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The Me2/Orchestra was co-founded and is conducted by Juilliard graduate Ronald Braunstein, who lives with bipolar disorder. His orchestra is featured in the new documentary, “Orchestrating Change,” that tells the inspiring story of the only orchestra in the world created by and for people living with mental illness, and those who support them.

The mission of Me2/ is to erase mental health stigma one concert at a time and create an environment where acceptance and understanding are both an expectation and a priority. Listen as our guest shares how being shunned from conducting for disclosing his mental illness led him to finding a new path forward.

Ronald Braunstein

Ronald Braunstein, music director of Me2/, received his musical background at The Juilliard School, Salzburg Mozarteum, Fontainbleau, and the Tanglewood Music Center. Immediately following graduation from Juilliard, he won the Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition and spent the following 4 years mentoring with Mr. Karajan. He’s conducted the San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, Swiss Radio Orchestra, Israel Sinfonietta, Auckland Philharmonia, Kyoto Symphony, Osaka Symphony, Tokyo Symphony, the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague, and the Oslo Philharmonic. Braunstein was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. He launched Me2/ because of his desire to support others who struggle to maintain good mental health. (www.ronaldbraunstein.com)

Gabe Howard

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.

To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.

Calling into the show today, we have Ronald Braunstein. Mr. Braunstein is the music director of Me2/ and a graduate of Juilliard. He has conducted the San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and the Oslo Philharmonic, just to name a few. Mr. Braunstein was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. He launched Me2/ because of his desire to support others who struggle to maintain good mental health. Mr. Braunstein, welcome to the show.

Ronald Braunstein: Thank you.

Gabe Howard: You have conducted major orchestras all around the world and you were on a trajectory to being a lead conductor when you disclosed your diagnosis of bipolar disorder and then you were shunned by the classical music community. Was this the experience that caused you to start Me2/?

Ronald Braunstein: Well, it wasn’t like I decided to start Me2/. I got basically fired from the job because of my mental illness. I knew that I would never get a conducting job again. It wasn’t like a decision. It just I felt that I run out of options. So I had to create a new option, which was to make my own orchestra made of people like me. And I guess it was not as though there was a formal launch. We just set out a press release and we waited to see if anyone would show up and a few people did. People were frankly sitting on uncolored folding chairs in an all-purpose community space. At the beginning we didn’t really know what we’re doing, and no one knew what would happen. So anyways, long and short, I set everyone down on the floor and we talked about my parameters was just simply that I wanted to make an orchestra that was stigma free, a context in which we could be ourselves and not have to hide our illness.

Ronald Braunstein: So it kind of started like that. And that like for a couple of weeks we just talked. We didn’t play. There’s a certain type of trust developed among us as we told our stories. And we basically started to feel safe as a kernel. And then we started to play, I think, two or three weeks later, it was like, OK, it’s time for Beethoven. We actually have an orchestra. It was not that great. But everyday it got a little bit better. Slowly but surely, person by person came and they knew that this was a safe place for them to be, to be themselves and not to have to hide anything anymore. That was a safe, safe place to be and to play music together.

Gabe Howard: I love that. How did you come up with the name? Me2/? And what does it mean to the greater community and to you?

Ronald Braunstein: The truth of the matter is, I was living in Prague and I saw a great disparity between the private schools and the public schools. So I wanted to create an orchestra there that was called me too. Meaning it would bring together those two groups because they all felt love music. Well, me too. So that thing originated there kind of in a completely different arena, so I guess I, I stole my own name. So I said, why don’t we name it me too? Because you mean, do you have a mental illness? Me too. The names actually superseded the women’s movement by about 10 years, the name. So, as it turned out, people come to us thinking that we’re Me Too the organization and the next thing you know, we’re telling them about that we’re not Me Too the women’s movement, we’re actually Me2/, an orchestra for people with mental illness. So we heard quite a lot of people looking for the women’s movement. We got into real conversations about mental illness with about a quarter of them. And we’ve kept in touch with them, so. It’s best to keep your identity and then find intersections with people.

Gabe Howard: It sounds like the Me2/ Orchestra is connecting with people who you didn’t intend to connect with.

Ronald Braunstein: That’s actually true. It goes like this. I often get on the phone with someone from tech support with whatever company, Apple or Samsung or whatever. And since I’m such a total dunce when it comes from anything technology based, I find myself on the phone a lot, trying to figure out which buttons to push. And I always start the call with they want to know your email address and they always say It’s Ronald at Me2/ orchestra. And invariably they say, oh, is that connected to the Me Too movement? And I say, no, no, it’s not. It’s actually an orchestra for people living with mental illness. Pause. OK, well, let’s work with your problem and then we’re just kind of ending up the call. When there’s another space. Pause, then this little voice on the other end of the line with a totally different voice than her telephone voice, she says to me, That’s very interesting. I have a cousin with mental illness. And actually, to tell you the truth, I also suffer from clinical depression and I have my whole life. So when you say me too, I really understand what you’re talking about, because often people have to hide their mental illness. But when someone hears me, too, it rings a bell, someone’s talking about mental illness? Me too.

