An Interview with Two Pioneers of Canadian Music Therapy: Carolyn Kenny and Nancy McMaster

Martin Howard

It's my pleasure to present this interview with Nancy McMaster and Carolyn Kenny, two inspiring and influential pioneers in the field of music therapy in Canada. I have had the opportunity to interact with both as a student and then as a colleague. I studied with Nancy as an undergraduate at Capilano College (now University) and went on to pursue graduate work with Carolyn at Simon Fraser University. Both are strong women who have made their mark on the Music Therapy community in different ways. It all started in the mid 70's when their creative energy combined force to create a unique and ground breaking music therapy training program the first in Canada - at Capilano College on the West Coast...

Martin Howard: What led you to become a music therapist?

Nancy McMasterNancy McMaster: In my family, there were two different threads that led to my becoming a music therapist: music and social activism. For me, the language of music was as natural as English...I absorbed it without needing to be taught. I've always found the world a musical place. As a child I noticed the tunes of dripping taps and the polyphony of construction sites. By school age I learned simple piano pieces easily and in my teens I used classical piano to speak what I felt I couldn't say verbally. Despite being musically gifted and later giving many solo concerts, I am grateful that I chose not to enter a Baccalaureate Music program. That choice allowed me to develop and maintain my own independent relationship to music.

The social values of my family came from my mother who was trained in social work and my father who was a conscientious objector and a lawyer for Japanese Canadians forcibly removed from Vancouver during the Second World War.

When I picked up a hitch-hiker one day, and first heard the words music and therapy linked together, I felt a click of recognition in my head. The hitch-hiker told me about a group of people who had recently come together to provide music therapy to youth in Vancouver with funding from The Canadian government. When I met the team a week later, someone had dropped out, and my life was changed forever as I became part of what we called the Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops.

A few years later, I heard about the Nordoff-Robbins course starting up at the Goldie Leigh hospital. This was during a stop-off in England, on my way back from several months of meditation in India, to study piano with Edith Vogel at the Guildhall School of Music in London. I was part of the first music therapy student cohort at Goldie Leigh. Our curriculum was the draft of the book Creative Music Therapy and the Paul's lectures on music found in Healing Heritage! The musical, creative and spiritual impact of Paul and Clive's work was unforgettably stunning and deeply inspiring.

Carolyn Kenny Carolyn Kenny: When I was 16 years old, I volunteered at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta through my church. Simultaneously, I was performing with a Big Band every weekend as the singer. When I compared these two experiences, I realized that I felt more comfortable singing at the bedside than performing on a stage. This was long before I heard of anything called music therapy.

Then when I attended Loyola University in New Orleans, I used to go over to the Music Department to practice my piano. Loyola had a thriving Music Therapy Department. And I made friends with the folks studying Music Therapy there – which was very natural. When I moved to Vancouver and became involved with the Musqueam Reserve in our Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops, I asked our Elder Walker Stogan, if he thought I should get my Music Therapy credential. He said: "Yes, in this world, that's the one for you." So when my husband and I returned to New Orleans, I signed up for the two-year equivalency program in Music Therapy.

MH: What was your first memory of meeting each other?

Carolyn Kenny: Nancy and I met through the Children's Spontaneous Workshops that we mentioned earlier. We both participated in this Opportunities for Youth grant. There were 8 people who worked in two teams. Each team had a full schedule taking our van full of instruments to various treatment centers and community settings to do musical improvisation. This was such an exciting and creative time. The leader of our project had been the person who helped to open up the celebrations each day at the famous Woodstock gathering (with the big gong). So, this initiation was a true product of the 1960's flower power generation.

Video 1: Childrens Spontanous Music Workshops.

Childrens Spontanous Music Workshops from Voices on Vimeo.

NM: Although we worked in two teams at several different sites, everyone in the workshop team would come together for a day each week, to build our community by sharing stories and meals and improvising together. The bond Carolyn and I built through our shared experience and commitment in the Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops was the foundation of our later collaborative partnership. When Carolyn and I joined forces again, after our separate journeys to gain formal music therapy training, we obtained further government funding for a demonstration project to introduce mental health staff to music therapy. The research aspect of the project revealed that many participants were enthusiastic about music therapy and realized that in-depth training was needed in order to use music therapy safely and effectively with their clients.

Video 2: Demonstration Project.

