All we have to do is be ourselves

I would like to send this message out to all my Me2/Orchestra friends. Thank you for last week’s rehearsal. I had been having a rocky couple of days. I didn’t feel like going to rehearsal. When I left my apartment I began to think up an excuse to give you all, explaining that I had been having some difficult days and so on. Then I realized that I don’t have to make any excuses with this group. That in itself made me feel a lot better. When I walked into the rehearsal room I felt so much love and talent and acceptance, all my woes and uncertainty went up-up-and-away! (And by the way, I thought we had an excellent rehearsal. We got through a lot of difficult music in preparation for the film crew from Al Jazeera to visit us tomorrow.)

Ronald Braunstein

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. 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 peeps 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.

All we have to do is be ourselves. I’ve always worried about choosing repertoire, finding the right musicians, etc. I never dreamed for an instant that I would end up in such a wonderful orchestra full of kind and lovely people.

Thank you, Me2/Orchestra.

–Ronnie

If you don’t think you know someone with a serious mental illness, you’re wrong.

Last night Ronald Braunstein and I had the opportunity to speak to a group of students at the University of Vermont. It was a casual gathering in one of the dorm buildings, so we kicked back and enjoyed nearly an hour of explaining how Me2/Orchestra got started, how we serve the mental health community, and telling stories about our performances in correctional facilities. It was a fun evening with a great group of curious and intelligent young minds.

At one point I told the group that they all know someone with a “serious” mental illness – if not a close family member or friend, maybe someone else that they come in contact with on a regular basis. Maybe it’s one of the helpful librarians on campus, the waitress at their favorite restaurant downtown, or their career counselor. We don’t know who is living with bipolar disorder, depression, OCD, or schizophrenia, even though we interact with people who have these diagnoses every single day. Mental illness looks different in each person it affects, and it isn’t something we can obviously SEE when we meet someone.

I thought about this point today when I ran across an article in The Guardian, titled “Forget the headlines – schizophrenia is more common than you might think.” It’s great reading for anyone interested in the broad criteria under which schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are diagnosed.

Ronnie and I are grateful to our hosts at UVM last night. If you have a group that would be interested in learning more about Me2/, please don’t hesitate to let us know!

Music in Prison: “I felt appreciated and useful.”

Me2/Orchestra performed for inmates in the Southern State Correctional Facility (Springfield, VT) earlier this month. I asked the musicians for their feedback on the experience of performing in prison. Here are a few of their responses:

Margie: “I was a little bit nervous when we first got to the prison, and a little bit more nervous when the inmates started coming in.  And then still a little bit more nervous during our first piece (the Overture to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks).  I thought, I hope we haven’t misled these people in any way; maybe they were expecting some kind of concert other than a classical music concert.  But then they were so appreciative and so open with us and so nice to us after we finished that first piece.  Truly, by the end of the evening, I felt like these were normal guys who just happened to have made mistakes.  I was really happy to have spent some time relating to them, getting to know them a little bit better.”

Travis: “I have found that the most genuine way to erase stigma is to have people spend time face to face, providing them with the opportunity to realize their similarities and transcend their differences.  Both the Me2/ players and our enthusiastic audience members had that unique opportunity inside the Southern State Correctional Facility. We were able to use music to find common ground. Events like this performance help people who are in need of a positive identity forge one for themselves.”

Kate: “Playing at the prison was a remarkable experience: being able to interact with the attentive and interested prisoners and share a little bit of what is normal for us was great. I felt appreciated and useful. It was an honor to share this experience with the individuals in the Springfield prison.”

One of the most striking things I noticed in the comments and in conversations with nearly every orchestra member after the performance is that they all said how much fun it was to play for the inmates. Many remarked that this was one of the most enjoyable concerts they had ever played because they had the opportunity to truly engage with the audience in a very direct way.

The audience was invited to provide feedback and ask questions after every piece was performed. This rarely, if ever, happens in orchestral performance situations. Granted, it would be nearly impossible in a performance hall seating 1,500+ people, which is the setting in which most orchestral performances occur. The opportunity to have 22 musicians performing for an audience of 40 people in an intimate, classroom-type setting is very rare and truly special. The members of Me2/Orchestra walked away from the performance feeling “appreciated and useful” because they were not only playing music for an audience (which by itself has enormous value), but sharing a musical experience on a personal level and uncovering our commonalities as human beings.

Some might say that we, the members of Me2/Orchestra, learned a thing or two about stigma by interacting with the prisoners in Springfield. We know there are men inside that facility who committed serious crimes, and if we’d known the history of some of the men in our audience it might have scared us. Regardless, on a Saturday night in Vermont we sat together in a small room and focused on the things we have in common, including our love for music.

When we asked the prisoners if any of them played instruments, a young man in the front row raised his hand:

“I can play ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on pretty much any instrument, he said. “I have a degree in music education.”


