A Very Different Conducting Workshop

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Last weekend the members of Me2/Boston held a very different kind of Conducting Workshop. When most musicians think of a conducting workshop they imagine young, highly-trained conductors stepping onto the podium and then receiving stern feedback from the Maestro in charge of the event. What transpired at Boston’s Engagement Center was quite the opposite in every way: we invited people in the audience, most of whom are homeless and some struggling with addiction, to give conducting a try in a fun and supportive environment.

We had no idea what to expect when we sent our musicians and Music Director, Ronald Braunstein, into the Engagement Center that day. Would anyone even want to conduct? What if nobody volunteered to try? 

Five people at the Engagement Center tried conducting for the very first time that day. The faces of the Me2/ musicians lit up into bright smiles as each new conductor found their groove and began relaxing on the podium. For just a few minutes, these new conductors were in charge of the orchestra, receiving gentle suggestions from Maestro Braunstein.

The gentleman pictured above was encouraged by a female friend to try conducting. “C’mon… you can do it!” she said repeatedly. He said that he couldn’t even stand on the podium so there was no way he could conduct. One of the musicians quickly pulled a chair over and two people took him by the hands and assisted him onto the podium. He sat and listened as Ronald Braunstein told him how to start the piece. He began conducting and, several times as he waved his arms gently to the music, he closed his eyes and seemed to let the music rush over him.

Later his female friend told us that she was surprised he did so well on the podium. She shared that he is in the early stages of dementia.


 

Feedback from two of the Me2/Boston musicians:

“Initially it was a little unsettling because we didn’t know exactly what would happen, however everyone stepped up to the plate, most importantly, the clients of the Engagement Center. At first I was surprised at the choice of music.  [ Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 ].  I thought the stops and starts would be difficult to manage, however it was amazing how quickly our guest conductors figured out what was going on. Many of them seemed to have a natural talent for understanding the emotions behind the music and how to convey them with their hands and arms.

A conductor is by definition the one in control and for the clients of Engagement Center, who probably don’t get many opportunities to exercise control in their lives, this opportunity was particularly rich. I especially appreciated the fact that Ronald (Braunstein, conductor) was not satisfied with merely having them stand up and wave their arms around. He gave them real instruction and, without applying pressure, show that he expected that they could do well. What a great compliment! By expecting something, he conveyed the message that they are capable and worthy.”

– Jan, cellist

“It was a beautiful new turn in the work we do as an orchestra to break through the boundaries between players and audience members and to lift all of our lives, players and listeners alike, above the chilling stigmas that divide us, one from another. Labels and conditions meant nothing as we, the players, responded to each of those who volunteered to try their hand at conducting a Brahms Hungarian Dance. When they moved with the alternating drama of the tempos and temperament of the piece, we moved with them, and we responded as much to the pleasure and surprise in their faces as to the notes on the page.  Even when a conductor’s movements were slight and hesitant, the orchestra fully responded to the spirit of those gestures, and we could see the conductor’s eyes light up with the power and simple human connection of the moment. 

I saw some of our musicians for whom this was their first Me2/ gig with looks of pure joy on their faces, matching the looks we saw among the audience members and the applause and laughter with which they supported their mates at the podium. This was another testament to the healing power of music, especially when it is offered freely and with love in an environment like the Engagement Center.” 

– Bob, clarinetist

 

Me2/’s residency at Boston’s Engagement Center is generously supported by Sunovion.

sunovion logo refreshed March 2017

Blog Post No. 3

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.

FNB2Calmly 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.

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

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[ 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!