Mary Priestley interviewed by Leslie Bunt |Author bio & contact info|


I interviewed Mary Priestley at her London flat in May 2004. Mary is a well-known figure throughout the world of music therapy. At the Ninth World Congress, held in Washington in 1999, her work in Analytical Music Therapy was celebrated as one of the five universally acknowledged approaches in music therapy. Before training as a music therapist Mary also worked as a writer, artist, illustrator and secretary. Born in 1925, she was the daughter of the English playwright and author J.B. Priestley and Jane Lewis who became his second wife.

In spite of part of her tongue being paralysed by a recent operation she spoke fluently for over forty minutes about her musical life, her family, her early work, her training and work as a music therapist. She gave many insights into her methods of working and writing. She referred at times throughout the interview to the periods of mental illness and breakdown that have accompanied her through her life.

The Conversation

Leslie Bunt (LB): Mary, thank you for agreeing to this interview and to begin can I ask you to cast your mind back to your early memories of music and making music in your childhood?

Mary Priestley (MP): For the first fourteen years of my life I wanted to be an artist, nothing to do with music. One of my memories is of our father, when we went into the drawing room after tea, he would tell stories and illustrate them on the piano, which was lovely. He was a very good piano player. He could play anything on the piano. If he'd heard it, he could play it. When I was seven I started to learn the piano but I thought the whole business was illogical. So I took a chalk and wrote ABCDEFG all the way up the piano, on my father's beautiful Bechstein, and my piano lessons stopped forthwith.

LB: What about any other music-making in the family at that stage besides your father playing to you?

MP: I don't remember very much from that early time.

LB: What about the violin?

MP: I started the violin at fourteen when I went to an all girls' school and I liked to practise because I could get away from the other girls who were rather catty. There was a sympathetic music teacher who must have taught me some harmony because I wrote a string quartet movement at that time. I started violin lessons with a man who was then called up as an airman and died and then I had a lady teacher. Soon after that I went to the Royal College of Music for five years and got a scholarship. I was an honorary scholar which meant they didn't have to pay - you gave back the money.

Then it was the end of war and, as an excuse to go abroad, I went to an international music competition as a leader of a quartet. I met Sigvald Michelsen, the Danish violinist, who was entering as a solo performer. Later we both studied at the Geneva Conservatoire. When we came back from Geneva we told my parents that we wanted to get married and they said that we would have to have six months away from each other. Apparently it was something that people did in those days to make sure of their intention. Sigvald said: 'If you do that she'll have a breakdown' and I did. I had the most cracking breakdown and that was the beginning of my bi-polar disorder.

LB: So do you think your parents saying that was part of the reason?

MP: Yes, that was the trigger factor. I went into hospital and was there for a long time. I had the primitive form of electro-convulsive therapy and deep insulin therapy, which was very horrible. I came out and we got married in England and then I went to live in Denmark. We did duets on radio; we played solos; we played for film music and recording sessions and we played in the theatre orchestra. I led a group at the theatre playing to the King of Denmark while being pregnant with David. David was my last child. I had twins as well - all boys.

LB: How long were you in Denmark?

MP: I was seven years in Denmark and I was never ill. I was fine during all that time. After seven years the marriage broke down. I divorced my husband. My first job in England was as an illustration research consultant on Benjamin Britten's book. I don't remember the title (see Note [1]). I didn't do the illustrations myself but had to go to the British Library and look things up.

LB: So you met Britten?

MP: No, I didn't meet Britten but contacted Imogen Holst who was his amanuensis.

LB: How were the relationships with your family at this stage? Did they accept the marriage eventually?

MP: Well I think my father was never happy about it. I didn't see my parents very often because they lived down in the country. They got divorced too.

LB: Were you making music when you came back to England as well?

MP: I wasn't doing any music. This was my writing period. I wrote some articles for papers and magazines. I got a job at Thomas Cook as a copywriter, writing travel brochures. On the strength of that I wrote my first book Going Abroad and with the proceeds bought a washing machine which changed my life. I finished off writing the chapter on Turkey in the psychiatric hospital.

