At age 58, Gigi Weisman, a violinist and children’s entertainer, thought that her days playing in an orchestra were behind her.
Weisman, who began playing violin as a child, has always loved making music. But because of anxiety and panic attacks in high school, and the culture of competitiveness fostered in many professional and community orchestras, playing in such a setting “wasn’t fun anymore,” she said.
Then, one day several months ago, she heard Caroline Whiddon, the executive director of Me2/Orchestra, speak about her and husband Ronald Braunstein’s new music organization created in Burlington, Vt., specifically for those with mental illness and their supporters.
“Caroline spoke about the motto of the orchestra, that it was to be a ‘kind orchestra,’ ” Weisman said. “And that’s when I knew I wanted to be in it.”
Weisman has been playing with Me2 ever since, and she has brought along some company. She and her daughter, Sarah, now both play second violin, and her granddaughter, Sophie, 15, plays first violin.
“I thought my orchestral days were done,” Weisman said. “But [Braunstein] opened that door for me.”
Ronald Braunstein grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of Tito Braunstein, and the late Geri Taper, and attended Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. After graduating from Juilliard, Braunstein, a gifted musician, won the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition, and was ready to begin his career as a top-level conductor.
But Braunstein experienced repeated setbacks after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985.
“It affected my career,” Braunstein said. “I’d be doing fantastic work for five or 10 years, and then I would get sick, and go underground for five years. My career was constantly being interrupted.”
After losing his most recent job as musical director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra because of his illness, Braunstein decided to create an orchestra of his own.
“I wanted to create an orchestra that was made up of people like me,” he said, “who understood each other and could work with each other in a way that’s not possible in other contexts.”
Braunstein found a team of doctors that helped get his illness under control, then took his idea to Whiddon, who had been working for 13 years as the executive director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra. “When I met him, it was clear to me that he was not well,” Whiddon said. “It was also clear to me that he was a genius musically.”
Whiddon, who was first diagnosed over 20 years ago with depression and anxiety disorder, initially had reservations about trying to launch an orchestra for the mentally ill. But, she reasoned, the worst thing that could happen would be that no one would show up.
Yet, as soon as Whiddon and Braunstein publicized Me2, many musicians suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder responded to the call, and were eager to join.
The orchestra was launched in September 2011, with 12 to 15 members. It has since grown to include more than 25 musicians. All ability levels are encouraged to join. There is no audition and no fee.
Me2, which is a 501(c)(3), plays four to five concerts a year, most frequently at correctional facilities, where many residents also suffer from mental health issues. The orchestra also performed as part of Burlington’s First Night celebration this year.
The musicians of Me2 range in age from 12 to 88, and no one is required to disclose his or her mental illness. In fact, about half its members have no mental health issues at all, according to Whiddon.
“We have a message of inclusivity,” she said, “and we look and sound like any other orchestra.”
But Weisman hears a difference in the sound of Me2, and thinks it is actually better than other community orchestras, owing in large part to the talents of Braunstein.
“He’s a phenomenal conductor,” Weisman said. “He manages to get a sound that is shockingly good from this group. His bar is high and people just seem to do it.”
For Braunstein, who has held positions with such esteemed orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, it is with Me2 that he truly feels at home.
“I feel like it’s the beginning of my real life as a conductor,” he said. “I feel like I can just be me. I just wanted to create a safe workplace, a stigma-free environment. And Caroline and I have started to see the big difference the orchestra could make in people’s lives.”
Playing with Me2 has benefited some of its members beyond the bounds of the orchestra itself.
“One guy said that after working with the orchestra, it helped him reunite with his family after 13 years,” Braunstein said.
For Weisman, Me2 is a manifestation of tikkun olam.
“I like the mission of Me2,” she said. “I like the idea of bringing us all together, and healing the world with acts of kindness. I think inclusive communities are better, because that’s what community is.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)