Demonstration Project from Voices on Vimeo.

MH: How did the Music Therapy Program at Capilano College come about?

CK: Nancy and I had been in dialogue with a couple of universities about the possibility of starting a program, inspired by Wanda Justice, who encouraged us. She was a wonderful leader in the community and developed the Bob Berwick Centre for children at UBC. This had been one of the Music Therapy sites on a previous grant we had together.

Video 3: Bob Berwick Preschool.

Bob Berwick Preschool from Voices on Vimeo.

An entire team of administrators and faculty members flew out to Vancouver from McGill University in Montreal to explore the possibilities regarding starting a program. Those meetings went very well. But the program never got to first base after these rich discussions. Then Nancy had some contacts at UBC and we were in dialogue with the administration and faculty there. But a program never got started there either. Then we got a call from Karl Koblansky, coordinator of the Music Program at Capilano College who invited us to come up to the College to talk about starting a Music Therapy Program there.

Photo 1: Panel discussion. Wanda Justice far right.

Panel discussion. Wanda Justice far right.

NM: Yes, it was Karl who cleared the way for us to establish the first Canadian music therapy program in 1976. Karl had been a student in the music department at the University of British Columbia and had become a friend of two of the faculty there, Mary and French Tickner. Independently, the Tickners discovered the presence of music therapists in Vancouver within a few months of each other. Carolyn had approached Mary about starting a Masters of Music Therapy program at UBC, and French overheard one of my music therapy sessions at the Vancouver Neurological Centre during a conversation he was having as a member of the Centre's Board. When Karl Koblansky heard from the Tickners about our work he moved quickly. And so did we. Five months later the first student cohort was sitting in their first class: the first music therapy class in Canada!

Photo 2: Karl Koblansky, center.

Karl Koblansky, center.

MH: The program came into being in context of the 1970's. Were there any significant socio/cultural influences that stood out for you and influenced the vision of the program during that time?

NM: The experiences of the Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops shared by Carolyn and I emerged directly out of the social revolution of the 60's. Awareness of altered states of consciousness, the music and values of other cultures, and disenchantment about conventions of power and inequality were contributing influences. So we were naturally aligned with humanist, existential and transpersonal perspectives of Rogers, Maslow, Jung and Assagioli. The Cap program was also infused with the spiritual perspectives of both Carolyn and I. Carolyn had embraced her First Nations' heritage and due to the influence of the '60's, I had spent six months meditating in India, which forever altered my view of the nature and potentials of human Beings.

Photo 3: Susan Munro & Carolyn Kenny.

Susan Munro & Carolyn Kenny

Video 4: Nancy McMaster and Carolyn Kenny interviewed by Shelley Stewart.

Nancy McMaster and Carolyn Kenny interviewed by Shelley Stewart from Voices on Vimeo.

In CAMT's 1983 Kaleidoscope, I wrote an article entitled "Capilano Training Program: Daring and Challenging Perspectives" that presented core values Carolyn and I chose as foundational for the Cap training. These included many humanist values such as the inherent wholeness, equality and mutual contribution of clients and therapists, the mandate of knowing and questioning the therapist's assumptions, the deep value of music, and a counter-cultural emphasis on the importance of simple, expressively eloquent music in clinical work.

CK: I would also say that Nancy and my shared experiences in the Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops and the continuation of that approach through other grants that we obtained later through Health and Welfare Canada was core in the design of the program. Free improvisation was very important. Also, in the beginning, we had a strong First Nations influence because of my own cultural background. I remember that I was able to arrange for our students to have the Haida House at the Museum of Anthropology all to ourselves one night. And we had the most amazing experiences improvising there. We also had the run of the entire Museum that night – just us. This was because I was a student of Robin Ridington and Marjorie Halpin. Robin was my mentor and advisor in Anthropology while I did my Master's degree at UBC. And Marjorie was one of my professors and Curator of the Museum. They were both very supportive of Music Therapy because they understood how the arts are core to preventative and curative systems of health in Native communities. Robin was also a speaker at our Canadian Association for Music Therapy (CAMT) conference in Vancouver in 1978.

Photo 4: Robin Ridington.

Robin Ridington

In addition, we always had an approach, from the beginning, that brought in the Creative Arts Therapies, with a special focus on music. In those first few years we had guests from the other art therapy disciplines. We also used a pedagogical approach that was very aesthetic. We had our students writing poetry and doing reflective papers for most courses.

