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Musicians With Mental Illness Welcomed by Inclusive Orchestra

Often sidelined elsewhere, participants can play without being judged

spinner image Me2Orchestra performing
Conductor Ronald Braunstein, who has bipolar disorder, founded Me2/Orchestra
Courtesy of Me2/Orchestra

Nancy-Lee Mauger is a French horn player with dissociative identity disorder, which means she alternates between different personalities.

spinner image Nancy-Lee Mauger, who has dissociative identity disorder, plays in the Me2/Orchestra.
Nancy-Lee Mauger, who has dissociative identity disorder, plays in the Me2/Orchestra.
Kate King Photography

A conservatory graduate who went on to play professionally, she quit the horn in 2013 because at times one of her personalities — a personality who doesn't know how to play the horn — appeared when she was rehearsing or performing.

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In 2018, one year after returning to the instrument — she'd missed it terribly — Mauger joined Me2/Orchestra, the world's only classical music organization created for performers living with mental health conditions and the people who support them.

No auditions. All musical levels can participate.

"Mental illness makes it harder to be in the world,” says 58-year-old Mauger, of Needham, Massachusetts.

Me2/Orchestra helps ease that burden because it lets her pursue her passion without judgment. Though Mauger is “more grounded” these days, she can't be sure when the part of her that's unable to play the horn will show up.

"And it's OK when that happens in this orchestra,” she says. “There's no judging."

Without music, life is without meaning

Me2/Orchestra was created in 2011 by 65-year-old music director and conductor Ronald Braunstein and his wife, Caroline Whiddon, 51. Braunstein knew what it was like to be discriminated against because of mental illness; he was once fired from a conducting job after disclosing his bipolar disorder.

The pair wanted the orchestra to be open to everyone. All musical levels can participate, and no mental health diagnosis is required. But many of the musicians do have challenges.

Led by Braunstein, the Me2/Orchestra performs inside psychiatric hospitals, recovery centers, and correctional and rehabilitation facilities to help erase the stigma associated with mental illness. Me2/Orchestra has outposts in Burlington, Vermont; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Boston.

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The story of the orchestra was told in a documentary called Orchestrating Change, in which the musicians speak honestly about their struggles living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and addiction.

The 90-minute documentary follows the orchestra as it rehearses, performs and prepares for a major concert on the same stage where Braunstein conducted his last professional concert.

The more than 150 musicians who make up Me2/Orchestra are in skilled hands. In 1979, at the age of 23, Braunstein became the first American to win the First Prize Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, beating out roughly 600 competitors from around the world.

During the depths of the pandemic, the orchestra could not meet due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the majority of Me2/Orchestra musicians are fully vaccinated, smaller rehearsals indoors — with players socially distanced and, except for those on woodwind and brass instruments, masked — have begun. The orchestra created a brief video performance that was shown during the Mental Health America Annual Conference in June, and it's hoping the two performances it booked for its full ensemble in October will be able to take place.

"A part of me has felt dead during the pandemic,” says Braunstein, who lives in Melrose, Massachusetts. “Now that rehearsals are starting again, I feel like a human being. Without music, my life has no meaning."

Over time, affiliated Me2/Orchestra groups have formed throughout New England and in Portland, Oregon — and one is just starting up in Aarhus, Denmark. Expansion plans include chamber music ensembles in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Maine.

Getting back together again is necessary for this group, says cofounder Whiddon, 51, who plays in the orchestra on “an old clunker of a French horn” held together in spots with duct tape.

"Even in the moments when you don't have words, you just fill up that space with music,” she explains. “You're connecting not only with the person next to you but with the person sitting across the orchestra in another section, and it's like this huge organism. This dialogue without words is happening."

Prioritizing ‘human connection'

Beth Langan, 68, who takes medication for clinical depression and is in recovery for addiction, learned about the orchestra during a party in 2019.

At the time she was a recently retired English teacher and struggling emotionally. She'd lost her routines, her friends were working during the day, and she was lonely. The lifestyle didn't mesh with her “incorrigibly social” personality.

Even though she'd been playing fiddle music for about a decade, Langan figured she'd give violin music a try — especially since there was no audition process for Me2/Orchestra.

"I wanted to join for pleasure, for the sheer richness of life,” explains Langan, of Boston, who has played second violin with the orchestra since September 2019. “Everybody in the orchestra wants everybody else to be able to do their best and enjoy it. They prioritize human connection and acceptance over everything."

That support comes equally from those who don't have a diagnosis.

"There's something about music that makes us all completely equal,” says Dave Hancock, a 77-year-old bassoonist from Malden, Massachusetts. “I don't know who has a diagnosis and who doesn't. We're just a bunch of amateur musicians who enjoy being together."

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