‘Orchestrating Change’: healing music

Riveting new documentary tells the story of an orchestra of musicians with mental illness — and a Portland affiliate

One day a couple years ago, filmmaker Margie Friedman got a phone call from a woman in Vermont who wanted to buy a DVD of a documentary she’d made that aired on PBS, Conducting Hope, about the only men’s prison choir in the United States to perform outside prison walls. Catherine Whiddon wanted to screen it for an orchestra she’d recently co-founded that also performed in prisons and other non-traditional venues. The orchestra, she explained, was composed primarily of musicians with mental illness. 

Come again? As Whiddon described the orchestra’s mission and history, Friedman thought: “this is amazing!” And it sounded perfect for a collaboration with another Los Angeles-based filmmaker she’d been wanting to work with, Barbara Multer-Wellins, who shared her interest in stories about social justice topics. Though both veteran directors had won Emmys and other awards and produced films and TV shows for many channels and series (from Independent Lens to HBO, Discovery, National Geographic and many more), they’d never before worked together on an independent documentary. Both realized they’d found a powerful story that they just had to tell. 

Ronald Braunstein conducts Me2/Orchestra.

Just released this fall, their moving new documentary, Orchestrating Change, streaming on PBS (and airing at 11 AM this Sunday, October 25, on Oregon Public Broadcasting) spotlights Me2/Orchestra, which has performed dozens of concerts in concert halls and rehab centers, prisons and schools, medical conferences, parks, and other non-traditional settings — including a memorable show, documented in the film, in a Boston subway station.

Based in Burlington and Boston, Me2 has spawned affiliates — including one right here in Oregon. Its story turned out to be a lot more dramatic and thrilling than even the filmmakers expected.

Think of the great American-born orchestra conductors. Leonard Bernstein. Marin Alsop. Michael Tilson Thomas. Alan Gilbert. Ronald Braunstein. 

Wait, who? Braunstein, now 65, was firmly on track to join that pantheon in the 1980s. Juilliard School. First American winner of  the Herbert von Karajan International Competition, orchestral conducting’s highest-prestige showcase. Conducting at Lincoln Center when barely out of his teens.

Then it all fell apart. Conductors are the ultimate multitaskers, able to manage dozens of musical lines and ideas under high pressure during concerts, handle dozens more personalities and duties offstage, and more. Braunstein, a gentle soul, couldn’t. Anxiety, distraction, emotional ups and downs paralyzed him. He couldn’t keep it all together. Finally, he was dismissed from his next to last conducting position, at the Vermont Youth Orchestra.

“He’s a genius by all measures,” says filmmaker Multer-Wellin, comparing Braunstein’s skill to today’s young rock star conductor who directs the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “He would have been a [Gustavo] Dudamel, had his career not been thwarted.” 

Not until he was 30 did Braunstein learn why, when a diagnosis disclosed crippling bipolar disorder that even medications couldn’t fully ameliorate. His life in music seemed over.

But music had given him something even more important. He’d fallen in love with the orchestra’s departing longtime executive director, Caroline Whiddon. Would she be interested in helping him start an orchestra for people like him — musicians with mental illness?

Me2/Orchestra music director Ronald Braunstein & executive director Caroline Whiddon

“When Caroline and I thought up the idea for Me2/Orchestra, all I could think of was that I wanted to work with people like me,” Braunstein wrote on the orchestra blog. “I wanted it to be pure and free of meanness and stigma. Caroline took the idea from there and developed an entire organization with two orchestras and countless friendships of darling people that come together every week to share time in the context of our orchestra. But this is more than an orchestra. I know the term is over-used but we are not just like a family. We really are a family. At least that’s how it feels to me.”

Although its public performances are temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, Me2/’s original orchestra typically numbers around two to three dozen musicians, ranging from age 8 to over 70 and including students, teachers, professional musicians, retirees, and people working in various businesses and industries. The range is broad because so is mental illness: one in five Americans will experience it in their lifetimes. Members include veterans and others coping with PTSD, people with dementia, addiction issues, and various other conditions — or none at all. Neither a diagnosis nor an audition is required to join. They play in ensembles of various sizes, from chamber music to chamber orchestra.

