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Conductor with bipolar disorder starts his own orchestra to remove stigma of mental illness

Ronald Braunstein, a music director, decided to break out of the societal stigma and give individuals with mental illnesses a chance to shine their light on the world.

Conductor with bipolar disorder starts his own orchestra to remove stigma of mental illness
Cover Image Source: Facebook / Me2/

Dealing with a mental illness can often feel hopeless and isolating. You may feel like you don't belong anywhere; especially when there is a constant push from society to label individuals battling mental illnesses as incompetent or weak. However, Ronald Braunstein, a music director, decided to break out of the societal stigma and give individuals with mental illnesses a chance to shine their light on the world.

He was once a music director at The Juilliard School and conducted orchestras worldwide. However, in 1985, Braunstein was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During his journey with the illness, he often felt left out or in need of support, and that is when Braunstein and his wife, Caroline Whiddon, launched the Me2/Orchestra for people with mental illness and those who support them, reports CBS News.



 

Founded in 2011 in Burlington, Vermont, the New England-based orchestra has since expanded to include ensembles across the country that have the same focus of ending the stigma around mental illness. "We aren't trying to be the greatest orchestra in the world. We are just trying to create a community," Braunstein said. Previously, he studied at The Juilliard School, Salzburg Mozarteum, Fontainebleau and the Tanglewood Music Center.

"I was able to learn and memorize complete symphonies overnight," he recalled. "Music brings to my life everything." After graduating from Juilliard, he won the Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition and was mentored by Karajan for four years. He also later became Juilliard's music director.



 

According to The Violin Channel, Braunstein has conducted the San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Swiss Radio Orchestra, Israel Sinfonietta, Auckland Philharmonia, Kyoto Symphony, Osaka Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague and the Oslo Philharmonic. But after his bipolar diagnosis, he lost many job opportunities.

“I knew that I would never get a conducting job again,” he told Gabe Howard, an Inside Mental Health Podcast host. “It wasn’t like a decision. I just felt that I had run out of options. So I had to create a new option, which was to make my orchestra made of people like me.”



 

Having experienced decades of stigma in his professional life, Braunstein chose to create a safe, stigma-free zone for musicians living with mental health conditions. When asked about the name "Me2/Orchestra," he noted that the idea came from a very inclusive place. "The truth of the matter is, I was living in Prague and I saw a great disparity between the private schools and the public schools. So I wanted to create an orchestra there that was called me too," he said. "Meaning it would bring together those two groups because they all felt love music. Well, me too. So that thing originated there kind of in a completely different arena, so I guess I, I stole my own name. So I said, why don’t we name it me too? Because you mean, do you have a mental illness? Me too."



 

Moreover, there are no auditions to be a part of the orchestra and no participation fee. It welcomes individuals with mental illness with open arms and does not require anyone to share diagnoses. All ages and ability levels are encouraged and are welcome to participate. “Playing music is so powerful when you are all joined by a common mission,” said Josh Santana, a Me2/Orchestra member. 

Braunstein added, "(The orchestra) is composed of people from all walks of life, people with all levels of playing and ages, and there’s a lot of mentorships between the players and the less experienced ones. What they all experience is the healing power of music."

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