This is the first in a series of blog posts & videos about Me2/Boston’s residency at the Engagement Center this season. We hope you will follow us on this journey!
This is the first in a series of blog posts & videos about Me2/Boston’s residency at the Engagement Center this season. We hope you will follow us on this journey!
Me2/Boston recently performed at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. This facility is named a “hospital” but is run by the Department of Corrections. Bridgewater houses 300+ inmates who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness. Some have been charged with a crime and are awaiting trial, while others have been sentenced and are receiving treatment. According to Wikipedia, Bridgewater is “a state facility housing the criminally insane and those whose sanity is being evaluated for the criminal justice system.”
Playing in a correctional facility is always a complicated process. It involves a lot of communication with the orchestra members in the weeks leading up to the concert about what they can’t bring into the facility (for example: reed knives, cell phones or medication) and what they can’t wear (for example: ties, piercings and jewelry). Entering Bridgewater was even more daunting due to safety regulations beyond what we’ve experienced in Vermont facilities; for instance, every musician had to undergo a background check before being allowed to perform in the facility.
On the day of the performance the orchestra set-up on a stage a few feet above Bridgewater’s gymnasium floor. A work crew of inmates put folding chairs in place for the audience. Just before the concert was scheduled to begin, 50–60 men shuffled slowly into the room and took their seats.
Before entering the facility, I had asked our host if I could hold a Q&A session with the inmates. He seemed a bit surprised by the question. He responded by saying that many of the men would be “pretty heavily sedated” so they may not have much to say. I pressed him a bit, saying that I’d really like to give it a try, and he agreed that it would be fine to attempt to engage the men in discussion.
After watching the men slowly enter the room for the performance, I began to doubt that this was going to be a highly interactive experience. I stood at the front of the stage, introduced the orchestra and explained our mission of erasing stigma. Ronald took the podium and led us in Mozart’s Impresario Overture. Despite the noise of a large fan in the ceiling overhead, the gymnasium acoustics were surprisingly decent. The orchestra received a warm round of applause at the end of the Mozart, after which we performed the first movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
At the end of the Schubert, I walked to the front of the stage again for our Q&A session. Immediately a couple of the inmates raised their hands and asked questions. Before I knew it, several more raised their hands and we had a real dialogue underway.
There were several memorable moments during the Q&A:
After 15 minutes of lively questions and answers, we ended our performance with the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. The standing ovation and enthusiastic applause we received from this audience was especially meaningful. We then loaded our instruments onto a truck to be driven around to the front of the facility (we were not allowed to carry them through the middle of the facility to reach the front door). As we walked in a line across the gymnasium floor to retrieve our IDs and return to our daily lives, the man who had earlier pronounced himself as one of the “best singers in the world” stood by the door serenading us all with his rendition of a gospel tune. Several other men waved and smiled from across the room.
. . . . .
Some time has passed since our afternoon spent at Bridgewater. Still, I find myself frequently thinking about one of the first men to raise his hand to ask a question during the Q&A session. His only question was, “When will you be coming back?”
Me2/ Executive Director
Thoughts from a few of the Me2/Boston musicians:
From Ariel, violinist: In the beginning I felt a great disconnect between the audience and myself. We may have intentionally gotten ourselves locked inside the facility for the day but they could not leave when the music was done. It wasn’t until the Q&A session that I felt linked to them. They asked many of the same standard questions that we usually get, ranging from “Why isn’t he using the stick other conductors use” to a surprising request for music by Shostakovich at our next Bridgewater concert. I hope that some of my personal biases have been broken down by this concert.
From Lisa, violinist: With all of the restrictions and rules and the high-security process to enter the compound, I think all of us went into the concert with a vague sense of anxiety and trepidation. That was diffused as soon as the music began. What the audience brought with them was a feeling of gratitude and openness, and an appreciation for the music that one does not always experience. This gratitude and kinship was even more evident after Caroline so skillfully invited them to participate with their responses. One could hear — and feel — their attentive silence during the Beethoven.
