Your Brain On Music

So let’s talk about music. Music obviously has a deep connection with the brain. At peak enjoyment, music has been shown to release the mood-enhancing chemicals dopamine and serotonin into the brain. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks related the story of a man with dementia who couldn’t remember what happened ten minutes ago, but could still remember the baritone parts to almost every song he’d ever sung. Maybe that’s why music is so powerfully associated with memories and emotions, and why we can remember all the words to a song on the radio that we heard back in high school but barely ever since then.

That’s part of what makes Orchestrating Change, the story about the Me/2 Orchestra, so powerful. All the members of the orchestra either live with mental illness or have some close personal experience with it, and play to draw awareness to mental illness, as well as for their own personal enjoyment. The stories of some of the transformations of the orchestra members, from not being able to leave their house to performing in concert halls, is nothing short of amazing, really.

And of course, many famous musicians have lived with mental illness. I recently learned that Poly Styrene from the X-Ray Spex, one of my favorite punk bands, struggled with bipolar disorder, and Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses wrote a book incorporating hers. Some of the sad music we love so much, like that of Joy Division or Nick Drake, was influenced by deep depression.

There are many other examples. I love the idea of a music project inspired by mental illness. Of course, not everyone wants to be “out” about their mental illness, and with good reason. Stigma and discrimination are still very real and with us.

It is fairly obvious that it is a little too late for me to avoid this, but it kind of was, anyway, as my illness manifested itself at work. And, in fact, it sounds like that is exactly what happened to Ronald Braunstein, the conductor of the Me/2 Orchestra. Ronald was well on his way to becoming a world-class conductor. He had trained at Juilliard, won the First Prize Gold Medal in the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in Berlin, and conducted orchestras all over the world. Then, he had a manic episode while on stage, and his prestigious career was shattered.

Ronald Braunstein started the Me/2 Orchestra with his wife Caroline Whiddon, and says in the film Orchestrating Change that he actually finds the work more fulfilling than he probably would have even found continuing to conduct world-class orchestras. He forms mentorships with the musicians and watches their lives change knowing that Me/2 is a huge part of that. Some of the musicians have felt the orchestra gave them peers they could relate to and the strength to open up about their mental illness for the first time. Music is a very powerful thing.

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