LB: So you first wanted to be an artist, then a musician and then a writer?

MP: Yes, I wanted to be first an artist, then a string quartet leader and then a writer. One of the jobs I did was being a secretary to my father in his London Albany flat. There wasn't much work to do so I would skive off and go to the Albert Hall and make sketches of conductors and famous soloists, some of which I was able to sell. One day I heard that Shostakovich was coming to London and so I went to the hotel where he was, found out which room and stood in the passage outside of the room. Somebody, a little man, rather bent-forward, came out. I didn't know who it was but I quickly sketched him. It was him, but I was too shy to get him to sign it.

LB: So when was this Mary, how old might you have been?

MP: I can't remember. I can't remember time.

LB: But this was a period after Denmark and working in such places as Thomas Cook?

MP: Yes and part of the time I was secretary/PA to Hephzibah Menuhin and her husband Richard Hauser.

LB: So did you meet Yehudi Menuhin as well?

MP: No, I talked to him on the phone. It was hard work. I was working very hard, typing out their books from tape. I had a breakdown while I was with them. Before I left the hospital the social worker said that I had to think about something I would do to earn a living. She told me to go and learn how to do shorthand and typing, which I did.

It was during that time when I was working a secretary that I heard there was going to be a talk on mutual understanding through music by somebody called Juliette Alvin. I didn't know what this was but I thought it sounded interesting. So I went along to the talk. Juliette Alvin was talking about the therapy she did with a French couple and how she used music to explore their lives and their relationship. I was absolutely riveted. I thought this is everything that I'm interested in. I must find out more about it. She said that she was staring a course. Then she finished; she left the stage and I was frantic. I thought I must get in touch with her. I must find her and I tracked her down in the ladies' lavatory. I got her phone number and from there I got on to the course in the second year that it had been going.

LB: That must have been 1969. So your first meeting with Juliette was in a ladies' loo. You said it all made sense to you but what were your first feelings on meeting her?

MP: She was rather frightening. It was her presence.

LB: Did you go and play to her?

MP: I don't think I had to play to her. She had someone else who was doing the auditions. I remember I played a Haydn Serenade and some of the Bartok Rumanian dances.

LB: How was your time with her on the course?

MP: It was wonderful. I really enjoyed it very much. It was hard work. By this time I had my three sons living with me so there was quite a lot to do in life. At that time I started my ten year bi-weekly analysis with Dr Gerald Wooster and I was going regularly to see the head consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley. The second ten years at my time working at St. Bernard's Hospital I was having supervision with Dr Joe Redfearn, the Jungian analyst.

L.B. I remember reading in your first book (see Note [2]) your lovely description of your first meeting with Alfred Nieman at the Guildhall. Was he important?

MP: Yes he was very important. It was very frightening. I had never improvised before.

LB: Are you still in contact with any other people from your year?

MP: I'm still in contact with a pianist called Leslie Ricketts.

LB: What about your placements?

MP: I had a placement at a big hospital for patients with all sorts of learning disabilities.

LB: I imagine you went out and worked there by yourself since there were not many trained music therapists as supervisors at that time.

MP: Yes, that's right.

LB: Was Juliette still quite formidable as a teacher?

MP: She was always quite frightening. I watched her doing music therapy and I thought to myself I can't work like that. Well then I thought that I must work the way I can work. When I finished the course I got a job at St. Bernard's Hospital (see Note [3]) where Gillian Lovett had been for years. She was in fact just thinking of leaving when she managed to get first Marjorie Wardle and me as extra music therapists and later Peter Wright. She was a very good head of department. She let me experiment and do all sorts of things.

LB: What sort of things? I remember your movement session, for example.

MP: Yes, she let me do the psychodynamic movement class and she let me decorate the music therapy room at Christmas and things like that.

LB: I also remember in your books you write about how, in addition to the individual and group music therapy, you used to take your violin on to the wards.

MP: Yes, that's right.

LB: People nowadays are talking about community music therapy, taking music out of the therapy room and into different settings but you were already doing that in the '70s.

