On Thursday nights throughout the year, shoppers at the Town Center Mall in Burlington, Vt., stroll through the building listening to the strains of a full orchestra rehearsing classical songs by Handel, Bach and more. At first, they may hear the discordant sounds of many instruments being tuned or a few notes being played as a warm up. But then, at the tap of the baton, the noises cease and then, slowly building to a harmonious whole, come the uplifting swells of music.
A unique place to hold weekly rehearsals, this mall is also home to one of the most unique orchestras in the country. Made up entirely of men, women, and children who have directly felt the effects of mental illness, the ME2/orchestra has become a place for those who feel isolated in society to come together and turn their discordant experiences into one harmonious sound.
Director Ronald Braunstein, who has an extensive musical career including training at Juilliard, Tanglewood, and Fontainbleu, has conducted orchestras around the world including the San Francisco Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic and Tokyo Symphony. Diagnosed 27 years ago with bipolar disorder, Braunstein was asked to leave his last position as director of a youth orchestra in Vermont. He felt a need to create a place where people with illness can still make music together.
“Music has a healing quality to it,” says Caroline Whiddon, executive director for the orchestra and a former French horn player. “When we struggle for words or to express our feelings, music can provide space to feel things.”
To most people, the musicians warming up inside the teen center at the mall do not look any different from any other orchestra.
“The only real difference is that we have a more flexible attendance policy. This was created for people with and without mental illness, to mirror the rest of our society,” says Whiddon.
The orchestra also performs concerts, recently playing at the official closing ceremony of the Vermont State Hospital. When they first started the group, Braunstein and Whiddon were not sure that members would be willing to play for an audience. They were wrong.
“When we asked the participants,” says Whiddon, “there was an overwhelming ‘yes’ to get out and perform because otherwise, they said, it’s not about fighting stigma.”
It has been far more successful than they could have guessed, with 25-30 musicians participating at weekly rehearsals. Their ages range from 13 to 87.
The group started a mentoring program and introduced a professional string orchestra in September. They are considering branching out to form a singing group to include those without instrument training.
The success leads to questions about this program being a good model for other regions. Why not start orchestras or arts programs for the mentally ill around the country? The only concern, for Whiddon, would be leadership. As a sufferer himself, Braunstein is able to work with and empathize with his musicians. His successful career also makes him uniquely qualified to lead them musically. This setup may not be a happy coincidence easily found elsewhere.
“There is only one Ronald,” says Whiddon.
By Catherine Robertson Souter