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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?

We started in Burlington, Vermont where we were both living. The first time we offered anything, we had about eight or nine people show up. But during those first two or three years, we got this amazing media coverage. We had BBC show up, and the AP did an article. I think it was really the Associated Press distributing their article that helped raise the most awareness. We started hearing from people around the country saying things like, "Oh my goodness, what you're doing would be so great for my community. Is there anything like that near me?"

So we started to think, "Why couldn't we package this and empower other people to create stigma-free music making zones?" But then we thought, "Maybe it's only working in Vermont because it's so quirky and weird? Maybe we should try it ourselves in a different demographic first to see what happens."

Q: What an interesting challenge. What happened?

A: Well, we decided to drive to Boston every week to start a Me2/Orchestra there. However, it was not close to where we were living. If you don't stop it's three and a half hours. When you think about doing that every week round trip, with a bathroom break, you're talking about a four hours each way.

We did that for three years. We'd drive to Boston and we basically were kind of couch surfing. We traded out between two or three different locations before we found a rhythm. We had a violinist in the group who basically gave us her master bedroom and moved into her guest space to allow us the room to stay. It was so kind. But it still was really a stretch for us to be making that trip every week.

Q: I bet! Did you accomplish your goal though?

A: Yes, and what we learned from that experience is that it's the same everywhere. It takes people a while to kind of wrap their head around this idea of an orchestra with a mental health mission, but then after a couple of years of doing it, people start going, "It's wonderful idea, and it's a really great orchestra!"

With all the groups that we start, we really try to strip down any barriers to entry. If somebody wants to be there, we want them to participate.

Q: That's wonderful. How has it grown from there?

A: Boston was so successful, I started hearing from a couple of our musicians who had been at the University of Vermont when we started. They had been a part of that first core group before they moved out to Portland, Oregon.

They just kept saying how much they missed the Me2/ experience and that atmosphere of music making in a safe space. So eventually I said, "Okay, so do it yourself!" They started our first affiliate group in, Portland, Oregon.

We've been learning so much from watching them grow. What it takes to have a group in a satellite format, what we need in place to make sure something gets off the ground.

Ronald Braunstein conducts Boston's Me2/ Orchestra.

Image by Erik Patton.

Q: What has that been like? Was it easier or harder than you thought it would be?

A: Probably harder. Just because, as we discussed, I'm someone who has learned how to launch something and get it off the ground. But usually the people who contact us to say I'm really interested in this are musicians - and some are even amateur musicians. They don't have a lot of organizational background, or experience in arts administration. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. It's not easy.

Q: Are there tools you've developed to assist satellite groups along the way?

A: I actually have just entered into a consulting relationship with the executive director of Clubhouse International, which is this incredible organization that provides places where people with mental health issues can go and learn job skills. I mean, they're incredible and their network is such a great example. We just received a big grant to help us develop a toolkit for launching new affiliates around the nation. I think this year is really going to be a turning point for us in terms of developing all of the materials we need.

It's been fun having that little group out in Portland to kind of learn from. Ronald has Skyped and Facetimed with them to give them some coaching, which has been really neat. It's amazing what we can do these days. So, you know, we're growing and learning both administratively and artistically what we can do to support one another as these affiliates grow.

Q: Wonderful! Do you have other groups besides the one in Portland?

A: Right before the pandemic started, we actually hired a new conductor to take over our Burlington orchestra. We just simply could not keep making that trip every week, so we hired someone to provide a local presence there.

We relocated to Boston because the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health gave us office space in one of their buildings. In the fall before the pandemic, we also started a new Me2/ group in Manchester, New Hampshire. It's just about an hour drive from Boston, so we're thrilled to see how that takes off.

We also launched a Me2/ flute choir in Boston because we had a school of flutes waiting to get into the orchestra. So many that we were rotating people in and out, but there's only so much that you can do. So we found this amazing flute choir director, and that's been another like journey of discovery. You have to think about what happens in rehearsal, and how important it is to have the right person leading on the podium.

Q: I hadn't thought of that aspect. Can you elaborate a bit more?

A: Yes well it's a room full of people and some of them might be in in a fragile state. They're there because they are looking for a comforting and supportive experience. Not the kind of stereotypical tough conductor wielding the baton and yelling at you for playing an out-of-tune note! That is not our thing. That is not what Me2/ is about in any sense. Thankfully, we've had an awesome experience hiring the right people artistically to our different groups.

Q: Was it difficult to find the right people?

A: At first, it felt daunting. How would we, could we, know when we'd found the right people? And yet, Carrie Beth? When we sent out the job description for Burlington and started getting back in resumes, half of the people we heard from talked about their own mental health diagnosis in their cover letter.

Q: Wow.

A: Yes. I won't say that it was really that surprising to me, because of the experience we'd had with how relieved people have been to find a safe space to make music together. But it was very reaffirming, still. Again, we found when you give people a safe place to talk about these things they want to. It's not that people don't want to talk about the challenges of living with an addiction or with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or whatever it is. It's just that they don't feel safe to and it's because the stigma and discrimination in this field, and really in every field, is so real.

We've been very very fortunate to uncover some really great people to lead us, and right now I am discussing affiliate groups in with people in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, and in San Diego.

Q: How exciting! What can you tell me about the documentary, Orchestrating Change, that's been made about Me2/? It's airing locally here this week?