Coincidentally, while Nancy and I were setting up the program and through the first two years with our pioneering students, I was in graduate school at UBC. During this time, I was heavily into Zen Buddhism, practicing Zen meditation and studying the Shakuhachi. I do think that Nancy and my shared interest in Eastern philosophies and practices had a powerful influence on our program, too.

MH: In what ways has the program changed over the years both in terms of the original vision and/or in other ways?

CK: Of course Nancy would have more to say about that as she is still teaching there. I am not really associated with the program anymore. But, in general, in my visits with friends and colleagues and the occasional seminars I conduct as a visitor at Capilano College, there are a couple of things that have remained at the center of the curriculum since the original design. Certainly free improvisation is one of those things. And the focus on Creative Arts Therapies is another.

NM: I'm glad to say that the foundational values are still present in the program today and are demonstrated by Cap graduates. That continuity stems from the presence for over 30 years of at least one of the program's co-founders. Carolyn also returned to teach for a couple of years in the mid-nineties while I was getting my masters at NYU.

As the program has evolved and new faculty members joined our collective, specialized areas of expertise have been integrated into the curriculum. To mention a few changes, I've added a Nordoff-Robbins piano lab to the Cap program and Helen Bonny's G.I.M. is now a significant part of the therapeutic perspective of Cap students thanks to Liz Moffitt, a Capilano graduate who is the first, and only, Canadian GIM primary trainer.

Photo 5: Liz Mofitt & Kerry Burke, students of the first Cap class who became longtime instructors in the Program.

Liz Mofitt & Kerry Burke, students of the first Cap class who became longtime instructors in the Program

Probably the biggest change to the program has been the transition in 1990 from a diploma program to a Bachelor of Music Therapy program. This brought with it a more traditionally academic and theoretical focus.

MH: What do you feel makes the Cap program unique? Does this relate to a uniqueness of music therapy as practiced here on the West Coast of Canada?

NM: There are many aspects of the Cap program that we hold to be important. There are strong experiential and self-reflective elements of the Cap program, modeled by the faculty and included as a thread through most of the curriculum, exemplified by the circle formation of all of our music therapy classes to facilitate a mutual exchange of everyone's unique perspectives. Equally pervasive is the element of creative improvisation in most of our courses.

In Canada, the Cap program is unique in its practical focus on fieldwork experience. Our undergraduate degree includes an average of 60 practicum hours over four terms, each term in a different clinical setting. This all takes place before the 1000 hour internship required by CAMT for professional accreditation.

Photo 6: Rachel Jacobsen, Judith Robinovitch, Laurie Rogoway, Laura Sturdy, students of the second Cap class. Nancy McMaster sits behind, on the far right.

Rachel Jacobsen, Judith Robinovitch, Laurie Rogoway, Laura Sturdy, students of the second Cap class.

Our position as the first Canadian music therapy program is unique. The fact that our program already existed in 1976 before the CAMT had chosen Canadian standards for curriculum and competence meant that collectively our national association took the initiative of forging uniquely Canadian standards rather than simply adopting the earlier work of American and British associations. Since those early days, the CAMT and newer Canadian programs have drawn on our experience of over 30 years.

There is historical continuity at Cap. In addition to the influence of my presence on the faculty, Carolyn's unique legacy still informs the program. Her theoretical works are taught, the improvisational approach of the Children's Spontaneous Music Workshops is part of our curriculum, and the Creative Arts are an integral part of the reflective aspect of the Cap training.

We are also unique – perhaps in the world! – in terms of the large number of music therapists on the Cap faculty. There are usually nine, including five who teach piano, voice and guitar (in addition to a guitar teacher who has taught our students for over thirty years), plus two psychologists and an occupational therapist.

Lastly, I think there's something very special about the natural environment here on the West Coast. The wild beauty of evergreen forests that surround the campus has an impact on everyone here, daily reminding us about the importance of beauty, and the larger perspective of the Earth that provides such an inspiring and humbling context for our human experience.

CK: The focus on improvisation is unique. Though other programs have improvisation as the focus, these are very different from the flower power type of improvisation that Nancy and I brought to the original program.