MP: Yes and we did the music club where people would come and play and read poems.

LB: So you had the support of Gillian, Marjorie and Peter.

MP: Yes and quite soon Marjorie, Peter and I used to go home to my flat every Tuesday evening and have an experimental session together which we did ninety-six times. Each one of us was therapist to one of the others and patient to one of the others. I took notes of this. When I tried the experiments then I would try them on the patients. So we would get an idea of how it would work.

LB: So was this the beginning of the work in Analytical Music Therapy?

MP: Yes. I also went to an Institute of Group Analysis group work course and family therapy course at that time. We were only two days a week at St. Bernard's. Sometimes I would be working with a patient and then I would bring in maybe their mother they talked about a lot or their husbands. So I used the family therapy idea in my work.

LB: What about the support of the medical staff at St. Bernard's?

MP: There were two friendly psychiatrists and we used to have a weekly music therapy meeting and one of them would come along and sit in and sometimes would refer us patients. One came and sat in on my psychodynamic movement session and at the end often said how surprised he was that the patients would open up and speak so fluently. I was pleased with that. My analyst also came to work at St. Bernard's and he would come to our meetings. Once, after I had had a breakdown, he came to the meeting to give the others a chance to say: 'What do you feel about this with Mary. Are you willing to take her back or would you rather she didn't continue to work with you?' This was thoroughly discussed and they agreed to keep me on.

LB: So at this stage in your career you were integrating your own analysis, the work, with Peter and Marjorie and this group work and family training into your work. So a lot of incredible training you did then. What about your music therapy writing?

MP: I went to a tea party at the vicar's and the vicar's daughter, who worked for a publisher, heard me talking about music therapy to some of the guests and she promptly wrote a letter to me asking if I would do a book on music therapy. First of all when I got the letter I thought I couldn't do it. I put it away for five days and didn't touch it. I woke up on the fifth day and said I want to do this more than anything. I wrote back.

LB: Five days later, a kind of incubation period - so that was the beginning of the work for Music Therapy in Action?

MP: That's right. I'll tell you how I managed the book. On Saturday afternoon I would have a solo brainstorm session and write down everything that was applicable to that chapter. On the Sunday afternoon I would write the chapter and look at the notes - that must be the beginning, that must be the middle, that must be the end. On Monday I typed it out and made three copies: one I sent to my analyst; one I sent to my father and one I kept for myself. Sometimes my father would write back and say this paragraph is a bit messy, can you re-write it or my analyst might say have you thought of this or the other?

LB: So you had inputs from literary and analytical points of view, in addition to your own?

MP: But of course in those days I had to re-type the whole chapter again. Not like the second book (see Note [4]) that I had a computer for. It was very hard work.

LB: You were still working at the hospital? This was weekend work?

MP: Yes and I still had to do all the cooking and the shopping and everything at home for the boys.

LB: I think I've told you before Mary how my students tell me they love reading your writing because everything is so clear, so well crafted, the writing is so imaginative, insightful and full of your experiences. They often comment on the beautiful English. Maybe it was partly due to this process you have described.

MP: Mind you they didn't change a lot - just occasionally. After the book came I had music therapists coming to have music therapy with me from all over the world - Australia, New Zealand, America, Israel, Iceland - all sorts of places.

LB: Was this the beginning of the work in Intertherapy?

MP: That was at that time -when I would take Intertherapy with people. Subsequently they went back to their country and started up music therapy courses.

LB: I remember people like Johannes Eschen from Germany and Inge Nygaard Pedersen and Benedikte Barth Scheiby from Denmark.

MP: I was invited to speak all over the place but I was too nervous to travel and do it and I had the children here so what could I do?

LB: The book was obviously an enormous success for you and in spreading the work internationally. Can we move on to other inspiring moments in your career?

MP: The moments that I particularly remember were sometimes, just very seldom, while playing, improvising with the patient it was if the music was playing me. It was a wonderful feeling. I remember in one session a lovely little tune came out and when we finished playing the patient, who was Australian, said: 'That tune, that was me.' I always remember that.