A: Yes. It will air in the Columbus area for the first time February 7 and February 9 at 9 a.m. We're thrilled about the fact it's airing in Georgia!

Q: How did the documentary get started? How'd the filmmakers even hear about the Me2/ Orchestra?

A: We invited the filmmakers in to document Me2/ after I had corresponded with them about another film one of them had made. It was a film about a men's prison chorus in Kansas, and I just found it on Google. I couldn't believe how awesome it was and I felt drawn to it because we had been playing in in the correctional system in Vermont from year one. So I wrote to this filmmaker and said, "I'd love to get a copy of the DVD please."

I guess she saw the signature on my email and looked up our organization. She wrote back to me to ask, "Oh my gosh, has anybody filmed what what you're doing?!"

After a bit of back and forth, we entered into a partnership with them and they started filming about five years ago. They followed us around, on and off, for two or three years in both Vermont and in Boston.

Q: Are those the only two locations where they filmed?

A: Yes, because that's what we had at the time. Those are the two locations that you really see in the film, and of course, it's funny to me now because it was very early on in Boston. There's literally like 12 or 15 people in this little bitty orchestra. Now, we've got a full orchestra of 60 people. It's great because you see the Vermont Orchestra at a bigger size, but then you get to see it building in Boston. The film culminates with us bringing the two orchestras together for this huge side-by-side performance. What is so compelling I think about the film is that we have musicians in the orchestra living with very serious illnesses who opened up and let the filmmakers come into their home's, to you know, capture their deeply personal stories as well as showing them in rehearsal kind of in their happy place.

I love that the documentary covers both the the music and the mental health stories. Ultimately, I think it's a very uplifting film and it has, as I said, resulted in people all over the country getting in touch and saying, "How can I do this, too?"

Q: What an amazing mission you've accomplished! It's got to be so uplifting for you and your husband to know that you're doing something that resonates with people and is making an impact.

A: Thank you. It has been such a journey, but one that I have absolutely loved and felt fortunate to be a part of. I believe that this is something people need, and I think that this is a film people need to see right now.

I really think that it's fun that you know, we can't go out and hear live music, but you can you can sit in front of PBS, this weekend and hear great music. Especially during a time when everybody's mental health is getting stressed. Everyone is talking about mental health. Maybe not more about serious diagnosis, but certainly, we're all hurting from the isolation we've endured this year. Hopefully, this is making us all much more aware.

Q: Yes. I agree. This is a story people need to hear right now. Is there anything in particular that you're hoping people take away from the Me2/ Orchestra?

Absolutely. I hope people will think about the fact that you can create stigma-free zones throughout your life. We've done it in an orchestral setting, but there's no reason why it can't happen in a workplace or within a family. It does take some intentional effort, you know? You have to start the conversations. You have to respond supportively when someone is suffering - even when you don't understand.

I've learned so much within these orchestras. I'm not a social worker. I'm not a therapist. I'm just a girl with a French horn degree. But we toss around this word 'empathy' like it's just something we should all know or strive to be. There is so much to be said for being empathetic toward others. How can you help someone you don't understand or when you don't know exactly what they're experiencing? Provide them support by simply being empathetic. Sometimes, you can really deescalate a situation just by being supportive.

Q: Caroline, that is beautiful. What an impact you're making on people's lives!

A: I'm grateful to be able to offer support. We had a rehearsal not long ago and our principal oboist was so depressed. She showed up and, poor thing, she tuned and the orchestra had just started rehearsal when she walked out of the room. I went and found her down the hallway, and she was sitting in a dark classroom crying. I just sat there with her for the next hour, and tried to say as little as possible, you know? We did end up kind of laughing, and I cried with her a little bit, too. But the first thing I said was, "This sucks and I can't make it better, and I get that, so I'm just gonna sit here with you." And we did. We sat together. And it mattered.

Q: What a moving story. Thank you for sharing, Caroline. Do you have any other stories you'd like to share?

A: Just one more that's impacted me greatly. I recently got a letter from a donor in Vermont who was a first-time donor. She wrote to me last week and said, "We attended a concert a couple of years ago that you did in Brattleboro, Vermont. You came out to the audience and introduced yourself and you said that you knew there were people in the audience who had to fight to get there that night because you knew there are people for whom just getting out of the house and coming to the concert was a struggle. I want you to know that we see you, and we appreciate you, and you can't do any wrong here. We are in a stigma-free zone on the stage, but our audience is also in our stigma-free zone. If you need to get up and walk out or move around, do whatever you need to do. You are supported in this space."

The donor went on in her letter to say, "My husband didn't want to go out that night. He struggles with depression and anxiety, and he internalized those words you said that night to the audience. It was so meaningful, because he'd never had anybody say that to him before. Thank you for helping him to feel welcome."

Carrie Beth, this is why we do what we do. This is Me2/ Orchestra's mission. Our work is for anyone and everyone to have a safe space to be able to enjoy the benefits of having classical music in their lives. We've developed a network of providers and people who are skilled in this field, and can help those who need it. But at the end of the day, we're just musicians who care about other people and who don't judge somebody based on what they're experiencing. That's what Me2/ is all about. And we hope your local audience will continue to follow our organization as it grows. We'd love to have Columbus' support in our continued endeavor. ◼︎

Watch the documentary Orchestrating Change on February 7 and February 9 at 9 a.m. on GPB!


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