Ronald Braunstein’s setback led to a stigma-free orchestra for musicians with mental health challenges
By Robin Flanigan
Maestro Ronald Braunstein’s amazing splash on the international music stage at a mere 23 years old was a sign of things to come—in more ways than one.
After graduating from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, Braunstein had entered a summer program at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria. He describes washing his clothes in a laundromat at the end of that summer, wondering what to do next.
What came to mind was the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, taking place a mere 10 days away. In order to enter the acclaimed event, he would have to pull together a repertoire of some 15 pieces—a seemingly impossible feat.
“But I was on a roll,” Braunstein recalls, referring to the grandiose conviction of his manic state. “So I took all my wet clothes out of the dryer, put them in a big, black plastic bag, and was gone.
“I left all my belongings in my room. I only had a dripping suitcase and [musical] scores in my briefcase.”
Thus in September 1979, Braunstein became the first American to win the Karajan competition, beating out roughly 600 applicants from around the world.
“It’s like the Olympics of conducting, and I won the gold prize,” he explains.
That launched a career that brought him work with orchestras in Europe, Israel, Australia, Taiwan, Tokyo, and elsewhere abroad and in America.
The manic behaviors and depressive sloughs of bipolar disorder traveled along, too, making it more and more difficult to continue on that path. Yet after a difficult and painful period, he’s found a musical niche that’s left him better than before.
Braunstein now serves as music director and conductor for Me2/Orchestra, an organization he created his wife, Caroline Whiddon. Based in Burlington, Vermont, where the couple live, Me/2 is the world’s only classical music organization for individuals living with mental illnesses and the people who support them.
The flagship ensemble in Burlington launched in 2011. A second ensemble started in Boston in 2014. Braunstein and Whiddon, who is executive director of Me/2, travel there for two-hour rehearsals every Monday night.
Music & mania
Braunstein’s musical calling and psychiatric symptoms both manifested in his early teens in Pittsburgh. He remembers his dad taking him to a psychiatrist who “said I just have ‘bad nerves’ and gave me some pills. I didn’t take them for long.”
Around the same time, Braunstein realized what he wanted to do with his life. He remembers the ecstatic moment in explicit detail: He was 14, sitting with his father in the nosebleed seats at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“I was sitting way, way up, and I can tell you the exact chord…”
Braunstein pauses to reach for a piece of music on a bookshelf, flipping to the right spot in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
“Bar 330 in the fourth movement,” he continues. He pauses again to sing a few measures.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s the greatest exaltation about God. It’s the highest, most spiritual moment in the whole symphony, then there’s a short note played by the lowest two instruments in the whole orchestra, the contrabassoon and a big drum.
“I cried. I cried because I knew it was a turning point in my life.”
That wasn’t his first strong emotional reaction to music, though. He started playing the violin in third grade after being “overwhelmed” by a professional string quartet at his public school.
“I always hid [having bipolar disorder]. And I hid it very well, even to my physician.”
Passion and discipline led him to Juilliard, regarded as one of the world’s best conservatories for the performing arts, and to his conducting debut at Lincoln Center at age 20.
That momentous occasion mixed music and mania: Braunstein conducted Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 not with a traditional conductor’s baton, but with a blue pencil.
“I thought I could draw more color out of the music by using a colored pencil,” he says. “I was positive that I could do that. I thought [the concert] was a roaring success, but everyone else felt there was something very, very wrong happening.
“It didn’t matter what they thought, really,” he adds. “But for the first time, I noticed I am different.”
Braunstein wouldn’t be diagnosed with bipolar I until 1985, nearly a decade later. Even then, he kept it to himself.
“I always hid it,” he says. “And I hid it very well, even to my physician.”
Disclosure & disgrace
For many years, Braunstein’s career flourished despite mood episodes and occasional extreme behavior—like the time he climbed onto a tin roof after a performance and told the musicians he was with that he could fly. (They persuaded him not to try.)
In addition to guest-conducting gigs, Braunstein served as music director of the Texas Chamber Orchestra in the early 1980s and later for student orchestras at Juilliard and the Mannes College of Performing Arts—highly sought-after positions in a highly competitive field. He also joined the conducting staff at the American Opera Center.
A conductor normally spends several months mastering a score; in the throes of mania, Braunstein would spend one or two days learning the symphonies he needed to conduct. His rehearsals got shorter and shorter. He rarely slept or ate. When he did sleep, it was usually on other people’s floors.
What goes up must come down—and in May 2003, Braunstein fell hard, He pinpoints a moment, just after conducting Dvorak’s New World Symphony with the Mannes Preparatory Division Orchestra: “It ended at such a high point of energy and passion that I knew absolutely I had to crash down then. It was all over and I had to spend a year in bed.”
Braunstein had studied graphic design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the late 1990s. 90’s. Once he resurfaced from his depressive episode, he spent the next few years focusing more on design work and not doing much conducting.
Eventually he began sending out job applications to dozens of orchestras, though it “took a lot of energy just to get the right cover letter into the right envelope.” When he was hired as music director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association in 2010, he was elated.
He was still struggling to manage episodes of depression and mania, however, and working with a new psychiatrist to adjust his medication. He thrived on the podium, but in other ways his eccentric behavior—in reality, manic symptoms—began to worry others. After only a few months on the job, Braunstein disclosed his diagnosis to the association’s board. Shortly afterward, he was fired.