Posted by Caroline Whiddon, Me2/Orchestra Executive Director

Finding Common Ground on a Bus & in Prison


Last weekend Me2/Orchestra members went to Springfield, Vermont to perform for inmates at the Southern State Correctional Facility. Springfield is a two-hour ride from South Burlington, where we gathered in the high school parking lot to board a yellow school bus. Most of us had not spent much time socializing outside of rehearsal, so the bus ride was a chance to get to know each other.

Upon arrival we went through security and were fed a meal prepared by the inmates. We ate alongside two guards who kept us company, answered our questions, and generally kept an eye on us. After dinner we had a brief rehearsal to get warmed-up, and then the first inmates started to drift into the room. They arrived one by one and eventually a few entered in small groups. In total there were around 40 inmates who came to hear the orchestra play.

It was a “self-selected” audience; nobody was forced to attend the concert. Our audience members had signed-up in advance to attend. When we asked the inmates what they would otherwise be doing on a Saturday night, most said they would be playing cards, reading, or just doing nothing.

For the next hour, the visitation room at the Springfield prison was filled with 65 people who shared music, stories, and laughter. We performed music by Handel, Brahms, and Vermont composer David Hamlin, who attended the performance and answered questions from the inmates about his creative process.

The most memorable quote of the evening came from an inmate in the second row. The orchestra gave a lively performance of Mozart’s “Impresario” Overture.  When the applause died down, this man sitting up front exclaimed:

“That music is exactly how I feel every morning!

… (pause)…-9

 I mean, after I take my meds!” 

The room erupted in laughter. If the walls between musicians and inmates hadn’t been dismantled earlier, they certainly evaporated in that moment.

What more could we as musicians hope for in a performance? We played music by Mozart and an audience member related that music to his everyday experience. The fact that this audience member was a prisoner – and a person presumably taking medication to stabilize his mood – just made the moment all the more poignant.

—–

caroline whiddon

Caroline Whiddon

I’m Caroline, I’m the Executive Director of Me2/Orchestra, and this was my third visit to the Southern State Correctional Facility in the past three years. During each visit I learn something about myself – but more importantly, I learn something about my fellow human beings.

Ronald Braunstein and cellists

“Music in the Prisons”: Reflections from the Performers


[The Me2/ cello trio toured the state of Vermont from August 6-10, 2012, giving hour-long performances in all of Vermont's correctional facilities. After their successful performance tour, I asked the cello trio members to answer a few questions about their experiences. Their thoughts are shared below. -- Caroline Whiddon, Me2/ Executive DIrector]
 

Why did you agree to give up a week of your summer vacation to go on a musical tour of Vermont’s prisons?

Will: Getting an offer to tour prisons is not an everyday opportunity. My summer is very busy with work and various other activities, but I was excited to expand my musical horizons with this unique experience.

Patrick: I’ve always wanted to play in a cello ensemble and I’ve always been interested in the more “activist” side of music. This was the best of both worlds.

What did you learn by performing for prisoners? How was this different from other performances?

Will: I’ve never had such an interactive audience. Usually, when playing classical repertoire, the show is very regimented with little to no conversation. On this tour there was dialogue between almost every piece of music. We had great conversations with our audience members. It was powerful listening to the inmates’ perspectives on music.

Patrick: Playing for the inmates gave us the unique experience of audience interaction and participation, something that really enhances the sense of community we can achieve from making music together. Every performance yielded new and thought-provoking questions and commentary, ranging from how the cello is constructed to how to “jam” to what kinds of music we love to how a composer even begins to make music.

I was also surprised by how many fellow musicians we encountered. Our performances did not feel like “charity”, nor did they feel like an elementary school “show and tell”. They created real dialogue and a connection between everyone in the room.

Liam: We had some of the best audiences I have ever played for. Inmates were extremely engaged and attentive during performance. I felt an energy that connected us (the musicians) to the audience unlike any other concert I have played.

We noticed that each prison had a unique atmosphere. As musicians, we can gauge our audience by their body language and the general feeling of the venue. As we played, many individuals leaned forward in their chairs, training their eyes and ears on us. After we finished, the energy in the room relaxed and the audience sat back, appreciative and reflective, digesting what just occurred.

As it turns out, prison is a real place with real walls, real bars, and with real people just like you and me.

Tell me about some of your interactions with the inmates that made an impression on you. How did they respond to you?

Patrick: We were all nervous for our first performance. And being locked behind solid metal bars just to get to our venue certainly didn’t help with that. But after our first experience we never felt nervous again. The inmates really valued our performances and many of them took the time afterward to thank us. At every facility, they asked us when we would come back.

Liam: My preconceived notions about prisoners were dissolved. Hands were raised when they had questions, and everyone listened respectfully while someone spoke. Looking back on the tour, I probably enjoyed our discussions with audience members even more than the actual performances.

Will: I didn’t realize how much of an impact an hour of classical music would really have, but hearing an inmate say “this is the best experience I’ve had in all five years of being here” was simply jaw dropping.