Gabe Howard: Obviously, in order to have an orchestra, you need musicians. Who are you looking for to be in the Me2/ Orchestra?

Well, we’re actually not looking for anyone. We’ve never done recruitment. People, they find out about us, they go on the Internet and then they find us. And then they’ll go to a rehearsal or two and see if it’s for them. Some of them, it’s not for them, but most of them, it rings a bell and they stay with us. But as far as what kinds of people, I’d say it’s composed of people from all walks of life, people with all levels of playing and ages, and there’s a lot of mentorship between the players and the less experienced ones. What they all experience is the healing power of music.

Gabe Howard: Has creating the Me2/ Orchestra made you more comfortable talking about your own mental health issues?

Ronald Braunstein: Initially, I didn’t really feel uncomfortable about having a diagnosis, I just felt like it was a piece of paper that was in a book. It oddly described me very well, but I didn’t take it that seriously and I didn’t feel uncomfortable about it. I was very open about it. I told people because I never thought in my million years that anyone would ever hold it against me. Then I started to feel that people were not straight with me and we’re not treating me right. And at first I thought it was all kind of coincidental or what’s the word? Well, let’s just say coincidental. I thought it was, had to do with the circumstance, but something would happen. And it was weird. And I knew that it was not positive, a positive vibe that I was getting from them. And after several years, I started to see that people were having a preconception of me. And then I started to realize that there was a stigma accumulating over those years and was actually following me around everywhere I went. I felt at that point, I felt like shame and I felt isolated and alone. So by creating the orchestra, I really created a stigma free zone where I could be myself and all of the members in the orchestra could be themselves. They don’t have to play like the Berlin Philharmonic because we’re not trying to become the greatest orchestra.

Ronald Braunstein: We’re just trying to be a community. This is all leading up to the fact that last year, for the first time in 10 years, I became at a horrible depression. You know, I got up in the morning, couldn’t get to the shower and all of those things, couldn’t drag myself out of bed. But on Thursdays, I had to pull myself together and go just force myself to go, even though I didn’t know if I could get through it. So I got up on the podium and I just felt so, so badly and at the beginning of a rehearsal. We always tune and then there’s quiet. Instead of telling them what movement we were going to start, I stepped off to the podium and I went to the middle of the room and I said to them, I’m in a serious depression. Can you help me get through this? And they were completely there for me, I felt such love and support. Not only did it get to get me through the rehearsal, but it was actually a pretty darn good one. It was just wonderful to know that I have many dear friends who were there supporting me, too.

Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsors.

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Gabe Howard: We’re back discussing the documentary, Orchestrating Change, with the musical director, Ronald Braunstein.We’ve talked a lot about how the Me2/ Orchestra has helped you, how does it help the musicians?

Ronald Braunstein: Well, I can’t say enough how it’s changed them. It gives people an identity. People that didn’t really they might have a job or they might not have a job, they might be on disability or they might be a drug addict or whatever. They don’t have something that they feel was identity that they were proud of. Someone says, so what are you doing these days? And they say, well, I play piccolo in the Me2/ Orchestra. And that gave them a feeling of self-worth and increasing confidence. It was indescribable. Self-esteem, self-worth, confidence, and the main thing is identity. Like I, yeah, the identity.

Gabe Howard: You’ve conducted major symphony orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, but you’ve said repeatedly that conducting the Me2/ Orchestra is so much more fulfilling. Why?

Ronald Braunstein: Well, when I said more fulfilling. The more part really is not accurate because conducting, you know, major European and American orchestras and comparing that to the Me2/, is just like comparing two totally different things. So like, for example, you know, I loved conducting the world class orchestras because they were so incredible and so responsive and so close to perfection. But for Me2/, we’re not trying to make the best orchestra. We’re just trying to create community to play their best. So I, I use it’s the same actually. I can conduct the same way I do any orchestra. I use all the means at my disposal, meaning like I show them with my hands. I sing to them. I talk to them. I used the velvet glove, I think I use everything to try to get them to feel comfortable and play their best, but it’s not like I’m conducting a mental health orchestra.