The members come not just for the music, but also the community. One of the first, flutist Jessie Bodell, came to the orchestra while a student at the University of Vermont because he saw an opportunity to find a community where everyone had “two things in common with me: mental illness and music. Lots of creatives have mental health struggles. I’ve always been open about mine, but I’d never found it to coexist in a musical setting,” he recalls.

Stigma Free Zone

What Bodell and other players found was very different from the standard American classical music model, which can be lonely, demanding, demeaning, and destructive to musicians’ self esteem and emotional stability. Braunstein attributes much of it to the pressure for perfection imposed by recordings in the mid-20th century. He cites a letter written by Johannes Brahms about a performance of his music by a mediocre, inadequately rehearsed orchestra that says nothing about technical issues but much about emotional expression. 

“Orchestras today are all after perfection,” Braunstein insists, “when the job is not to play every note perfectly, but to convey the feelings the composer had in his imagination when he wrote the piece.” 

That pressure takes its toll on the players. “Nobody likes to talk about the mental health struggles ‘normal’ classical musicians go through,” Bodell says. “But we’re all passing beta blockers to each other before every concert” to ease the anxiety. 

Only a couple years after Whiddon graduated from one of the nation’s most prestigious conservatories, Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, she sold her horn and used the money for a down payment on a car. “When I left I hated it,” she recalls. “Even among community orchestras there’s still this mindset that you want to be first chair. I had panic attacks, horrible anxiety. I didn’t play for 18 years. Didn’t miss it at all.”

Me/2 is different. “We don’t even entertain that kind of anxiety,” she says. “We’ve worked so hard to strip away all of that and create an even playing ground. You might see some musicians coming back to instruments they haven’t played for 20 years or picking up an instrument as an adult sitting next to someone who’s teaching music in schools. We don’t have auditions, don’t strive to achieve note perfection. Nobody’s judged or bad-mouthed. We know we’re going into a stigma-free zone. Somehow the magic just happens within.”

That audience contains plenty of experienced classical music lovers, but also a broader spectrum than you’d typically see in a classical concert hall. “We’ve benefited from the fact that we straddled the mental health world and the music world,” Whiddon explains. “The classical music world doesn’t really seem to know what to do with us.”

 In Me2/’s second year, she started to feel her love for playing music return. “Whenever I see a member of Me2/Orchestra I feel a type of comfort and reassurance that has previously been absent from my life,” she wrote on the blog. One day, she told Ronald, “I could actually help the horn section a little bit.” 

“Let’s go to Ebay,” he replied. Now she plays at least once a week in Me2.

Me2’s mutually supportive environment makes Me2 an oasis for many musicians. “People are very serious about classical music and forget to have fun with it,” Bodell explains. “Going to school for music, locking yourself away in a windowless room repeating the same exercises over and over… it’s difficult to keep sight of what you’re even doing it for. I think a lot of that can be fixed by reframing music as something you do for yourself — classical music as self-care for mental health. Me2 reminded me of why I’m even playing music. No one’s waiting for you to play B flat instead of B natural so they can steal your seat! They care about you, about the music, about the mission. I’m able to enjoy playing classical music again instead of seeing it as homework or chore or stress.”

Braunstein conducts a Me2 rehearsal

That open-hearted atmosphere flows naturally from Braunstein, who looks and acts a lot younger than his 65 years. “When I led other orchestras, it was all about putting out the best recording,” he recalls. “But now I just have to conduct rehearsals and concerts that are fulfilling for the orchestra. We don’t rely on ticket sales. We don’t worry about music critics. It’s really for us, and since it’s for us, we’re playing for each other. Let you be yourself as a musician and play your best and not worry about whether anyone’s judging you.” 