Another unique characteristic has to do with the historical continuity of the program. Due to low enrollment or budgetary constraints there were a couple of occasions in the history of the program when it was almost lost. But due to program administrative leadership with support from the College administration, it has not only survived, but also thrived. This long history makes it very influential as the first Canadian program in music therapy.

MH: What do you feel has been your biggest contribution to the field of music therapy?

CK: Well, I've started a couple of programs in Canada and the States, too. We had the Cap program. But then we had a wonderful, though short run with the Master of Music Therapy through Open University. I'll always be sad that this program did not survive. This was a stunning program and got rave reviews from the students through to the government officials who approved the program. The group of ten who completed it are some of my favorite people! And about half of them have gone on to do a Ph.D. Canada needs more Ph.D.s. So I feel very good about that.

Book coverAnother contribution has been my theoretical work, The Field of Play. I feel very good about this, too. This work has been translated into Japanese and French, as well as parts of the book into other languages like Portuguese and Bosnian/Herzegovinian. This theoretical work grows and changes throughout the years. So it is always evolving.

I feel like I have been able to add to the context of some International Music Therapy by participating in Think Tanks in the States and in Germany. For me the fun is in creative brainstorming with other music therapists about our work. So many good results come out of these conversations. Meeting in New York with the Phoenicia Group, created by Barbara Hesser, was a fabulous experience for me. And the dialogues and experiences I had in the Catskill Mountains in retreat, as well as at NYU with my colleagues, was very influential, especially in helping me to formulate my ideas about The Field of Play. For example, after ten years of meeting here and there, our group founded in Germany was responsible for setting up the Institute for Training and Research in Music Therapy at the University of the Arts in Berlin, led by Mechtild Langenberg-Jahn.

Another contribution is Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, which I started with my Norwegian colleague, Brynjulf Stige, ten years ago. This is an amazing publication that brings the good news about Music Therapy and traditional healing using the arts to people all over the world. It is a free online open access journal. Now this type of publication is beginning to get very popular. But we started our journal 10 years ago – another example of how Music Therapists can create something innovative. We work with 25 volunteer editors from all over the world. And Brynjulf and I serve as the Co-editors-in-Chief.

NM: My biggest contributions in music therapy have been in the areas of training and our national association. The Cap program has maintained an integrity that has influenced hundreds of Canadian music therapists to examine and expand their awareness in terms of music, creativity, human potential and relationship and communication.

Those music therapists, in turn, have benefitted the lives of thousands of people, including clients, families, colleagues and administrators. Knowing this contributes as much to my life as I have contributed. In addition to my work at Capilano, I have also had the privilege of being on the staff of transformative G.I.M. trainings offered by Liz Moffitt, at both Capilano and Wilfrid Laurier University.

I have played a significant role in the CAMT. As a member of several of the first CAMT boards, I was a participant in laying the foundations of our National Association. This required a collective humility and assertiveness in the often challenging negotiations between Canadian music therapists who had been trained in different countries and different traditions, as we worked to establish professional standards and protocols that reflected our differences as well as our commonalities. I see the fruit of that early work annually when I meet with fellow educators in our CAMT Education Committee.

Photo 8: CAMT: Looking for members.

CAMT: Looking for members.

Equally challenging in our Canadian community has been the work to create understanding between, and give an equal voice to, French-Canadian and English-Canadian music therapists in our Association. The love and respect I have for our colleagues from Quebec has led me to some initiatives toward bridging and healing the strongly-felt divisions.

Internationally, I have been part of several music therapy symposia. In the Herdecke symposium on music therapy training organized by Johannes Eschen, participants from many cultures and music therapy lineages exchanged the values, visions, curricula, challenges and strategies of our diverse training programs. Later Johannes compiled a music therapy journal from our responses to his invitation to identify our views about the central connections between music therapy and human nature. A few years later, I returned to Germany for further exchanges at a music Therapy symposium in Heidelberg. The bonds forged during both of the Germany symposia still link many of us in the second generation of music therapists who were trained by the first music therapy pioneers. The same bonding has occurred from the international symposia I've been part of where graduates of Nordoff-Robbins training programs exchange clinical perspectives and work.

CD coversFinally, I have made a contribution internationally through music therapy publications and two CDs I've made. I've heard from many music therapists and music therapy educators that my writings in Carolyn's Listening, Playing and Creating and Ken Bruscia's Case Studies in Music Therapy have struck a deep chord and are part of the curricula of several programs.

