Rick Soshensky, a music therapist in Kingston, N.Y., who plays instruments with people with serious mental health problems, described how Mr. Braunstein’s approach can help the mentally ill. Unlike verbal communication, he told me, “music involves a different part of the brain and a different way to interface with the world. It’s outside the cognitive realm. It gets the cognitive part out of the way and gets the intuitive part engaged, the part of the brain that is not damaged.”
To the performers in the Me2/Orchestra, Mr. Braunstein is much more than a conductor. He’s a friend and a mentor, as well as a living example of what can happen when a person with mental illness is accepted unconditionally and treated with dignity and respect.
This approach to people with mental illness, Mr. Soshensky said, can foster growth and self-esteem that can carry over to other aspects of a person’s life and foster a fuller life experience. “It helps others start to see a whole other dimension of the person that wasn’t there before,” he said. “We all need to feel, ‘I’m good at this’.”
It is just this kind of musical magic that Mr. Braunstein offers to the members of the Me2/Orchestra. For example, Dylan, a double bass player featured in the film, said that before joining the orchestra he hadn’t left the house for months. He’d also spent weeks alone in the woods where he was hearing voices. Though given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he told people he was a drug addict because he thought that was better accepted than mental illness.
His mother, Ann, said that being in the orchestra “has changed his life. It’s given him a lifeline. He didn’t have one before.” Among other accomplishments, it gave Dylan the confidence he needed to be an erstwhile street performer.
As William Congreve wrote in a poem in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”
Still, the orchestra is by no means a cure. As Dr. Braunstein told another Me2 member in the film, Marek, a clarinetist who shares his diagnosis, “We can’t cure bipolar, but we can manage it.” From time to time, some members lose their emotional footing and may end up in the hospital or even jail. But as Marek, who strayed temporarily into dangerous and debilitating self-medication, said, “It’s nice to know the orchestra is waiting for me when I can make it back to rehearsal.”
The documentary, produced by Margie Friedman and Barbara Multer-Wellin, will be premiering on public television stations across the country this fall in partnership with PBS station KTWU in Topeka and American Public Television. The broadcast schedule can be found at www.orchestratingchangethefilm.com. It is also available on PBS streaming.