How would you respond if another artist came to you tomorrow and said, “I’m thinking about performing/teaching in prison. Do you think I should I do it?” 

Patrick: ABSOLUTELY.

Liam: Yes, you should definitely do it. Inmates have little to no access to music. Live music does wonders for people. One individual told the trio, “Outside of prison, I would never have gone to a classical music performance,” and he added that a live performance of classical music is “a very special thing to get”.

Do people who have committed crimes deserve to have access to performances?

Liam: Yes, of course they do. Prisoners have almost no access to music other than the radio. Bringing classical music into prisons allows inmates time and space for reflection. Classical music has the power to heal.

Patrick: Yes, without question. Music has incredible healing and nurturing abilities. Many of the men and women we met with had very limited or no consistent access to music or musical instruments at all. One man told us that in 5 years he had never seen a musical performance group come to the facility. If these people are incarcerated for the purpose of rehabilitation and to understand what it means to be better citizens, then they need access to the most universal language of humanity: music. Many people we met told us that they listen to their radios whenever they can, and that music has given them a new perspective on life. Music is transformative.

If you were to perform in the prisons again, what might you do differently, and why?

Will: Not IF, simply WHEN. I’ll be back with a team of Berklee [School of Music] friends. You’d better believe there will be an electric cello with me as well!

Patrick: I would do what the audiences asked us to do: bring more instruments!

Liam: I would prepare a piece of music that was requested in St Albans during our final performance of the tour: “Amazing Grace”.

Special thanks to the individual donors who contributed specifically in support of the “Music in the Prisons” tour. This project was made possible through the Small and Inspiring Grant Program from the Vermont Community Foundation

Music in the Prisons: Days 1 and 2

Ronald Braunstein

Liam, Will, and Patrick enjoying some leisure time after a performance

I really need to get some sleep but my mind is spinning with thoughts about the past two days. The Me2/ cello trio performed a total of three times yesterday in the St. Johnsbury and Newport correctional facilities, and gave one performance today in the Chittenden County facility. Tomorrow morning we leave for Springfield and then head down to Windsor, returning to Burlington in time for dinner.

I won’t even attempt to share details at this time. There’s so much I could write and so few hours before I need to get up again tomorrow morning and begin driving the tour van. I’ll just share a few little vignettes:

- The first prisoner to enter the room for our very first concert yesterday walked directly to a seat in the front row, plopped down, and said with a grin, “I played the violin for 5 years.” We immediately felt more at ease.

- I giggled watching the prison guard carefully hold each cello and bow as Liam, Will, and Patrick went through the metal detector this morning. Seeing a uniformed officer with a cello in his hands was definitely a first!

- A prisoner walked quietly up to Will after today’s performance and said, “I got really emotional listening to you play. Thank you so much for doing this.”

- An audience member confided in me that they had struggled with mental health issues in the past. I asked, “How are you doing now?” and the answer I received was, “I really put my energy into making music and it helped me get through some tough times.”

- The trio played a gorgeous piece by Bach, and a man who had been listening with his eyes closed immediately raised his hand and asked, “What story is that music telling? I’d really like to know the story.”

We’ve shared a lot of smiles and laughter this week in locations that we don’t normally associate with positive emotions. I promise to share more soon, and the trio members are all composing some thoughts to post on the blog, too. Thanks to everyone who has supported us and expressed excitement over our adventure this week!

Caroline Whiddon, Executive Director
Me2/Orchestra

“Music in the Prisons”: the adventure begins…

Me2/Orchestra’s “Music in the Prisons” tour starts tomorrow morning with an 8:00 a.m. rehearsal, then we hit the road a couple of hours later. We’ll be in St. Johnsbury and Newport, presenting 3 concerts for inmates at the two correctional facilities and the St. J work camp. It’s going to be a long day.

This was supposed to be a cello quartet tour, but three days ago one of the cellists dropped-out so we’re now a cello trio. The show goes on! I hadn’t anticipated any drama like this before the tour even started, which is naive of me considering how many years I’ve been working with young musicians. Oh well… in Me2/Orchestra, we roll with whatever happens and keep moving forward!

Our 6 people and 3 cellos should be more than comfortable in the large, silver van we’ve rented to drive to every corner of the state this week. None of us know what to expect: Will the inmates like the music? Will they engage in conversation with us? Will it feel similar to performing for any other audience?

Perhaps the only major difference in performing for this audience is that the musicians have to pass through metal detectors before entering the “performance area”.

The cellists will post daily blogs with photos, and maybe even some video clips from our trip. We also have a student intern, Lane, who is assembling a documentary of the tour for his senior project at CVU High School. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and check our website frequently this week to follow along on our adventure.

Much gratitude to everyone who contributed funds toward this project, including the “Small and Inspiring Grant” we received from the Vermont Community Foundation. This tour literally wouldn’t be happening without you!

Wish us luck this week…

Caroline Whiddon
Executive Director, Me2/Orchestra