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Blog Posts from Nick Sterner, Me2/ cellist and intern

Blog Post No. 1winter tree

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.

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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.

IMG_4263As 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. 

The Fabulous Adventures of Nick, Me2/’s intern

Icellist‘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

Hopeful words from the VA Hospital in White River Junction, VT

Dept of VA logo

[ Me2/Orchestra gave a free performance at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, VT last Sunday afternoon. Dr. Richard Wren, Acting Chief of Mental Health at the VA Hospital, joined us to share some remarks during the concert. We appreciated his words so much that we wanted to share them with everyone who reads this blog. Enjoy! ]

Good afternoon. My name is Richard Wren. I am a psychologist here at the WRJ VA Medical Center and the Acting Chief of the Mental Health Service. I am delighted to be here this afternoon and I would like to take a moment to thank the Me2/Orchestra for the gift of this wonderful concert today which is in honor of Veterans and Veterans Day. I also would like to thank all of the Veterans, Service Members and their families in attendance today – thank you for your service and devotion to our country. It is because of your commitment, courage and sacrifice to our country that we have the quality of life that we enjoy and the freedoms we prize.

Before this week I did not know much about the Me2/Orchestra. So I’d like to share some things I learned about the Orchestra from their website that really impressed me. The Me2/Orchestra is “a model organization in which people with and without mental illness work side-by-side in an environment in which acceptance is an expectation, patience is encouraged, and supporting each other is a priority.” Wow! The world will truly be a better place when each of us adopts these goals in all of our lives. So, I thank the Me2/Orchestra for modeling and reminding us of the importance of these values. I think some of this sentiment is captured by the English composer, Malcolm Arnold, when he said: “Music is the social act of communication among people, a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is.”

I’ve been asked to say a few words about Mental Health Services at this VA. If the truth be told, most of us have experienced mental health challenges at one time or another. Whether this is in the form of a bout of depression, persistent worries or anxiety, dealing with the consequences of traumatic experiences or just dealing with the vagaries of life. These really are human experiences that we all share to a greater or lesser degree. One of my favorite American poets, Theodore Roethke, who coincidentally had bipolar disorder, put it this way: “What is madness but nobility of the soul at odds with circumstance.” (From “In a Dark Time”).

brassWhat I would like to share with you is that I think the VA, and this VA in particular, is really something special. I was talking with a colleague who works for a local agency in Vermont and she was expressing her frustration about a lack of resources and the difficulty helping some of her patients with the challenges that sometimes accompany mental health concerns. This is not the case at our VA because we are able to offer a fairly comprehensive array of services that allow us to attend to many aspects of a person’s life. So we are able to attend to not only the psychological concerns of our Veterans but also to their problems in living daily life. We offer supports in times of crisis through our inpatient MH unit as well as ongoing psychotherapy and treatment so that difficult and painful concerns can be addressed over time in a safe and supportive setting. We also have specialized programs for problems that often occur along with psychological difficulties, including help finding housing and support around work as well as treatment for addictions that often result when people try their best to manage psychological concerns on their own.

We really can and do offer a comprehensive array of services designed to help the whole person.

  • Our Primary Mental Health Clinic – a walk-in clinic in which Veterans can be seen, by a therapist and a medication prescriber, usually within 30 minutes.
  • Our Specialized Mental Health Clinic – for ongoing, intensive outpatient treatment
  • Our Inpatient Mental Health Unit – for those times when more intensive services are needed to help Veterans through difficult times
  • Substance Abuse Treatment services with both outpatient care and a six-week resident program when a safe environment is needed to get sober.
  • Services for homeless veterans – help getting them medical care, housing and for those who are able, help getting back to work through our Compensated Work Therapy program and supported employment.

Thank you for coming today and for your support of Veterans and mental health care. I will leave you with a quote from the composer George Bizet. Though he does not specifically mention mental illness, I think it is implied: “As a musician I tell you that if you were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means for writing one note.”

Dr. Richard Wren
Acting Chief of Mental Health Services
VA Hospital, Vermont

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 people 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.

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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.