Helen Bonny

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Helen Bonny died on May 25th, 2010.  She was a pioneer in the field of music therapy, leading the way in using western classical music to expand explorations of consciousness, through developing Guided Imagery and Music. She was a wonderful example to us all, whatever our calling –  following her bliss, unafraid of criticism, and using her love for music in service of others. I am deeply honored to be a second-generation student, studying under Helen’s own student and friend, Lisa Summer. And I feel Helen Bonny’s legacy in all that I do, re-discovering her brilliance as I experience more and more of the power of her music programs, for myself and for my clients.

Recently, my book club discussed Helen Bonny’s article entitled “The Language of Immediacy”. As she understood it, music brings us, with immediacy, into the present moment. It is a language which is experienced in the now – a language which integrates the past and the future in this moment. And it speaks so much to what I experience with my adult clients in psychotherapy work. I am learning that the integrative healing happens when a person is helped to slow down,  supported in deepening their awareness of their feelings in the moment, and guided to an increased level of consciousness in the here-and-now. Music can be a powerful key in bringing a client into this type of experience. Music is immediate in a way that few experiences are.

And what is the healing potential of the immediacy of music? Ken Wilber writes in his 2001 book, No Boundary, about eliminating the self-imposed boundary between the hearer and what is heard. I think this has implications for the experience of music in music therapy:

“Close your eyes and attend to the actual process of hearing. Notice all the odd sounds floating around – birds singing, cars rumbling, crickets chirping…But with all those sounds, notice that there is one thing which you cannot hear, no matter how carefully you attend to every sound. You cannot hear the hearer…You can’t hear a hearer because there isn’t one. What you have been taught to call a ‘hearer’ is actually just he experience of hearing itself, and you don’t hear hearing…There is no boundary here…

If you let the sensation of being a ‘hearer’ inside the skull dissolve into hearing itself, you might find your ‘self’ merging with the entire world of ‘outside sounds.’ As one Zen Master exclaimed upon his enlightenment, ‘When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just the ringing’…When you try to hear the subjective hearer, all you find are objective sounds. And that means that you do not hear sounds, you are those sounds. The hearer is every sound which is heard…”  (pp. 46-47)

This is not unlike T.S. Eliot’s famous line in The Four Quartets which nests in the these lines –

“…For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts…”

In one of my most recent personal experiences in my own GIM therapy, I experienced the truly transformative power of music – the experience of being one with the music. There was no me as hearer – the music was inside of me, and I inside of it. This deeply felt and real-time experience of music is able to transform a person, forever. In one short piece of the music program, I was able to experience myself in a completely new way.  And the music didn’t just bring a new part of myself to my awareness – I was the music – the music offered me a lived experience of this, previously hidden, part of myself. The music brought me fully into the living, feeling, breathing, present moment. What was previously an unconscious part of me, is now a constant here-and-now experience.

Thank you, Helen, for being so open to the transformative, transpersonal aspects of music and finding a way to share it with the world and me. May we all have the courage to do what we are called to do in this lifetime, as you did.

For those who are interested, there is a new edition of Voices online, commemorating Helen Bonny: https://normt.uib.no/index.php/voices/issue/current

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Yes – I’m tackling Beauty on my first Blog post. And chances are it will be a recurring theme in these posts.

I am a music therapist. My work involves facilitating aesthetic experiences with and for my clients. Beautiful sounds make up a majority of the therapy sessions. Who are my music therapy influences in this regard? Definitely Carolyn Kenny, Helen Bonny, and of course Clive Robbins and Paul Nordoff.

Carolyn Kenny writes so eloquently about how Beauty in human beings is not just relegated to the ‘pleasing’. Beauty is inclusive of darkness and light, sadness, horror, fierceness. It is my thought that beauty in music can allow for a person to experience their entire selves as beautiful. Carolyn Kenny writes, “[As] one moves toward beauty, one moves toward wholeness, or the fullest potential of what one can be in the world.”

A while ago, I was pulled deeply in Elaine Scarry’s essay, “On Beauty and Being Just.” In it she writes:
“Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people…” She suggests that beauty invites us to stare – when we see or hear something beautiful, our eyes and our ears want more of it.

I understand this instinct to “stare” as a gift, allowing a person to be still with something. When we are in the presence of beauty, we wish to stay with it longer. That is how we know beauty.

So, what is the purpose of the aesthetic experience in music therapy? Perhaps it is to awaken that instinct to stare. Through the music, we are able to stare at ourselves, and know ourselves as beautiful. Beautiful in the fullest sense of the word. Maybe even the most “ugly” of experiences can be transformed into things of beauty through art? In this way, through the beauty of a musical experience with another human being, we can make our sadness, our grief, our anger, or our longing, into an act of beauty. And in doing so, that grief or that pain is easier to be with, to stare at, and to be still with. And just maybe, it can be transformed in this way. Transformation is rooted in being able to stay still with and feel fully, even those most difficult of emotions. Transformation in therapy is about the client becoming Beauty.

Clive Robbins (personal communication) suggests that we, as music therapists, “become committed to Beauty”. What does this mean for us? It means skillful execution of our musical craft – time, focus and practice in making beautiful music, so that we can consistently facilitate these experiences for our clients. Clive talks about his and Paul Nordoff’s famous “Edward” case study (written about in their seminal publication, Creative Music Therapy), and how Edward increasingly wanted more and more to do with Beauty. From his first coming in contact with Beauty, he began to experience himself in the music, as a thing of Beauty. And this experience led him to want more and more of it. He was invited to stare, and listen deeply. He began relating to beauty in others, and in himself. The world became an increasingly beautiful place for a boy who had only known frustration, fear and limitations.

I believe that our capacity for beauty, creative endeavor, and imagination is dependent on our health, and our state of health is dependent on our capacity to embrace beauty and engage in creative endeavor and imaginative practices. Music therapists remind a person of their beauty and the necessity of creating and imagining.

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