From Bob & Prill, clarinetist & violist: Speaking for two new Me2-ers, the concert at Bridgewater State yesterday inspired an extraordinary mix of feelings: joy in the performance; humility at the privilege of bringing a few moments of beauty into the lives of the 50 + inmates who attended; awe at the opportunity to carry the music of three who suffered their own major struggles with mental illness – Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart – across centuries to such a place; sadness at the cold, dead-end feel of the institution and the poverty of our culture’s (and, for the most part, every human culture’s) handling of crime and punishment; resonance in the exchanges in conversation with the audience – each one speaking to and of the human connections between us (how wonderful to hear an inmate ask for Shostakovich next time; how lovely to hear the “best singer in the world” perform for us).
From Dana, flutist: I want to confess that I learned something significant about myself in the process of playing with me2 at Bridgewater penitentiary. We as an orchestra carry pre-conceptions about mental illness to our audiences, with a mission, in part at least, to speak to stigma by demonstrating that we are, in fact, human, integrated, safe, caring, intelligent beings who join in meaningful community to share our love of music. We walk with many illnesses/addictions, or none, but nevertheless we can discover togetherness, beauty, joy and even loving feelings.
Posted by Caroline Whiddon
Last Monday Me2/Boston performed at the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA. The hospital is operated by the State of Massachusetts and largely treats a low income, under-served population.
This was our first appearance at Shattuck and it got off to a somewhat bumpy start. Most of the musicians were using GPS to guide them to the address. This led everyone to a back entrance that was blocked. My cell phone began to ping with text alerts from musicians who were lost and frustrated. I learned my lesson: always use GPS to find a concert location before giving the address to the musicians!
Everyone finally arrived and even our musicians who live with anxiety appeared to be calm and collected by the time the performance began.
Just before 7:30 pm the room began to fill. Audience members shuffled down the hallway and entered the small auditorium for the performance, walking past my hastily-made sign:
Before we played, I introduced the audience to Me2/ and our unique mission of presenting exhilarating performances that encourage conversation about mental health issues and erase the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. Little did I know that the next hour would be so powerfully mission-based!
The audience consisted of approximately 50 people, and I would guess that 30–40 of them were individuals receiving inpatient mental health treatment at the hospital. We performed Haydn Symphony No. 104, and the audience clapped enthusiastically at the end of every movement. (I let them know beforehand that there were no rules to worry about and we would appreciate their applause at any time).
The orchestra’s performance was equally enthusiastic, if not perfect. Ronald Braunstein conducted with precision and relentless energy, as if he were in a grand concert hall rather than a small hospital auditorium. It felt good to play for a room full of people who appreciated our efforts. One of the Me2/ musicians described the experience beautifully:
“I was surprised by the great effect the music had on the audience. With no preconceived notions about what we should sound like, they opened themselves to the experience and emotion we wanted to share with them. They took all of our bumps and missteps without judgment and cheered on our accomplishments. That kind of pure communication between an ensemble and its audience rarely happens. It is something that I hope I never take for granted.” (Ariel, viola)
After we finished the Haydn and took our bows, I stepped forward to ask the audience if they had any questions for the members of the orchestra. At that point we truly began to know each other. One by one audience members raised their hands to fearlessly say, “I am living with a mental illness,” and then ask us a question about the music, the composers, and how music helps us manage our struggles.
“I love how engaged the audience was. They had awesome questions! I also loved the sense of community I felt in the room even though we were all strangers.” (April, violin)
This was the first time we had performed for a group of people who spoke so openly about living with mental illness. In response, two of our Me2/ members shared parts of their own mental health stories with the audience.
At the end of the hour we only had time for one more question. A man sitting halfway back in the room raised his hand and said he didn’t have a question, but wanted to make a comment. He told us that he had never attended an orchestra concert and didn’t think he would ever hear music like this because he thought it was only for wealthy people. A big smile lit up his face as he then stated, “After hearing you tonight, I feel like a million dollars!”
As a musician, I don’t think I’ve ever received a better comment. This man’s words have echoed in the hearts and minds of the Me2/Boston musicians all week long.
Thank you to all of the members of Me2/Boston for this fabulous evening of sharing music, stories, and smiles.
