It’s just after 6:30 Thursday evening. I enter Burlington’s Town Center Mall and scan the directory for Victoria’s Secret. The group I’m looking for meets in an empty store across the hall from the lingerie boutique.
Two bassists, a cellist, and an equal smattering of violinists and wind players are sitting on folding chairs warming up their instruments. Caroline Whiddon manages the group. She moves from the front of the room to the back, stopping to answer questions, check in, and hand out tickets for the upcoming concert. Other musicians filter in. When it’s close to 7:00, Ronald Braunstein arrives. He is the conductor, but it is a violinist who first takes the podium. She tells the players to put both feet on the ground. They do. She visibly inhales then exhales, gesturing with her arms as she breathes.
“Breathing in, your busy day,” she starts. “Exhale, thinking about making music.” Several similar instructions follow. Last is, “Breathing in, the marquee at the Flynn.” She smiles big. “Exhale, you’ll get some of the notes right.” Members of the Me2/Orchestra readying for their performance ten days away laugh.
Me2/ looks and sounds like community orchestra. Mostly amateur musicians and a few professionals from teens to 80s+ end busy days playing Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky. In Me2/, community is less about where members live (mostly Chittenden County), and more about something else they share. Everyone in the orchestra has been affected by mental illness, whether their own or someone else’s.
I’m a little ashamed to admit I think, “I can’t tell who is or isn’t.” Caroline brings up these exact words later; audience members have shared the same sentiment many times. The observation drives home her next point, “The way to change people’s perceptions is face-to-face.”
Fighting stigma is part of Me2/’s mission. Caroline elaborates, “Stigma free translates into judgement free.” She points out that sometimes, people hold stigma toward themselves. She considers her language carefully, coming to, “ … stigma is too soft a word. What we really want to do is stop discrimination.”
An Inside Job
Compassionate interaction starts inside the group. Oboist Mary Beth wrote, “Ronald and Caroline do an amazing job of making everyone feel welcome and appreciated, and this attitude has clearly spread throughout the whole group. People treat each other here the way people should be treated everywhere: with acceptance first and foremost. So glad I found the group.”
Logan, one of the group’s violinists said, “I find that with that empathy, compassion, and understanding of individual’s differing needs the orchestra is able to play better as a whole. It’s okay to come to rehearsal and say ‘I’m not having a great day today’ and the other members are supportive and caring in those moments of need.”
Medication and therapy can lessen symptoms of mental illness. Sometimes support groups, physical activity, and meditation help. For some, losing one’s self in music — an activity engaging on many levels — works. Caroline says it’s not about “escaping, just leaving behind the stress.”
The orchestra stops. The conductor asks the violinists to hold one note, to draw it out. He asks for a sweet sound. To make this, a violinist has to adjust the pressure on the bow, she has to listen and feel the instrument balanced under her chin and move her hands in a subtly different way all at once. Ronald continues, “Now, that sound, but short.” Then he wants that short note on the end of a phrase. Satisfied he says, “Now, that sounds like Schubert.”
Gigi, the violinist who led the breathing exercises, observed, “ … we are all trying to do our personal best to create an atmosphere that supports each other every day, through the challenges and joys of life. While we do this, we play music. We lose ourselves in the brilliance of the leadership of our maestro each time we meet.”
Mostly Music, A Little Talk
At each concert, a few musicians speak briefly about living with their diagnosis. They might share past struggles, or how being in the orchestra has changed things or made them feel. Sometimes they’ll describe discriminatory experiences they’ve had, and make a plea for change.
Caroline has evidence that attitudes shift. The same survey questions given to audience members before and after a concert show differing perceptions from the same individual. One meaningful comment she remembers is, “I’m going to see my neighbor with mental illness in a different light now.”
Phoenix, who plays cello in the orchestra, wrote, “It’s not just important to us; the community can look to these wonderful musicians for inspiration, which is why we are so excited for our upcoming concert. Through this group I personally hope to raise awareness about the benefits of music performance and supportive creative spaces for those affected by mental health problems and those that love them.”
Physician, Heal Thyself
Caroline has anxiety, which contributed to keeping her French horn in the case for decades after earning a degree in music performance. Years ago, Ronald lost a conducting job due to symptoms of his illness. Caroline has begun playing in the group again, and Ronald is conducting this group as well as another like it in Boston. Together, they work with both ensembles toward wiping out stigma one concert at a time.