Ronald Braunstein: It’s a completely different, different way of supporting a group rather than motivating them. And that’s a big difference. In other words, I don’t have to, you know, with normal orchestras, you always have to program like a balance between classical, traditional pieces and contemporary pieces. I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to rely on ticket sales. I just program for the orchestra. So I can treat this orchestra in the way that they really enjoy the experience. I don’t have to be like outdated, authoritarian European conductor. I can be more than that. They know me as a conductor, but I can also be their true friend and their confidence or their mentor or anything, my bowling partner. Because we’re not trying to create perfection. We’re just trying to be a community. So if you want to know why that’s more fulfilling, I guess to sum it up, I would say that my experience, with the closeness that I have with the orchestra and to know that they’re all doing their best. It gives my life meaning.

Gabe Howard: I absolutely love that. Now, You have a new documentary about the Me2/ Orchestra, Orchestrating Change. Why were you and your musicians willing to open up yourselves to a documentary film crew? What’s the goal for the Me2/ Orchestra?

Ronald Braunstein: The goal is being yourself and being open to be visible and to be, what do they call it? Advocates about mental illness? The main thing is to be yourself and to have no qualms about being public, because basically if you’re in Me2/ Orchestra, it’s totally public already. That you’re in a mental health orchestra. I mean, to give you an example, there was one woman, actually, she was one of the original women that there were at the first meeting, but she was job hunting. We were in a small town and she didn’t want to have anyone know that she was in a mental health orchestra. We respected that. But over time, over the months and over the years, she’s now a prominent member of NAMI. She couldn’t have made a bigger change from being a little mouse in the corner, hiding, to being an advocate for mental health. So that’s the power of it. And that’s why the open and not hiding was a big, big part of it.

Gabe Howard: What is your biggest hope for the documentary?

Ronald Braunstein: That that documentary was. Two things, and I never thought about it until just now, You know, they filmed us over three or four years. I just have to say, they were so excellent. They had their camera in my face. But after a millisecond, they disappeared. That’s how invisible they were, which was the main thing you want to have happen when you’re being filmed for you just to be natural. But those who created such a great context for us to be who we were. Now, as far as what I want would like a takeaway or what I expect would be that. We have to reach out and communicate. With each other, meaning people living with mental illness and people without that, there has to be a discussion.

Gabe Howard: What are the long term goals of the Me2/ Orchestra?

Ronald Braunstein: It’s big. Our goal is to have somewhere between 50 and 100 Me2/ affiliates across the country. We want to have maybe 10 to 20 full functioning orchestras, along with affiliate chamber groups making a big community and to begin to combine them the way we did in Boston. Combined this orchestra with this orchestra and do a concert. And then combine three orchestras and do a concert. Then, I’d like to keep to make sure that the vibe is right, consistent with the mission. You know, I will have someone conducting master classes for the conductors to make sure that they aligned with our goals and missions, so then they’ll go back to the orchestras and that’s the way we’ll keep our identity and our focus on creating a large number of orchestras. With the same beautiful message.

Gabe Howard: The documentary Orchestrating Change began airing on public television stations across the country just this past fall. Now virtual screenings and DVDs are available at BullfrogFilms.com. And of course, you can learn more from the film’s website OrchestratingChangeTheFilm.com. As the conductor, do you have any last words that you’d like our listeners to know?

Ronald Braunstein: Yes, we have to have a conversation. Between people living with mental illness and people who don’t understand them. Who end up understanding us. And we realize that we’re really all in the same boat. And it could be seen as a model for our whole society to try for.

Gabe Howard: I could not agree with that more, I think what we need is more conversations and more reasons to learn from one another and understand each other’s journeys. I absolutely love the documentary. I love the Me2/ Orchestra. And I’m so glad that you could be here with us.

Ronald Braunstein: I admire your work so much. I really was not aware of it. And I feel like I really wish I could. My first impulse when I saw all your stuff was, I don’t want to be interviewed by this guy. I want to, I want this guy to be my teacher. I learned so much from your videos, from many videos. And I want to just thank you. Thank you for that.

Gabe Howard: I appreciate that so much. It’s fascinating because the same thing happened for me. When I see the folks that I’m interviewing and I’m like, oh, he’s like a world famous conductor. And I’m like a podcast. Or it’s this stuff that other people are doing seems so foreign and amazing to us. I mean, I, I can’t imagine commanding a world class orchestra. And, you know, for for you, you make it look so easy. I know that it’s not easy, but it’s it’s incredible.

Ronald Braunstein: Oh, well.

Gabe Howard: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Ronald Braunstein: Thank you. Thank you for the interview.

Gabe Howard: Mr. Braunstein, you are very welcome and to all of our listeners, thank you for being here. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please give us a follow. It’s absolutely free. And remember, we can’t do the show without you. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. It would be awesome if I could be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Please share us on social media and hey, right, rank and review. Write some words to tell other people why they should be listening to inside mental health as well. I’ll see everybody next Thursday.

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