“This was my first performance with Me2/Orchestra. One of the last comments from an audience member really stuck with me. He said he never thought he’d go to an orchestra concert because he wasn’t wealthy. The fact that we collectively helped reverse that almost made me cry. That was absolutely amazing to hear. I’ll add that I was coming from a difficult day myself and just playing music helped me. The fact that we were playing for something that seemed to matter more than your standard concert made it that much more special.” (Sydney, flute)
Hello, my name is Peter Damon, and I’m Me2/’s new intern! Normally, I attend Bennington College in VT, but every year, Bennington students go out and find an internship for 7 weeks in the winter. Let me tell you a little bit about how I came upon Me2/Orchestra…
It was November, and instead of looking forward to Thanksgiving break, I was desperately trying to find a job. I’m a freshman, so this process was very new to me and I was feeling the pressure. My passion is music, I’m a singer and a burgeoning composer, and so I wanted to find an organization where I would be surrounded by it, but still be close to my home in Boston, MA. I started scouring the Internet for any organization that might be willing to take me on, but then something grabbed my attention. It was Me2/Orchestra. I’ve struggled with severe anxiety and major depression all my life, and have long wanted tocombine my love of music with my desire to help others suffering from mental illness. Here was an organization doing just that. I of course reached out to see if I could be of any help to them, and soon received a lovely reply from Caroline Whiddon, the executive director, saying that they would be happy to have me. I couldn’t believe it! I’m now coming up on the end of my internship, and I’m incredibly satisfied with the work I’ve done. I’ve mostly been helping Caroline with outreach to other Boston organizations in order to raise awareness. I’ve also been regularly attending both rehearsals, and have enjoyed them immensely.
In the Boston and Burlington rehearsals, it’s immediately apparent the sense of community everyone feels. I happened to have spent a year in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, and their environments are very similar – everyone is accepted no matter what, and you don’t have to be anything you’re not. There aren’t very many places that can say that about themselves. I’ve also noticed that there isn’t one person who isn’t warm and inviting in the entire room. I’ve watched newcomers who are unsure of their ability to play the music come in and immediately be taken under the wing of a more experienced member until they’re ready to fly on their own. It’s really a wonderful place of acceptance and collaboration.
Submitted by cellist and intern Nick Sterner, in response to Me2/’s dress rehearsal and performance for First Night Burlington on New Year’s Eve.
Following a stint of spring-like weather, the air quickly resumed its frigid squall as New Year’s Eve approached. Me2/ met for one last rehearsal before the annual First Night celebration that brings musicians of all genres, performing troupes and festive merriment to Burlington for one last hurrah.
As Me2/ ran through the program of Strauss dances and other Viennese New Year’s fare a final time, the orchestra was restless. Coming in late myself, the environment seemed to show the true colors of the musicians’ personalities. We all seemed to resonate with each other, and most of all with the anticipation that we had a program to play the following evening. Mixed as the mood was, the rehearsal went brilliantly as Ronald reminded us that he would conduct spontaneously the following night. In any other group, Ronald’s vow of spontaneity would usually cause greater anxiety among the musicians, but the members of Me2 seemed excited and unphased by a potential ‘curve ball.’
The following evening, the musicians started to arrive for the 5 o’clock call. As the small green room inside of the Baptist Church became alive with friendly chatter, laughter and the tones of tuning instruments, there was no anxiety in sight. Whatever anticipatory mood that was prevalent the previous evening had disappeared and was replaced not with overt confidence, but rather a content joy. It was one of those unique moments that seem to arise when a group of people gather for an in-the-moment experience, together.
Calmly content, the group filtered into the sanctuary where we began with the rolls of a snare drum that harkened in the Radetzsky March and our conductor to the podium. As the concert proceeded, time seemed to stand still as Ronald led us through the program with the spontaneity he had promised us, leaving us to play without him during one instance as he walked through the aisles greeting the audience with an outstretched hand, only to come back to us to conclude the piece.
After we ran through the bulk of the program, Caroline Whiddon stood up from her seat amongst the horn section where she spoke about Me2/ and its message of inclusion in a stigma-free environment. After answering questions and comments from the audience, the string section played Jingle Bells with the audience ringing the strategically placed bells intended for this moment along to the beat of the music.
