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.

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.

Creating a new community

Last weekend Ronald Braunstein (Me2/Orchestra Music Director) and I attended a recital at the University of Vermont. We arrived early and sat in the middle of a row by ourselves. Before we knew it, we were flanked by four members of Me2/Orchestra — two on each side of us. I looked at Ronald and made a comment about how nice it was to be unexpectedly surrounded by members of the orchestra.

The following day we attended a cello master class, and the same thing happened! We sat down by ourselves and within minutes there were Me2/Orchestra members sitting on our left side, right side, and directly behind us. We smiled at each other and Ronald said, “We’re surrounded again!” It was a fabulous feeling.

At the end of the master class, I was standing with one of the Me2/Orchestra members when a mutual friend walked up. She asked this orchestra member, “What are you doing these days?” and he responded, “Well, I’m playing with Me2/, and enjoying being a part of that community.”

I’m enjoying being a part of that community.

Those were the sweetest words I’ve heard in quite some time. That was when I realized that Me2/ truly has formed a new community. Not only do we see each other at rehearsals on Wednesday nights, but we’re gathering at performances, coffeehouses, and seeing each other all over town. New friendships have formed throughout the orchestra.

Speaking for myself, whenever I see a member of Me2/Orchestra I feel a type of comfort and reassurance that has previously been absent from my life. All of us, no matter what our daily struggles, need to know that we have friends out there. I’m grateful for the 25 new friends I have in Me2/Orchestra. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this new community.

Caroline Whiddon
Executive Director

What does music look like?

I have an interesting relationship with my cello. Compared to many musicians my age, I often feel like a “late bloomer”. Although there is some video evidence to suggest I encountered a live cellist at the age of 3, I was not reintroduced to the concept until the winter of my 4th grade year. Just after turning 10, my father took me to the violin shop and began paying the rent on my first cello—an instrument I chose for a handful of illogical reasons: fewer kids chose the cello than the violin, it was still small enough to squeeze onto the bus, and it had a cool “mustache”. There was no reason to assume on that first day that I would stick with the cello for as long as I have, and neither my parents nor I had any inkling of the places music would take me.

After we left the violin shop with my first cello, my father bought me a CD: Yo Yo Ma’s Appalachia Waltz. It was the first time that I truly appreciated instrumental music, and I was excited at the prospect of playing like that someday. I was also daunted. It was the first of many days and experiences I would share with my cello as music performance became an established and routine part of my education and childhood.

My cello grew up with me. I have taken it on numerous bus rides, I’ve danced with it, I’ve taken naps with it, I’ve played it in many chamber groups and orchestras, I’ve stuffed it into the backseat of the car more times than I can count. I’ve knocked it over, I’ve tripped on the endpin, I’ve fallen asleep sitting with my cheek against its shoulder, I’ve snapped strings, I’ve taken it to college. My cello and I have played auditions together, worked on pieces together, made recordings, and made mistakes. My cello puts up with all of my antics and doesn’t take offense when I chuck my bow against the wall in frustration. We’ve endured the laziest practice sessions and the most tedious. If my room is cold I wrap my cello in a blanket overnight. Sometimes we watch TV together.

And for all that I’ve put onto my poor, patient instrument, it has taken me farther than I could have imagined 10 years ago. In fact, one year ago I couldn’t have guessed where I’d be right now. I met Ronald Braunstein in late August 2010 as a cellist in the Vermont Youth Orchestra. I was captivated and energized by his passion (and his quirkiness). The start of that concert season held an enormous amount of promise, and I had never before engaged in a better, more unifying and cohesive musical experience. When Ronald and Caroline—a one-woman motivational act and pillar of my time with the VYOA—left the organization, it felt like the end of an era. And it was.

However, both of these remarkable and compassionate people faced a difficult, emotional, and daunting transition with a grace that ultimately produced the Me2/Orchestra. When Ronald and Caroline told me about their plan, I was both excited and curious. I was pleased at the prospect of working with them, and also intensely interested in where Me2/ would end up.

Nearly 6 months later, I cannot believe the growth of our orchestra and our community. And I would never have guessed that my musical path would lead me here. Me2/ has been a wonderful conglomeration of luck, optimism, circumstance, and good people. I feel lucky to be a part of the “tribe”. I am glad that out of the 4 evenings per week when I drag my cello out into the cold, jam it into the back of a car, roll it along gravel and ice, one of those evenings is spent with the Me2/Orchestra. Ronald’s musical spirit never dampens, and it inspires the music we make. Caroline’s optimism and drive give us direction. Each individual is compassionate, spirited, and committed.

Caroline’s most recent blog post posed the question: what does mental illness look like? It looks like the Me2/Orchestra, a community that embraces differences and promotes good health. We are all regular people, and we are all healthy in our pursuit of finding balance in our own lives. A mental “illness” isn’t a “sickness” or “unhealthy”, it is a struggle that every person experiences in some way—in his or her own life or in the lives of others. The musicians of the Me2/Orchestra—both those personally struggling and those impacted—are healthy, normal, talented people because they choose to create and participate in an environment where those values are promoted. You can’t glance across the room and point out which of us struggle with mental illness and which of us don’t. Fundamentally, we all struggle—to fight the stigma.

On a long list of experiences I never would have had without my cello, the Me2/Orchestra is one of the most remarkable. So many random circumstances brought me to it—that I happened be in the Vermont Youth Orchestra when Ronald arrived there, that I stayed in Vermont for college, that I even chose music in the first place. In 4th grade, playing the cello was about missing half of science class for my lesson and playing in the orchestra with the 5th graders. I picked it for arbitrary reasons—none of them even close to why I choose to stick with it now. For all of the places and circumstances in which I’ve taken my cello along with me, it has also taken me into a host of experiences like this one, affirming not only why music is so important to my life and my own mental health—but the ways in which it can make a difference for social change.

Patrick
Me2/Orchestra cellist

What does music look like? http://vimeo.com/2046250