Orchestra Aims To Help Musicians With Mental Health Struggles

By Beth Leipholtz 02/01/19

"I cannot count the ways the orchestra helps me. It has allowed me to overcome the shame I felt about living with mental illness," said one member.

orchestra playing music

When he is conducting an orchestra, there’s nothing that alludes to Ronald Braunstein’s struggle with bipolar disorder.

That’s because, according to The New York Times, Braunstein finds that music helps him cope with and manage his diagnosis. In fact, he believes this so much that he has founded the Me2/Orchestra for performers who are dealing with mental health struggles. 

Braunstein graduated from the Juilliard School in his early 20s before traveling to Austria for a summer program at the Salzburg Mozarteum. In 1979, he won the Karajan International Conducting Competition and was the first American to do so. From there his career blossomed. 

At the time, he did not know he had bipolar disorder. He was not diagnosed until age 35. But he says in looking back, he sees how it affected his career. 

“The unbelievable mania I experienced helped me win the Karajan,” he told the Times. “I learned repertoire fast. I studied through the night and wouldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat because if I did, it would take away my edge.”

“My bipolar disorder was just under the line of being under control,” he said. “It wasn’t easily detected. Most people thought I was weird.”

In Vermont, after being dropped by his manager and terminated from a job, he met a woman named Caroline Whiddon, who he later married. Whiddon had been the chairwoman for the Youth Orchestra Division of the League of American Orchestras and had struggled with depression and anxiety.

Braunstein contacted her in hopes of founding an orchestra for those who struggled with mental health issues. 

In 2011, the Me2/Orchestra was born. Then in 2014, Me2/Boston was created. Both orchestras have about 50 members, ages 13 to 80, and perform six to eight times per year. 

The orchestras are nonprofits and all musicians volunteer their times. Each year, Whiddon takes part in a letter-writing campaign to raise the money for expenses.

“When we perform at a hospital, center for the homeless or correctional facility,” Whiddon said, “the cost of that performance is covered by corporate sponsorships, grants or donations from individuals, so the performance is free to those who attend.”

Each time they perform, according to the Times, members of the orchestra discuss their mental health struggles and answer questions from the audience. 

Jessica Stuart, 34, tells the Times that she had stopped playing violin in her 20s after her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Now, as an orchestra member, she is back to playing.

“Joining the Me2/Orchestra in Boston in 2014 was the first time I had played in years,” she told the Times. “I cannot count the ways the orchestra helps me. It has allowed me to overcome the shame I felt about living with mental illness. I no longer feel I have to hide an important part of my life from the rest of the world.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.