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

What does mental illness look like?

Recently I received an email from a neighbor passing along some info from our condominium Board meeting. She ended the email by saying that she’d heard I was working with an orchestra that serves mentally ill people, and she praised me for “working with that population.” She said, “it must be a challenge.”

Ouch. That stung a little bit. I mean, really… “that population” and “it must be a challenge“? I decided this was a teachable moment. I responded by saying, “Yes, I am a co-founder of Me2/Orchestra and many of our members have mental health issues. I suppose it’s a role I’m comfortable with because I consider myself a member of ‘that population’, dealing with mental health issues myself.”

That should get the message across nicely, I thought. Now she’ll understand that mental health issues cover a broad range of symptoms and severity, so maybe she’ll re-think her comment about “that population” being “a challenge”. Instead, she responded with another message saying:

“Well, I’m quite surprised to hear this. I never thought of you as being someone with a mental illness.”

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Could this person have a mental health issue?

Lots of people think they know mental illness when they see it, but it’s just not always that obvious. We live in a world where 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness during their lifetime. If you think your neighbors are immune because they have good jobs and nice clothes, then think again.

Anyone who visits a Me2/Orchestra rehearsal can experience this reality first-hand just by looking around the room. I guarantee they won’t be able to tell the difference between those with and without mental illnesses. What they will see is a room full of musicians modeling an ideal world where people acknowledge and accept each others’ differences with kindness, patience, and support. They will also hear some exceptional music, much of it written by composers who were tormented by mental health issues during their own lives.

Caroline Whiddon
Executive Director, Me2/Orchestra