LB: As you say when something else happens, the music takes over, when you forget technique and there comes the meeting with the person in the music.

MP: There was one session, the result of which was very inspiring. There was a mother who never could bond with her redheaded daughter. In the therapy it came out that she had a redheaded sister and that one day she had come back to her house and found the redheaded sister in bed with her husband. All she said was 'charming' and walked out. But in the music therapy I said: 'Re-live that time' and she went at it with the drums and shouted and screamed: 'fucking bitch.' She came to realise that the feelings towards the redheaded sister were being displaced on to the daughter. Then the daughter was brought into the hospital and she had a sort of re-union with her and really bonded with her. She came to love her and to be a real mother to her. That's in the book. It was an inspiring session when she said what she really felt at that time which she had kept locked away all that time.

LB: Those seem to be some of the links you make with psychoanalysis and the various techniques you developed -splitting and so on- in relation to music therapy. Here was the recreation of the event. I also remember in your writing your discussion of the notion of the wounded healer. Throughout your life you have had your own personal difficulties and have found a way that was helpful for you in your work. Can you talk more on this?

MP: I think this was realised by music therapists on all the courses and after that people were obliged to have some personal therapy and discuss their weak points with the therapist. I think that it is generally done now.

LB: Can you say a few words about how you view what has happened in music therapy, is happening now and possibly in the future?

MP: The most amazing thing is that music therapy has gone into so many areas: prisons (I did some local work in Holloway Prison myself; Peter and I also did some interesting work with recidivists), forensic work, the elderly, palliative care, learning disabilities, children. But still it's not that well known.

I think there has been a change. When I started I was an artist and I worked as an artist. I think now that the music therapist is asked more to be a scientist. It is more technical and intellectual now, more research. More therapists are becoming doctors of this and that. And videos of work and things like that. It's a change and I feel slightly uneasy about that. I don't think the artist should be lost.

LB: So how do you see the future panning out?

MP: When I was at St.Bernard's Peter Wright insisted that we should keep up our musical side and he had us every now and then having to play a concerto or a movement of a concerto in a concert in the church. This made us keep up our musical skills and this I think is important. That the music therapist should be doing some live music themselves.

LB: Any new areas to develop? I am thinking about your work with young so-called 'normal' children, and work with not so much emphasis on pathology.

MP: I am thinking of couples who are experiencing difficulties in their marriage. I did some of that work at St. Bernard's.

LB: Is it a healthy future for music therapy? Have we something to celebrate?

MP: Yes I think it is. I'm only in touch through the journal these days.

LB: When you read things are you quite heartened by what you see?

MP: I sometimes think there are too many pie charts and statistics.

LB: Get back to the music more?

MP: Yes and don't kill the artist with the pie charts!

LB: Thank you for all of this. Perhaps to finish do you have there anything to say about your own family and their interests?

MP: I would like to say that, as a reaction to my illness, one of sons became a Jungian psychotherapist.

LB: Are the children musical?

MP: They are all musical. My twins have been too busy to play. They just play the guitar a little. My son David plays the harmonica brilliantly and teaches it.

LB: Do they have any family?

MP: Yes I've four girl grandchildren, one boy grandchild and three great grandchildren.

LB: Are there any musical or artistic things moving down to that generation?

MP: One of my little granddaughters of eight is learning the piano. She is a lovely singer and she dances beautifully. I think she might do something in the artistic line.

LB: So some of that singing and dancing Mary Priestley may have been passed on.

On leaving the flat Mary was keen to show me the drawing of Shostakovich she mentioned in the interview. Alongside were beautiful sketches of many famous conductors and soloists: Sir Alexander Gibson, Carlo Maria Giulini, Antal Dorati, Henryk Szering, Mstislav Rostropovich and the Danish composer Von Holmboe. There was also a manuscript of a short piece by Sir Arthur Bliss - Play a Penta - written for Mary and her patients playing pentatonic instruments. There had been a performance of this piece by Mary and some of her patients in the church at St. Bernard's Hospital.