Braunstein sued for libel, slander and discrimination. The lawsuit settled out of court in 2011. Media coverage put every point in that arc before the public eye.
“It was the most painful thing of my life,” he says. “I wanted to change my name.”
Me/2 & mental health
As awful as it was, that experience wound up propelling him in new directions that have been healing for him and a positive force on countless other lives.
For one thing, he met his future wife. Whiddon was executive director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association when Braunstein was hired. She recalls watching videos of him conducting before she picked him up at the airport for his job interview. In the videos he appeared “expressive, confident and powerful,” but in person he was “timid, nervous and soft-spoken,” she recollects.
“I knew something was going on within five minutes of meeting him,” she recalls. “As we got to know each other, I told him, ‘If we’re going to work together, you might as well tell me what’s going on with you. I can help.’ But he was very guarded. He did not want me to know about his diagnosis.”
When he finally did tell Whiddon, she says her reaction was, “now it’s time to learn about bipolar disorder.”
The pair didn’t date as colleagues, but Whiddon reached out to be supportive and help Braunstein be successful. She would send him texts such as, “Have you eaten?”
“I suppose it was naive of me to think that everyone else would have the same reaction,” she says. “[But] there were people around me who reacted with fear and disdain.
“They painted a picture of Ronald that mirrored the type of mentally unstable people they had heard about in the media…. It makes my stomach churn just thinking about it today. The stigma and discrimination I observed during this time period truly rocked my entire world.”
Burned out after 13 years with the association, Whiddon coincidentally gave her notice around that time. She figured she’d start looking for another job. Braunstein talked her out of it.
“He said, ‘Nope. I have this great idea,’ ” Whiddon recounts.
That idea turned into Me2/Orchestra. Whiddon became a member as well as the chief administrator.
Whiddon had studied French horn at the renowned Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She left performing behind after graduation because of anxiety and depression. Although her depression has been well-managed for years, she had long since sold her French horn. So she found “an old clunker of a French horn” online and started making music again.
The couple, who married in April 2013, are a team at work and in recovery.
She makes sure his pill box is full for the month, encourages him to get plenty of sleep, and cooks healthy meals. He models a carefree, confident attitude when she starts to worry about what other people are thinking or when she feels a lack of control.
“The stigma and discrimination I observed during this time period truly rocked my entire world.”
For his part, Braunstein surrounds himself with good friends and talented, caring physicians.
“I don’t have symptoms right now, and haven’t for five years,” he says.
That’s the length of time the orchestra has been in existence. Coincidence?
“All my orchestra members support me every day. Sometimes I don’t feel like going to work, but as soon as I get there, I feel so great,” he reflects.
Of course, it also helps that Braunstein is more consistent about taking his meds. He’s been in talk therapy steadily for the past six years, another important change. And he feels liberated by not having to hide his bipolar disorder anymore.
“I’ve come out and I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he says. “My best 25 years are coming.… I’m just getting warmed up.”
SIDEBAR: Making Music, Fighting Stigma
It all started with a press release in some local newspapers and neighborhood bulletins. Now the Me2/Orchestra is the world’s only classical music organization for individuals living with brain-based mental disorders and the people who support them.
Me/2—which is actually two ensembles, one in Burlington, Vermont, and an offshoot in Boston—has been featured in numerous media outlets, including the Associated Press and BBC News. There’s also a documentary in the works: Filming for Orchestrating Change is expected to wrap up in mid-2017.
The orchestras play in concert halls, psychiatric hospitals, youth centers and correctional facilities. They bring the arts to underserved audiences while providing a creative outlet and emotional haven for the performers.
Co-founders Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon aim for a “stigma-free zone,” a community whose foundation is compassion and empathy. Their goal is to establish 20 affiliate ensembles by 2020.
Marek Lorenc of Burlington, a clarinet player, joined Me/2 “when I wasn’t doing so well” due to bipolar symptoms. With his health and outlook much improved, he continues to play with—and take pride in—the orchestra
“You wouldn’t be able to guess that any of the players are ‘disadvantaged’ in any way just by listening—the mission doesn’t take away from the music,” he says.
Still, Braunstein does not demand the kind of technical excellence he would expect from a professional orchestra when he conducts. There is no audition to join—and a psychiatric diagnosis is not required, either.
Marissa Dennis, a psychology major at the University of Vermont, was drawn to Me/2 as a form of social action.
“I saw that people with mental illness are treated as these enigmas just because of a diagnosis, and that this was a group of people who were taking a stand against the stigma,” says Dennis, who plays the flute.
For many of the musicians, the orchestra becomes an important support network. When Burlington violinist Jessica Stuart took a five-month break because she was “struggling pretty severely,” orchestra members checked in to see how she was doing.
“I felt like I had let them down,” says Stuart, who has a dual bipolar and substance use diagnosis. “But Caroline was very reassuring. Her stance was, ‘Just take care of what you have to do, and if you need help, let me know.’
“To find a place like this,” she adds,” it’s given me hope that I can be accepted for who I am.”
Printed as “The Maestro & Me/2”, Winter 2017
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Robin L. Flanigan