Ronald then emerged from the back of the orchestra without applause as he lifted his arms for the opening sparkles of the Blue Danube Waltz. As we traveled through the suave melodies of the lush dance, we took the time he wanted us to take as the group pushed and pulled the rubato together, creating the classic Viennese schwung.
In the final crescendo that marked the end of the dance, the audience rose immediately to their feet greeting us with their smiles and applause. As the concert came and went, the musicians were again in the green room, packing up their instruments and entangling themselves in their mass of warm coats. It seemed as if it was all in a day’s work for the members of Me2/, to play as they did with great feeling and playfulness, only to leave the church with a job well done.
Playing with Me2/ is a pleasure. This group of musicians comes together to play with music, not to make music. They come to each other as they are, with a vivaciousness that comes from a love of life, and left their performance humbly content. On New Year’s Eve, Me2/ played with music as if they had been the Vienna Philharmonic enclosed within the Musikverein. They dared to ask the music for a chance to dance, and that they did.
Any drive into mountainous terrain is an ascent marked by pastoral mystery. My journey north was marked by an even greater dramatic contrast, as the landscape changed from the snowless expanse of Massachusetts into the fresh coat of dense snow that covered the Green Mountains. Spiritual to say the least, the drive suggested my experience to come with the liberating music and community that thrives in Vermont.
After arriving in Burlington, my goal was to explore the city and get a feel of the culture. The so-called “neo-Bohemian” lifestyle of the city lives and breathes in the numerous coffee shops, vegan friendly cafes, small stores and pubs that line its streets. It appears that life moves on here in the dark, frigid days of the winter season.
Blog Post No. 2
On Thursday, I went to my first of two rehearsals with Me2/Burlington in preparation for the orchestra’s concert in the annual New Year’s arts festival known as First Night. Arriving early, to help set up in the band room of South Burlington High School, the 30+ members of the orchestra began to show up. As the numerous personalities filled the room, I introduced myself to a few members and finally took my seat ready to begin the rehearsal. I had already gotten a good impression of the friendly, open and accepting attitude in Burlington, though Me2/ made an even greater impression on me.
As Ronald rehearsed us in the Strauss Waltzes and Polkas that made up the program of our own little Viennese New Year’s Day Concert, the room was electric. Moving forward in the rehearsal, a horn player’s stand fell as the top-half disconnected from the base landing with a thump. The orchestra stopped for a moment, light-hearted laughter between everyone. Continuing on with the boisterous polkas, Ronald reached down to adjust the height of his own music stand, which launched into the air. Again, a thud and a group chuckle! “I don’t need the music!” he said, picking up then tossing the broken half of the stand on the floor. After this second interruption, we collected our attention again awaiting Ronald’s piercing gaze and mischievous smirk which told us it was time to start to play.
I have never played in a musical environment that was so socially liberated and free. The filter was off and the cat was out-of-the-bag. We all could just be ourselves, existing with each other and the music, as we were. In that first rehearsal, I forgot about mental health and the stories of personal struggle that seem to mark everyone’s life. In that moment, I realized that the exuberant spirit, community and authentic love of life exhibited by this orchestra proved them to be amongst the healthiest people on earth. I suppose it’s moments like these that define and redefine what it means to be and to pursue happiness.
Nick Sterner, cellist, is a member of Me2/Boston and a junior at Wheaton College. He is writing blog posts about his Me2/ experience as part of his winter internship with Me2/Burlington.
I‘d like to introduce everyone to Nick Sterner, Me2/’s intern for the next three weeks. Nick is a cellist in Me2/Boston and a junior at Wheaton College. He was awarded a “winternship” from Wheaton to spend his holiday break in Vermont where he will rehearse and perform with Me2/Burlington and help us with various administrative and artistic tasks.
This is Nick’s first opportunity to spend any quality time in Vermont. He’ll be staying in three different host homes during his internship (in Burlington, Richmond, and Charlotte). We’ve asked Nick to blog during his time here, sharing his views of the holiday season in Vermont, the people he meets and makes music with in Me2/Burlington, and anything else that will provide our supporters with an insider’s view of the Me2/ organization.
Nick is a thoughtful person and a passionate musician. We look forward to sharing his blog posts with you over the next few weeks!
-Caroline Whiddon, Me2/ Executive Director