JP orchestra aims to soothe mental woes

A new Jamaica Plain ensemble called Me2/Orchestra aims to give people who suffer from mental illnesses a musical respite from any stigma they might endure elsewhere.

“People living with mental health issues face stigma on a daily basis,” said Me2/Orchestra executive director Caroline Whiddon. “One day, they might face discrimination from an employer or school, and the next day perhaps it’s a self-imposed stigma that just makes them feel lousy about themselves. When musicians walk through the door to a Me2/Orchestra rehearsal, they know that they don’t have to worry about stigma.”

The orchestra started last month and rehearses every Monday night at Hope Central Church at 85 Seaverns Ave.

The local Me2/Orchestra is a branch of the original group, founded in Burlington, Vt., in 2011 by Ronald Braunstein, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. Braunstein, who has conducted orchestras throughout the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, started Me2/Orchestra to help other people maintain their mental health.

“They are immediately among friends and colleagues and nobody is there to pass judgment,” said Whiddon, who is Braunstein’s wife. “Even though we don’t talk about mental health very often in rehearsals, it is extremely empowering for people to be in a room where they are surrounded both by people with and without mental illnesses and know that they don’t have to worry about hiding their diagnosis.”

The name Me2 comes from the inclusivity of the phrase, ‘me, too,’ said Whiddon.

“It [also] stems from the fact that when Braunstein decided to tell other people that he has a mental illness, they often replied, ‘me, too,’” she said.

Whiddon said that when the organization began looking to start a branch of Me2/Orchestra, it wanted a “comfortable, welcoming rehearsal space” that was accessible by public transportation and had free parking.

“Hope Central fit the bill perfectly,” said Whiddon.

She said that members in JP orchestra range in age from their 20s to 50s and that they have a wide range of ability. Whiddon said that the organization hopes that the JP musicians gain “self-confidence” and a “sense of empowerment” through their interaction with the orchestra.

“After just two rehearsals in Jamaica Plain we have already seen people forming new friendships within the orchestra,” she said. “We know that these friendships are based on a mutual respect and trust, as well as a shared love of music. It will be exciting to see these relationships strengthen in the coming months.”

There are no firm plans for any public concerts yet, but Whiddon said they would like to perform at unconventional venues, such as correctional facilities or hospitals. She noted that the organization has been approached by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health about possibly performing in the future.

“We will begin scheduling performances once the orchestra has grown in numbers and feels a bit more established,” she said.

Anyone interested in joining the orchestra can email [email protected] or call 802-238-8369.

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