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A New Film Looks at an Orchestra for People With Mental Illness

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Ronald Braunstein was destined for a sterling career as a classical music conductor when it was abruptly derailed by mental illness. A graduate of the Juilliard School, Mr. Braunstein had made his debut at Lincoln Center at age 20 and three years later became the first American to win the prestigious Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition, the so-called Olympics of conducting.

The prize led to invitations to conduct major orchestras, and at first everything he did “turned to gold,” he said. But it all came crashing to a halt when his emotional life crumbled.

As he recalls in “Orchestrating Change,” an inspiring new documentary about his work with musicians living with mental illness, he realized as a young boy that something inside him was not right. “I would get very excited and then very, very sad,” he said. But not until age 30, when a crippling emotional crisis led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, did he know what his problem was.

“It was a very dark time, and I had no one to help me,” Mr. Braunstein said of the period following his diagnosis. “Everyone in the business abandoned me.” Yet he was determined to conduct, and eventually was hired by Caroline Whiddon, then executive director of an orchestra in Burlington, Vt., whose own career as a French horn player had been sidelined by disabling panic attacks, anxiety and depression.

Despite medication for bipolar disorder, Mr. Braunstein didn’t last a year on the job before he again unraveled emotionally. Once stabilized medically, he proposed that instead of being judged and discriminated against, he form his own orchestra where he could be himself and recruit people like him, said Ms. Whiddon, who by then had become his wife. Together, they created a performance vehicle — the Me2/Orchestra he instructs and conducts — that provides unstinting support and a new lease on life for mentally ill young men and women who play instruments. Several participants have been able to move on to more conventional careers in music.

“I never knew an orchestra could be such a vehicle for change,” Ms. Whiddon said.

The orchestra, which anyone with or without mental illness can join, now has three branches, one in Burlington, another in Boston, and a third in Manchester, N.H., in addition to two chamber music ensembles in Portland, Ore., and Portland, Me. The expansion required hiring additional personnel who share Mr. Braunstein’s philosophy, among them a conductor for the Burlington orchestra, Kim Diehnelt, who received a diagnosis of autism after many years of wondering why she never fit in. The groups perform by invitation in diverse venues, including schools, hospitals, recovery centers and prisons, as well as in Boston’s South Station on Bach’s birthday.

In addition to performance fees, the Me2 groups are supported by contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, Ms. Whiddon said.

The depiction of Mr. Braunstein’s life and the rewarding work he now does with otherwise marginalized people is a poignant message that people with mental illness should not, in effect, be thrown under the bus. Rather than confine them to a very restricted, heavily medicated existence that drains them and their families of any hope for a rewarding life, creative ways are needed to engage them in activities that capitalize on their talents.

Mr. Braunstein and Ms. Whiddon were invited to describe their work to a national meeting of the Kennedy Forum, founded in 2013 by Patrick J. Kennedy, a son of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, to promote better treatment, policies and programs for people with mental illness and addiction. Mr. Kennedy, a former Rhode Island congressman who left politics after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and addiction, told the forum that the message Me2 had created through its orchestra was “the sort of powerful message that we need for society to change their attitudes towards these illnesses and the people who are suffering from these illnesses.”

Rick Soshensky, a music therapist in Kingston, N.Y., who plays instruments with people with serious mental health problems, described how Mr. Braunstein’s approach can help the mentally ill. Unlike verbal communication, he told me, “music involves a different part of the brain and a different way to interface with the world. It’s outside the cognitive realm. It gets the cognitive part out of the way and gets the intuitive part engaged, the part of the brain that is not damaged.”

To the performers in the Me2/Orchestra, Mr. Braunstein is much more than a conductor. He’s a friend and a mentor, as well as a living example of what can happen when a person with mental illness is accepted unconditionally and treated with dignity and respect.

This approach to people with mental illness, Mr. Soshensky said, can foster growth and self-esteem that can carry over to other aspects of a person’s life and foster a fuller life experience. “It helps others start to see a whole other dimension of the person that wasn’t there before,” he said. “We all need to feel, ‘I’m good at this’.”

It is just this kind of musical magic that Mr. Braunstein offers to the members of the Me2/Orchestra. For example, Dylan, a double bass player featured in the film, said that before joining the orchestra he hadn’t left the house for months. He’d also spent weeks alone in the woods where he was hearing voices. Though given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he told people he was a drug addict because he thought that was better accepted than mental illness.

His mother, Ann, said that being in the orchestra “has changed his life. It’s given him a lifeline. He didn’t have one before.” Among other accomplishments, it gave Dylan the confidence he needed to be an erstwhile street performer.

As William Congreve wrote in a poem in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

Still, the orchestra is by no means a cure. As Dr. Braunstein told another Me2 member in the film, Marek, a clarinetist who shares his diagnosis, “We can’t cure bipolar, but we can manage it.” From time to time, some members lose their emotional footing and may end up in the hospital or even jail. But as Marek, who strayed temporarily into dangerous and debilitating self-medication, said, “It’s nice to know the orchestra is waiting for me when I can make it back to rehearsal.”

The documentary, produced by Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin, will be premiering on public television stations across the country this fall in partnership with PBS station KTWU in Topeka and American Public Television. The broadcast schedule can be found at www.orchestratingchangethefilm.com. It is also available on PBS streaming.

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