The orchestra plays music by the usual suspects: Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Schubert, Haydn, Brahms, Faure, Verdi, Vaughan Williams, et al, even a Vermont composer. The film follows them through several rehearsals to a climactic concert in a very special setting in which the degree of improvement is staggering. 

“I work them just as hard as I would a professional orchestra,” Braunstein says, “but I do it in a very nice way. I keep their eye on the ball, tell them don’t think so much about themselves, think about who they’re serving and how much they enjoy making music together. The things that professional orchestras and our orchestra have in common is that if they can breathe together and move together, then they can start to really feel it together. And for me as a conductor, I can be one with the orchestra.”

Though the film shows (sometimes humorously) that daily life can still occasionally throw him off, when he’s in his element, running rehearsals, or onstage conducting, all worries and confusions seem to vanish, and he’s that 20-something prodigy again, full of joy and vigor. At rehearsals, performances and the organization’s social gatherings depicted in the film, he radiates magnetic, paternal affection and genuine concern for the musicians. 

The Georgia-born Whiddon, a powerhouse multitasker with a Southern sweetness, adroitly takes care of everything else, holds the organization together, and pushes it forward, securing funding from individual and corporate donations, foundations and government agencies.

Together, they’re a double-star, providing the warmth and gravitational attraction that keep Me/2’s many musicians — some of whom leave and return depending on their changing conditions — in a stable orbit. Their community extends beyond rehearsals and performances to (pre-pandemic, at least) picnics and other meet ups.

Me2’s connective philosophy extends to the groups’ performances, which typically run an hour or less, leaving plenty of time for audience interaction and questions. “When we perform, we share stories — people talk about the stigma they faced,” Whiddon says. “So many people think they know what mental illness means, but no one tells the story of businesspeople and working people who live well with mental illness. We’re talking about it.”

One of the documentary’s most moving moments involves an inmate who asks a question about conducting — whereupon Braunstein spontaneously issues an invitation to conduct the orchestra on the spot. 

Documenting Change

Orchestrating Change teems with such poignant moments, in part because Whiddon and Braunstein afforded the team extraordinary access, and because they spent two years making it. One obstacle: geography. The filmmakers, based on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, had to shoot during visits to New England. They wound up criss-crossing the country ten times, occasionally using a local crew to shoot important moments that they couldn’t get there for. 

The extended filming period “worked to our advantage,” Multer-Wellin​ says. “We’d never have gotten the longitude we did without so much time going by and having built those relationships. We were there so often, we got to be friends. The process was organic because we had a relationship with each of the people. You’re not a stranger showing up and asking pesky questions. You’re doing something together as filmmakers and people in the film. It’s their story. They have to be part of the process, and we did everything we could to make sure they were comfortable. And Caroline and Ronald and the musicians featured in the film were incredibly gracious and courageous in giving us so much access to let them tell their stories. This was their chance to be heard.”

Me2 bassist Dylan.

The musicians shown are unflinchingly honest about the stigma they’ve faced. One featured musician, bassist Dylan, notes that he’d tell people he was a drug addict rather than admitting to schizophrenia, because they viewed the latter as worse. “When you get a diagnosis of serious mental illness, you’re marginalized,” says Multer-Wellin, who’s encountered cyclical depression herself and in her own family. “Dylan was put in a corner and told to go away.” Powerful animated sequences created by the Chicago-based team of Sarah and Catherine Satrun enable the film to recreate backstories that occurred years earlier, and also to evoke, non literally, some of the feelings that emerge in, for example, bipolar episodes. 

Making so many visits enabled the filmmakers to trace the ups and downs of the musicians’ lives — a crucial part of the reality for many people living with mental illness. Out of the dozens of musicians they interviewed, the filmmakers focused most on Dylan and Marek, a clarinetist and hip hop artist. Both initially presented as having overcome severe setbacks, they later encounter turbulence, even leaving the orchestra for long stretches. By then, the filmmakers have given us such intimate insights that we genuinely care about them, and Braunstein, and others.

Me2 clarinetist Marek.