In addition to these professional contributions, I have found a way to give my love of playing piano to the world through two CD's of classical piano music for clinical use (Simple Fare and From the Heart), which have provided deep support for thousands of patients with many different medical challenges, in several countries around the world.

MH: What do you feel has been each other's contribution to the field?

Carolyn Kenny: Nancy has offered so much to our field by her presence. She has always been and will always be a seeker in the landscapes of the mind and heart. She models this to her students and can therefore bring them to levels of depth beyond what they had imagined. She is dedicated to social justice. This is a tradition in Nancy's family. And she continues this every day in her own life, not only in teaching, but also in other community services, largely through her music. As she mentioned, in addition to the Cap Program, she was one of the pioneers who worked in the beginning to establish CAMT. We really loved working together on this initiative, too. She has created publications, which have focused on the deep aesthetic realities that are available in the music. Nancy is a truly wonderful musician. And this is always at the center of her thinking and teaching about music therapy.

NM: Carolyn has been part of the very foundation of music therapy in Canada and in the Cap program. Carolyn also broke new ground by creating the first Masters level Music Therapy Program in Canada, thereby providing an opportunity for experienced Canadian music therapists to deepen their awareness, scholarship and clinical work in a Canadian graduate music therapy program through BC's Open University. As well, Carolyn has personally mentored several music therapists from many different parts of the world, in graduate and post-graduate studies at Simon Fraser University and through Antioch University in California.

Internationally, Carolyn has had a profound influence on the field of music therapy through her writing and through various international collaborative groups. She has held fast to value-focused inquiry throughout her career, adding the unique influence of her First Nations heritage to the predominantly European conventions of therapy and research.

MH: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Canadian music therapy in the coming years?

CK: Well, I think that the competition among professionals in Canada can be fierce, not Music Therapists themselves, but professionals in other fields who want to offer services. Sometimes these professionals (or even non-professionals) claim that they can do the same things that Music Therapists do. Ugh! This shows a complete misunderstanding about what Music Therapy is. So, we need to do more public education about this.

NM: I actually think music therapy is still a radical concept and practice, even 50 years after its first pioneers. I mean the term radical in two quite different ways, here: in terms of being "at the root of" and also being "deliberately unconventional". I think that both meanings fit, although I hope that conventions of the world's perspective and practice will increasingly incorporate many of the values music therapy holds.

There are many tenets of music therapy that contravene the conventions of our times including: the understanding that people with special needs can contribute to and have equal rights to everyone else; the understanding that everyone is musical and creative in valuable ways; and the awareness that music, play and creativity have profound implications for our individual and collective health. Combined with chronic financial challenges and the shortage of credible research about music therapy, these discrepancies between cultural conventions and basic tenets of music therapy still present us with hurdles worth challenging.

MH:What are you excited about in your current work?

CK: I'm always excited about our Journal, Voices! And today, I'm anticipating my sabbatical, which starts on Jan. 1 and continues through July 1, 2010. During this time, I'll be working on two books that focus more on Native issues. But there is always a connection for me between Music Therapy and Indigenous Studies. I'm also excited about developing my private services and website,, anticipating my eventual retirement. Technology is going to provide us with more and more opportunities to teach and consult through things like iChat and Webinars. I want to offer services in Music Therapy without increasing my carbon footprint! And I think I've found a way to do this. That said I do have a few trips planned for my sabbatical. I'll spend some time in Norway, Vancouver, and Montreal, working with Music Therapy colleagues and Indigenous Studies colleagues. And, I'll be making several visits to Atlanta to get to know my fourth grandchild, born on Nov. 16, 2008.

NM: In my experience, what matters now is what has always mattered: human qualities like love, beauty, creativity, courage, honesty, play, joy, discovery, mastery and spiritual well-being. It is those aspects of life that both excite and home me. To have spent all of my working life with people who openly welcome the opportunity to find, honor and develop those human gifts (and challenges) seems extraordinarily fortunate, to say the least! For me, music therapy has been a vocation, "a path with heart", ever since hearing a hitch-hiker link the words music and therapy in one life-changing moment.


The black and white photos are from the 1978 CAMT annual conference held in Vancouver. At that time the Cap program (started in 1976) had just finished it's second year.