Significant Contributions

One of the main reasons for proposing to the editorial team of Voices that we start an interview series is to document some of the personal history of people who have been significant in the development of music therapy, be they music therapists, musicians, doctors or other health care professionals. I was delighted when Mary Priestley agreed to be the first in this new series. Mary is certainly somebody who, through her working life as a music therapist, her writings and teachings, has contributed enormously to the profession. I have always felt that we need to celebrate more the contribution that people such as Mary have made. Perhaps we British are not too good at this and I am often struck that I am asked more about Mary in Europe and in other parts of the world than here at home. It is also rather indicative of this pattern that it takes the vision and resourcefulness of a Ken Bruscia to set up a library of her work at his university in Philadelphia. I must admit that my last visit to Mary's flat was rather poignant as I left weighed down with bags of tapes and clinical diaries in order to pack up everything to send across to Philadelphia. Why could we not find a British institution with this kind of foresight? But thankfully the world of music therapy has people like Dr Bruscia working at institutions such as Temple University!

Over the years Mary and I have crossed paths on several occasions. We have met at conferences and music therapy events. I have always been keen to invite Mary to talk to students, invitations that she seemed to appreciate. I have always admired her work imbued as it is with both her creative musicianship and the profound insights drawn from her understanding and long personal experience of psychoanalysis. I often think about Mary's lengthy commitment to such integration when I dare to introduce students to the basic concepts of psychoanalytical theory on our rather short MT courses. Her writing contains some of my favourite examples within our literature. Where is a more well-written page defining music therapy than in the opening section of her first book Music Therapy in Action? I found her comments in our discussion about her writing process to be very informative.

Mary's tremendous energy and fighting spirit came through our conversation, for example she became quite elated when describing the first encounter with Juliette Alvin. This felt like a real epiphany with all previous patterns in her life leading her to that chance encounter. This feeling of touching base and of everything making sense is a process that resonates with so many music therapists and trainees. I certainly can relate to such a moment. Mary just had to get on that course. We were also able to recognise similar feelings about being in the presence of such a formidable teacher as Juliette Alvin. During our conversation I was moved by Mary's frankness about her own personal difficulties and mental health problems. She has written eloquently about the notion of the wounded healer and clearly her own life exemplifies the way insights drawn from such difficult periods can inform and illuminate our clinical work. As she mentions in the interview it is now common place for music therapists to be in therapy during their training.

Above all Mary reminds us to keep alive the music and artistic processes in music therapy and within us. She grew up in an artistic and literary household and music and art have always been part of her life. I knew little of her early life as an illustrator and writer of travel books and found this all very interesting. She has always appreciated this artistic focus in others and I treasure generous notes from her when she has come across some of my own published work, whilst keeping in mind some of her balanced and constructive criticism about not getting too bogged down in statistics. I shall try and remember not too kill the artist within 'with too many pie charts.'

Closing remark

If readers wish to explore the connections between Mary Priestely's life and her work further they are strongly recommended to read Susan Hadley's article: 'Exploring Relationships between Mary Priestley's life and work' in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, Vol.10(2), 2001, pp. 116-132. The article contains material drawn from a more extensive series of interviews with Mary.

Dr Kenneth Bruscia and his colleagues at Temple University, Philadelphia have created an archive of Mary Priestley's writings, case notes and recordings of sessions. The archive consists of, to quote from the website, 'all the personal/clinical diaries of Mary Priestley.. plus all extant audiotapes of her clinical work with approximately 75 individuals. The diaries and tapes cover the period of 1971-1990. Also included are all of her known published writings, and pertinent writings by other proponents of the method.' For more information about this valuable resource do visit the web site at Temple on


[1] The Story of Music by Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst, published in 1958 by Rathbone Books, a treasured school prize from my junior school in 1963 (LB).

[2] Music Therapy in Action (1975), London: Constable (sadly out of print - a re-printing would be helped if colleagues could contact the publishers- please email

[3] St. Bernard's Hospital, Ealing in West London was the large psychiatric hospital where Mary worked as part of the music therapy department for all of her professional live as a music therapist.

[4] Essays on Analytical Music Therapy (1994), Phoenixville: Barcelona Publications.