That’s one of the film’s main goals: showing people with mental illness in full, rather than as the stereotypes so many assign them. So when — spoiler alert — we see them excel in a triumphant concert at the end, their apotheosis feels earned.

“We realized early on that it’s a love story on multiple levels,” Friedman says, “between Ronald and Caroline, between Ronald and the musicians, [among] the musicians themselves. They care about each other and they become a family.”

Spreading the Word

Me2’s impact transcends the concerts, rehearsals, and even the orchestra. When Jessie Bodell moved to Portland in 2012, he immersed himself in music, studying flute and musicology at Portland State University. But he missed Me/2 and its simpatico community. 

“In the documentary, you can tell what kind of environment it is,” he says.  “Even when I see Caroline posting on Facebook at rehearsals, part of me wishes I could be part of that again. Me2 has obviously impacted my life. I can’t see myself being the person I am now without it.”

So with Whiddon’s encouragement, he started a Me2 affiliate in Portland in 2016, spreading the word via social media, posters on walls, and other means. They wound up with seven members at their peak and performed at the university, rehab centers and elsewhere. Another affiliate formed in the other Portland, in Maine, joining the original orchestras in Burlington and Boston, and plans were afoot for others in Pennsylvania, Georgia and beyond.

Socially distant Me2 strings rehearsal.

Then came the pandemic. Almost all Me2 activities are suspended, as with most other classical groups. The Portland, Oregon group is down to two members, including Bodell, and looking for a conductor. The New England groups shut down in March, with string players resuming socially distanced outdoor rehearsals when summer warmth allowed. Because of Covid’s respiratory transmission, wind players are out of luck for now. “Seventy percent of our breath doesn’t go into the instrument,” says flutist Bodell, which particularly affected Boston’s Me2 — which had just started a flute choir. 

That makes this fall’s release of Orchestrating Change even more precious for keeping Me2’s momentum going. Along with the PBS screening, they’re working on virtual screenings for mental health groups and seeking a corporate sponsor.

Co-directors/co-producers Barbara Multer-Wellin and Margie Friedman with Me2 oboist Corey.

“We’re hearing from people from people all over the country sharing their own challenges,” Friedman says of the response to their film. “We found that to be true from day 1 with Me2. When people feel they’re safe, they’re actually eager to talk about their diagnosis and empowered to talk about their own struggles.” 

“Having those friendships and community is such a huge blessing in their lives,” says Multer-Wellin. “This transformative model of a stigma free environment is spreading across the country. The goal is to have a Me2 orchestra in every major city.”

Meanwhile, Whiddon and Braunstein have maintained the Me2 community virtually, with a “purely social weekly Zoom gathering,” she says. When performances do resume, Whiddon believes Me2’s experience of a supportive community and audience outreach could benefit other orchestras. 

“I love going to the Boston Symphony, hearing exciting, near note perfect performances,” she says. “But a lot of people feel not welcome there. Why are we so intimidating and engaging in practices that alienate so many people from being on the stage and being in the audience? We know we’re not as good as the Boston Symphony, yet the audience still loves the music. What we found out is that we need to bring it to them. People love classical music. It doesn’t have to be a hoity-toity concert hall. We play in gyms and we love it!”

What a happy turn it would be for an orchestra formed to provide a safe, healing environment for its players could also help heal the classical music model that damaged so many talented musicians like Ronald Braunstein and his Me2 charges.

“Before the pandemic, I definitely had Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall dreams,” for the orchestra, says Whiddon, who’s actually played at Carnegie herself. “To give the musicians the opportunity to play in those hallowed halls would make them seem so valued and so special. Of course it would have to be broadcast on PBS. I think anything that would broaden the platform, reach more people with these stories would be great. We’re ready to be engaged with the entire nation in this conversation.”

Orchestrating Change airs this Sunday, October 25, at 11 am on Oregon Public Broadcasting and is now streaming on the PBS website. There’s more information on the Portland affiliate here. All photos courtesy Me/2 Orchestra.

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