Orchestra helps musicians with mental illness fight stigma

October 6, 2018

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In 2011, a conductor with bipolar disorder who grew up in Pittsburgh founded an orchestra of musicians with mental illnesses.

Seven years later, his Me2/Orchestra — no relation to the movement against sexual harassment and assault — has grown to nearly 60 members in the flagship ensemble in Burlington, Vt., and has branched out with affiliate ensembles in Boston, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., with Pittsburgh poised to start its own chapter in the coming months.

Flavio Chamis, a musician and conductor in the Pittsburgh area, has been working with several researchers and psychiatrists at UPMC to launch the ensemble. The University of Pittsburgh is willing to provide space and staff assistance. A small number of patients who play instruments are already asking when rehearsals begin. Chamis said he aims to start before the end of the year, as soon as the group finds some initial funding.

“All too often that initial diagnosis can wreck a person,” said Caroline Whiddon, executive director of Me2/. “They have preconceived notions about what being diagnosed with, say, bipolar disorder means. We’re working to reframe that, both in society and in ourselves.”

Chamis also has helped organize a concert to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in remembrance of John “Jack” A. Martine III, who killed himself in 2016 at age 21. His mother noted in a news release that her son was a classical music fan and his grandfather was a Pittsburgh Symphony musician.

“This is a concert for all of the Jacks in the world,” Chamis said. “To remind them that they aren’t alone.”

Hospitals and psychiatric institutes have long employed music therapists in treating patients. While many doctors agree that it can be an effective form of therapy, it’s difficult to explain, qualify and quantify results.

But that’s changing. With advances in neuroscience and noninvasive brain scanning, there’s increasing interest in the scientific community in exploring the ways music and the arts affect the human brain.

This is leading to new enthusiasm in exploring music’s capacity to heal, according to K.N. Roy Chengappa, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt and one of the key players in creating Pittsburgh’s Me2/ ensemble. Dr. Chengappa said that the link between hard science and music therapy is building.

“We’ve always been interested in how music impacts the mentally ill, but some scientists shun the idea of researching this because it’s been viewed as hocus pocus,” he said.

Flash back to the 1970s, when one of the most famous classical composers of the day, Elliot Carter, invited a 16-year-old Pittsburgher to study at The Juilliard School in New York City. Ronald Braunstein jumped from composition to conducting while at college and launched his career with a bang when he won the prestigious Herbert von Karajan conducting competition in 1979.

He went on to guest conduct orchestras around the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Tokyo Symphony and other noted ensembles. But Braunstein was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985 at age 30, which prevented his career from progressing as it should have given his talent. After years of conducting various smaller ensembles, he and his wife founded Me2/. Now, 63, his goal is to have 20 Me2/ affiliate orchestras established by 2020.

“We’re not therapists,” said Whiddon, Braunstein’s wife. “We’re more like social activists. We’re getting out in the community to fight the stigma against mental illness and tell our stories and change our communities so that people don’t think everyone with a mental illness is like the characters on ‘Law and Order.’ ”

She said that the orchestra recruits primarily by word of mouth and by psychologist recommendation now that the organization is established, and that the orchestra splits its time between typical concert halls and off-the-beaten-path spaces, mental health hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.

Music therapy

While the Me2/ orchestra is not a music therapy organization, there are obvious therapeutic benefits for the players.

Brains with schizophrenia don’t process music the same way as neurotypical (average) brains, according to recent research. Neither do minds affected by bipolar disorder or major depression.

When a neurotypical person hears a beat — whether it’s musical pulse or a coincidentally rhythmic radiator clang — it doesn’t just activate the part of the brain that processes sound. It also lights up the circuitry that coordinates movement, like catching a ball or riding a bike.

Brian Coffman, a Pitt research instructor who has published articles on the subject in Schizophrenia research journal, said that because rhythm and music light up the part of the brain that coordinates and times movements, training or retraining the brain to process rhythm could affect more than a patient’s ability to play an instrument or sing.

“There are people working with musical training and schizophrenia,” Mr. Coffman said. “It does seem to have an effect. There’s something to it. The brain is like any organ in the body. The more you use it in different ways the more it develops in different ways.”

Robert Miller is a music therapist at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, one of the largest behavioral health care providers affiliated with an academic medical center in the country.

“Music therapy is using music as a tool to address whatever kinds of needs somebody might have,” he said. “It’s been around since the ’50s, and it’s always evolving as we do more research and work.”

The American Music Therapy Association is the largest music therapy organization in the world, with 4,000 members. A 2016 survey estimated that more than 1.4 million people received music therapy of some sort during the preceding year.

According to the association’s website, music therapy has been used to treat conditions ranging from mental illnesses to learning disabilities, substance abuse issues to physical disabilities, and brain injuries to chronic pain.

Personal notes

Whiddon described an interaction with a Me2/ musician when the musician came into a rehearsal with a different name and personality and didn’t remember how to play her instrument. Dr. Chengappa described a man who bluntly told him that his music was the only thing that had prevented him from killing himself. Miller has anecdote after anecdote of patients experiencing moments of clarity and self-discovery through their relationship with music.

And Dr. Chengappa said that Coffman and the rest of the scientific community’s research is beginning to uncover exactly why this happens.

“Everybody’s been after the holy grail of tests and cures in psychiatry, for clear biomarkers, something to indicate if someone is at high risk or if someone is skipping on their meds or close to a break,” Dr. Chengappa said. “There have been a lot of false leads in the last 40 or 50 years. But there’s something to the musical and rhythmic connections, and today’s science can elaborate on this.”

At an early planning meeting for the Me2/Pittsburgh chapter, an interested patient who requested to be identified only by her first name, Anne, asked if it is fair to say that music can reshape and reform the brain.

The answer, according to the UPMC doctors present, is “yes.”

“I would like to see us all live up to those hopes,” Anne wrote in her notes from the meeting. “For our sake and for the education of the world.”


Jeremy Reynolds’ work at the Post-Gazette is supported by a grant from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty Foundation and Rubin Institute.






Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

All contents © copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.