Conductor Ronald Braunstein shares how bipolar disorder shaped his career and allows him to empower the musicians he works with.
A graduate of Juilliard, Ronald Braunstein has conducted the San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and the Oslo Philharmonic, to name a few.
He founded and conducts an orchestra that gives people with mental health conditions a place to perform. He’s also the subject of a new documentary, “Orchestrating Change.”
Mr. Braunstein’s connection to his orchestra is deeply personal: He received a bipolar disorder diagnosis himself in 1985.
When the Me2/ Orchestra reached out, they told us about their Julliard-educated conductor and the upcoming documentary. But the potential guest list didn’t include just Mr. Braunstein. He was only available in a joint interview with his wife.
It’s not easy to have two guests on a short podcast. And as a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I know how important it is to tell our own stories. I wanted Mr. Braunstein’s story told by him, so I asked our production assistant to request just him.
And that’s how we got to see the magic that is conductor Ronald Braunstein.
The answer came back quickly from Mr. Braunstein’s people, and it was refreshingly honest. They explained he gets nervous and doesn’t like to be interviewed because he feels he does a poor job, and other people are better suited.
Because of his bipolar disorder, he’d rather not be front and center. Having his wife with him would help take off some pressure.
At first blush, it’s easy to think, “He’s led orchestras all over the world. How much more front and center can you be?”
But that assumption doesn’t make as much sense as it might seem to at first. So what if he can lead an orchestra? He’s nervous to give an interview. Those two experiences have little in common.
Our intrepid production assistant knew how much I wanted to interview Mr. Braunstein. With equal honesty, she wrote back that the host lives with bipolar disorder, too. The show isn’t live, and we promise to work with our guest to ensure he sounds great.
Long story short, Mr. Braunstein agreed to trust us and come on the show alone. His people sent me some hints and tips, and the day before the interview, they reminded me again that he was nervous.
Reading the email the day before, it struck me as remarkable. His needs, fears, and accommodations were articulated directly and without shame.
When Mr. Braunstein called in, I gave my normal greeting. I always spend a few minutes chatting with the guests before the official recording begins, both to make them comfortable and to check the audio levels.
After a couple minutes, Mr. Braunstein interrupted me and said, “Gabe, you speak so rapidly. Can you please slow down?”
I am a rapid speaker — a mile a minute, as my Granny says — but no one has ever asked me to slow down before.
During the editing process, no less than three people emailed to ask why I was speaking so slowly during the episode. “Because the guest asked me to,” was my only response.
My first question was a big one:
“Mr. Braunstein, you’ve conducted major orchestras around the world, and you were on the way to being a lead conductor when you disclosed your diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And then you were shunned by the classical music community. Did this experience cause you to start your own orchestra?”
The short answer is yes, that’s exactly what happened.
Shunned by people he had admired — and who’d admired him — Mr. Braunstein forged a path away from the mainstream. His choice to create a space for other musicians living with mental health conditions seemed second nature. I never got the feeling he’d thought of doing anything else.
We discussed the orchestra’s name, Me2/ (“me, too”), and how it connotes acceptance and belonging. (Not to be confused with the #MeToo movement, as Me2/ preceded it by about 10 years.) The unique spelling allows for various ensemble names, like their flagship ensemble, Me2/Burlington.
Mr. Braunstein explained they are the world’s only classical music organization for people with mental health conditions and those who support them. He shared his opinion not only on his own growth, but on the growth of the musicians he conducts.
He said Me2/ serves as a model organization for people with and without mental health conditions. They create an environment where acceptance is an expectation, patience is encouraged, and supporting each other is a priority.
As he spoke, I thought about this man standing up with an auditorium crowd at his back.
I pictured him holding his baton in the air while some of the finest musicians in the world held their collective breath, waiting for him to begin. I imagined the incredible space this man has occupied.
Just being in the San Francisco Orchestra is a major accomplishment, and there are around 100 musicians. But there’s only one conductor.
I began to feel a sense of loss. Because this person has bipolar disorder, are his talents being underutilized?
While it could be easy to say he’s not where he belongs because of a condition he didn’t ask for, it wasn’t the bipolar disorder. It was stigma, discrimination, fear.
As the interview wrapped up, Mr. Braunstein told me he admired my work, and that his first impulse when he heard about me was that he didn’t want to be interviewed by me.
He wanted me to be his teacher. He shared he’d been nervous about this interview, and then he thanked me.
Think of the moment right before the conductor’s baton comes down, with the auditorium quiet, and the audience waiting in anticipation. Then think of the moment the baton falls and the orchestra springs to life. Not the sound — but the feeling.
Mr. Braunstein was able to create that feeling with his words during an interview over the phone. No baton, no orchestra, no audience.
I can only imagine what he does for all the musicians who play in his orchestra: people who may have experienced trauma because of a condition they didn’t want, but who are still moving forward and creating beauty.
Sometimes, we think people have stepped backward in life. But we only think they’ve stepped backward because we don’t understand the value of what they’ve chosen to do instead.
Ronald Braunstein isn’t a failed conductor making the best of a bad situation. And he’s not a lost soul looking for redemption.
He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be, and the world is better for it.
Want to hear more about the Me2/ Orchestra and Ronald Braunstein’s story? Click the player below or visit the official episode page.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe is the host of Healthline Media’s weekly podcast, “Inside Mental Health.” You can listen and learn more here.
Gabe can be found online at gabehoward.com.