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Columbus Native Co-Founds Orchestra for Mental Health: Q&A with Caroline Whiddon of Me2/ Orchestra

Less than a decade ago, Columbus native Caroline Whiddon and her husband Ronald Braunstein founded the world’s only classical music organization created for individuals with mental illnesses and the people who support them.

Though Me2/ Orchestra has gotten international attention for the groundbreaking work their organization is doing, their story has not received much buzz locally until now. This week for the very first time, Orchestrating Change, a full-length documentary made about their work will air locally on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

We sat down with Whiddon to better understand the story of Me2/ Orchestra and to offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes into the incredible organization behind this important documentary we're hoping you'll watch on GPB this week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ronald Braunstein conducts Boston's Me2/ Orchestra.

Image by Erik Patton.

Q: Caroline, I hear you are a Columbus native. How are you tied to our community?

A: Though I was not born in Columbus, I consider it my hometown. My parents relocated to Columbus for their jobs at what was then Columbus College when I was a year old. I grew up in Columbus. I went to Clubview, Richards, and I'm a graduate of Hardaway. I also did one year at Columbus College at the music department before I transferred out to The Eastman School of Music.

Q: Did you return to Columbus after college?

A: I did. I went away for school, and then I came back to Columbus for two or three years. I gave private French horn lessons, and worked part-time at the Columbus Symphony as the music librarian. I marked all the parts, and had the wonderful privilege of working with George Del Gobbo.

It was such a great experience because in addition to being the librarian, I also got to assist the marketing director as needed. I learned so much during that time. Then, when George and my mother decided to found the Youth Orchestra of Greater Columbus, I was the founding manager. So that was really nice. My first kind of solo experience learning to understand the administrative side of the arts.

Q: That must have been an incredible time in your life.

A: Oh, it was. I spent two years just soaking up all that experience of starting an organization from scratch. I learned how to help to recruit board members, create a donor base, write grants, get music to the kids, set up performances, all of it.

The founders of Me2/ Orchestra, Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon.

Q: Did you enjoy it?

Absolutely. That's really where I fell in love with the offstage part of Arts Management. Between my time at the Columbus Symphony and then having that incredible opportunity to start the Youth Orchestra with George and my mom. I mean, it was all just phenomenal experience I was so fortunate to have at such a young age. I also completely fell in love with the work.

Q: Where did you go next, Caroline?

After working for two seasons with the Youth Orchestra, I left Columbus and went to Savannah to work for the symphony there. Though I haven't lived in Columbus since then, my dad and my brother still live there so I'm there at least a couple times a year.

Q: How do you feel about your hometown now? If you haven't lived here since the 90s, a lot has changed!

A: Oh, I can't believe how much it's grown and I'm constantly amazed by how much the cultural scene has grown. Every time I'm home, I just yeah soak it all in as much as possible. I love Columbus, and any time spent there is never enough.

Q: Let's fast forward a bit. You've spent your life working in arts administration, but how did the Me2/Orchestra get started?

A: Let me say first that I definitely never planned to be professionally back in a place where I would be starting an organization from scratch again. You know, generally you think you do that and then continue moving up to work for bigger and bigger organizations. I was in Savannah two years, but spent the majority of my career working at a great job in Vermont as the Executive Director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association.

Q: How long were you there?

I was there for thirteen years. It was actually the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association that hired the man who would become my husband who would later become the co-founder of Me/2 Orchestra, Ronald Braunstein.

Q: He is a conductor, correct? What led to the two of you deciding to start Me/2?

A: When Ronald came there, we started working together as colleagues. I definitely knew that he was different. I knew that he was brilliant as a musician, and I'd never seen anyone accomplish what he could on the podium. But his mental health was not good. And there's a lot about what happened during that time that I cannot share, but it resulted in him being terminated from that position. This was during a time when he was struggling with his symptoms of bipolar disorder. He and I ended up leaving the organization together, and our last day of work together was January 30, 2010.

Q: Okay. What happened next?

A: I think it was March or April of that year, we're both unemployed, and he came to me and said, "I want to start a bipolar orchestra."

Q: Wow. What did you say?

A: I was like, "Okay...."

I mean at that point we had just started dating. It was not until we were both out of VYO and no longer like professional colleagues that I made it clear that I was not gonna let him get away from me.

Q: How sweet. What a special story. What did you do when he presented his idea to you?

A: Well, like I said, we had just started dating. I had resumes out all over the place. He's got resumes all over the place, but because of what had transpired in Vermont, he knew it was going to be hard to find another job. You know? It had been in the papers, his diagnosis, it was in the papers and the stigma is oh so real.

Q: Yes. I see.

A: So he comes to me and says, "I've got this great idea..." And I think, you know, it took me by surprise for sure. It was not the great idea that I had been like waiting for right? (laughing)

I thinkmy first impression was well, it's an it's an interesting idea. I think we're going to have to broaden it. We can't just have people with a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Right? Let's talk about what the real goal is... and I immediately started scouring the internet for examples because I thought surely someone had done something like this before. And of course, I found nothing.

Q: Nothing?

A: No. And I mean, it makes sense, right? We're dealing with what is, stereotypically, a very elitist art form. Mental health, which is like the least sexy topic, is not talked about. Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody really wanted to discuss the topic and how it impacted the field of classical music. Or at least nobody ever had.

I thought about the power of bringing those two ideas together. Ronald had to say, "Yeah, this might not make sense yet, but I'm certain this is what I need. I need a stigma free place where I can make great music."

So we talked about what that would look like, and decided very early on that it was important to include both people with and without a mental health diagnosis. All of our ensembles have ended up being about 50/50. Though we don't require that anyone disclose a diagnosis, I have found that people are in many cases eager to be able to talk about it. Once they know they're in a safe space, they're eager to discuss their experiences in an environment where they feel supported.

Q: How wonderful!

A: I feel confident that it's about a 50-50 split, and that was important to both me and Ronald from the beginning.

Q: Really, why?

A: Because we had both heard from people - people who didn't have any experience or exposure to mental health issues - who said, "You know, I don't know how to work with someone who has bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or an addiction. That just doesn't seem possible."

Q: How very sad and unfortunate that was the response. From what you're saying that's more common than I think any of us would like.

A: Yes, and we wanted to very clearly demonstrate through this first orchestra that we started that yes, it is possible. In fact, as you go through life, very often, you don't have any idea how many people you are working with might have a mental health diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health often adds to the issue. We all see these stories about someone who ends up in the newspaper, but it's always because something horrible has happened and they have not gotten the care they need. However, that's so rarely the case.

What we wanted to show through this initiative is that it's very possible to live successfully and fully with a mental health diagnosis. Ronald's a great example of that, but he needed a safe space to work in. So that's really where the concept from Me2 came from.

Q: That's amazing. What a beautiful story and such an important, impactful initiative. You keep saying the first orchestra? How many more are there?