that it’s so wonderful for people to have a place to go that gets them out of the house that has some communicating with other people. And quite frankly, when you’re playing Beethoven, you can’t think about anything else. You can’t be worried about the stressors of the week or the latest medication change you’ve gone through or how things are going at work.
Caroline: So there’s this wonderful quality of music just being completely immersive, I think. That’s what people say to me is that it really is an escape to play in this orchestra. That it’s a time during the week when they don’t have to think about being mentally ill. I would point out one of the other things that’s different about us is that we could have launched an orchestra that was completely for people living with a diagnosis, but by bringing together people who don’t have a diagnosis and really designing this fully integrated community, we become something else. Because so many people living with an illness already have a support group and support groups play important role. They can be very helpful for people.
Caroline: But what a lot of people don’t have is this way of kind of integrating back into society, especially if they’ve been sidelined, if they’ve been agoraphobic and unable to leave their home, if they’ve been hospitalized or even imprisoned for a certain amount of time. That reentry and that learning to trust people in their community again, can be so difficult. And this orchestra can serve as a way for people to make that reentry more comfortably. And I think, I’m going to say something sappy, but music is the universal language and there’s a lot that goes unsaid in rehearsals, I think around mental wellness. But when we can play Beethoven and Brahms and Dvorak together that’s just healing. And I’ll leave it to the scientists to tell you exactly why. But for Ronald and I, we just know that in our hearts.
Christopher: That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned a few minutes ago the importance of setting an intention and how when you have that intention of inclusivity and access, you attract people with the same kind of attitude and that goes a long way. I was particularly keen to ask you about the fact that Me2/Orchestra is not one orchestra in Vermont at this stage. You’ve got several orchestras and you’ve got resources and support for people who want to spin up their own Me2/Orchestra projects like this in music. And I’d love to understand what do you tell them? What did you tell the people who were going to take on orchestra number two? What do you tell people who say, “I want to set up Me2 chamber group in my local community?” In terms of the practicalities you mentioned rotating people around, so there are some that competitive diva vibe, but are there practical things that help set that tone in the community?
Caroline: Right. Well, I mean, isn’t it interesting? We started out with literally just a handful of people in Vermont and Ronald and I never knew from week to week, month to month, whether or not this thing was going to actually get any traction. And not far into it we got some good PR and started hearing from people around the country saying, “Oh my gosh, this sounds so perfect. Is there anything like this in Indianapolis? My mom would love to do this.” “Or in Miami, my uncle would be perfect for this.” And so we started thinking, well, could we empower other people to do this? And at the time we were just based in Burlington, Vermont, and we thought, okay, well Burlington is a quirky, quirky, hippy town. The weirder the better for any project we launch. So maybe we should try this in a different kind of atmosphere.
Caroline: So we decided that we could drive to Boston every week and then we would try it in Boston in a bigger population and just see what challenges or opportunities presented themselves there so that we’d be better prepared before we set out to try to duplicate the model. And the orchestra in Boston now has finished five seasons. It’s been hugely successful. And we actually have our first, what we’re calling an affiliate program that has been active in Portland, Oregon for gosh, a few years now. They started not long after we launched in Boston. And that’s kind of a, it’s a chamber music type group up to like eight or 10 players and they get together every week. And we have a small, kind of easy legal agreement that they’ve signed with us that lays out what they can and can’t do but also provides them with a certain amount of resources coming from us kind of coming from the mothership, which means every once in a while Ronald will Skype and coach them in a session.
Caroline: And, I was on the phone with them last week and I’m constantly making suggestions for performance spaces they might want to try or Ronald recommends repertoire and that sort of thing. So it’s giving them kind of the support that they need even from a distance to be able to mimic the kind of stigma reduction that we’re doing through music here on the East coast. And actually this fall we are launching a new orchestra in Manchester, New Hampshire, and hiring our first conductor on our staff to take over the Burlington, Vermont orchestra, which is a really huge thing. They have had Ronald at the helm with that orchestra for eight years. And one of the members said to me, “Wow, well we could look at this as a big loss, but I’m going to look at this as a graduation.”
Caroline: We’re graduating with the first Me2/Orchestra to now move on to help another conductor, kind of learn our culture and assume the stigma reducing roles. I just thought that was so beautiful and I think the group in Burlington is so well prepared. The musicians there are so well prepared to help nurture their next conductor and in the ways of Me2, which is such a beautiful thing. And I should also mention that we had such a long wait list of flutists in the Boston area who wanted to join the orchestra. And of course there’s only so many flutes you can incorporate into an orchestra. So we are now launching the Me2 Boston flute choir next month and have hired a wonderful director there. And we’re probably the only orchestra who’s ever posted a job listing with the words at the end of the job requirements saying, while lived experience with mental illnesses is not a requirement it will be viewed as an asset. And it’s meant that we receive some very interesting and revealing and wonderful job applicants for these positions. We’re growing and we continue to learn and we’re having a great time.
Christopher: Wonderful. And you have a new documentary coming out about Me2/Orchestra and the project and how it’s growing. Talk a little bit about that.
Caroline: We do. About five years ago, very early on in the work of Me2, I happened to run across a filmmaker online who had produced a beautiful documentary about a men’s prison chorus in Kansas. And of course with all the work that we’ve been doing in correctional facilities, I was very eager to see this little documentary that she’d done. And when I got in touch with her, she went to the Me2 website and said, “Can we talk? Has anyone told your story?” And I said, “Well, there’s not much to tell yet. We’re still very young.” But fast forward and still another co-producer, a friend of hers have spent three years flying in and out from LA over to Burlington, Vermont and Boston, Massachusetts and filming the growth of Me2 and that’s been in post production for some time now, but they are now finished with the film and there’s going to be some screenings in and around the Greater Boston area in October and November. And they are searching for hopefully a major distributor.
Caroline: We’ll see what comes with that. But we’re very glad to have the film project on and I hope a lot of people will be able to see it.
Christopher: Fantastic. And that documentary has its own website at orchestratingchangethefilm.com is that right?
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, we’ll have link to that directly and the Me2/Orchestra website in the show notes for this episode. Caroline it’s probably clear, but I am such an admirer of the work you’re doing and I hope it will reach more people, both musicians and audiences. So just wanted to say a big thank you for joining us on the show today.
Caroline: Well, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about the work. We really genuinely love what we’re doing and the opportunity to share it with people is really appreciated.
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