By Diane Ritchey Vaux with Catherine Campbell, Linda Keiser Mardis, Ruth Rogers, Kristin Smith, Marilyn Sterbick, Pat Yearian
Many people know of Helen Bonny and her pioneering work in the field of music therapy but may be less aware of her life as a musician. Yet her role as a musician was the foundation of her life and work and served as the vehicle to the creation of her method that broke ground in the area of helping people through music, The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music.
Gonzales (2010) found that music therapists’ clinical practice is undergirded by the personal relationship to music. It is necessary to illuminate Helen Bonny’s relationship with music in order to further understand her pioneering work in the field of music therapy.
Helen Bonny grew up in a home that was filled with music. Her mother, who had a degree in piano and organ from Oberlin Conservatory, saw to it that Helen and her sister and brother all had music lessons, and over the years the family frequently enjoyed playing music in the evenings as a “family band,” with her mother on piano, Bonny on violin, her sister on flute, her brother on cello, and her father with voice. They listened to the great masters on phonograph records and operas on the radio, and frequently attended concerts of the well-known artists of the day. She enjoyed a rich musical background.
Bonny’s first music lessons began at the age of 5 on the piano. “My piano teacher was a warm and patient woman who wore delicious smelling perfume and exuded the same sensory pleasure in teaching me to love music. The highlight of those lessons was a small piano recital which I gave at age 6 ½. Unhappily, my parents moved to another town and I lost my first love, my teacher, and eventually my love of the piano, for my new teacher was pedantic, unfeeling and tired. She did not love the piano” (Bonny, 2002, p. 3).
However, her interest in playing an instrument revived in the third grade when she heard a fellow student perform on the violin. She became enamored with the instrument when she saw that only four strings and bow were needed to make music. She asked her mother for a violin, and before long she was taking lessons from a fine and sympathetic violin teacher, Karl Kuersteiner, professor of violin and director of the symphony orchestra at the University of Kansas, who became her teacher and mentor for the next nine years. She wrote: “Under his patient and caring direction, I learned to master the techniques and to hone the difficulties of the instrument. Of inestimable value was the training of the ear to discern pitch variations, to detect tonal color, to translate feeling responses into musical dynamics. From playing the violin, rehearsing, performing, working in ensembles and orchestras, I uncovered abilities of concentration, communication, and timing that would become assets in attaining academic achievement and later, in enhancing social ease and business acumen” (Bonny, 2002, p. 3).
Naturally shy and reticent, she found music as a way to express her feelings and a safe way to communicate, and she loved being on stage and taking advantage of the many opportunities for solo performances with her mother as accompanist. Having been successful in all of her many musical endeavors, she decided to make music her life work, and she entered Oberlin Conservatory, from which she graduated with a performance degree with a major in violin and a minor in voice (Clark, 2002).
The depth of understanding regarding music that she received at Oberlin was deeply valuable for the work she did later in her life when she developed GIM. She wrote:
It was during my study of violin at Oberlin with Reber Johnson …that I learned through hours of practice and careful instruction that producing the correct tone is not enough. The skill of the performer and the intention behind his/her playing are the two elements required to ‘make music.’ . . . For me, the word ‘intention’ includes a mental preparation for a total involvement in the performance of a musical selection. In addition to a full knowledge of the technique required to execute the piece of music and an understanding of the dynamics, the composer’s written and implied purpose, and integration of parts within the composition, the player must add his depth of person – his unique combination of feeling and experience to the playing of the music. If the performer is able to ‘get inside the music,’ to reach the heart of the composer’s intent while adding the depth of his own spirit and sensitivity, the music will ‘speak’ to the listener in a way that words cannot. Later I was to find that it is this deep intentionality at which an individual musician or group of musicians arrives at the behest of a conductor which touches long held emotions and evokes holistic responses in us (Bonny, 2002, p. 4).
In fact, Johnson was instrumental in keeping Bonny in the field of music when she encountered difficulty in music theory. When Bonny pondered her choice between the music and nursing program, Johnson, in a letter to Bonny’s parents, expressed his feeling that would be tragic if she did not pursue her degree in music (Summer, 2010). Subsequently, though she was offered a scholarship to pursue graduate work in music at Julliard, she turned it down in favor of marriage to Oscar Bonny, a minister with similar liberal religious beliefs. As she described, “I had majored in violin performance with the goal of becoming a professional teacher and instrumentalist. But the long, lonely hours of intense practice, the emphasis on technical skill perfection and performing brilliance seemed to dry up the springs of joy and the search for depth and intensity in my music. My gifts, I knew, were not in performing with brilliance and pyrotechnics. I wanted to touch hearts. Instead of a musical career, I chose marriage and motherhood” (Bonny, 2002, p.5). However, while the focus became marriage and family during the following years, her music did not take a back seat for long.
She continued to play the violin and perform, especially as part of church services. And on one particular day at the age of 27, she had a profound musical experience that would affect the rest of her life.
Fate touched my life in the form of a musical experience. The event was simple, but remarkable in its effect. This is how it all started for me. September 21, 1948 was the date, a day of change which would profoundly affect all the days to follow. A churchwomen’s meeting was held in a distant city with Dr. Frank Laubach as the speaker. As a Protestant missionary in the Philippine Islands, Laubach had discovered a literacy technique called Each One Teach One, where thousands in many different lands learned to speak and read and lift themselves out of poverty. I was inspired by this man who had passionately given his energies to world literacy. He was also a man of prayer whose books I had read and valued. The journey required an overnight stay. Preparing for a violin performance with my accompanist in our traveling group, I tucked in my violin and music with the hope of some extra time for rehearsal. An early morning start was highlighted by a spectacular sunrise, as only the open skies and prairies of Kansas in the fall can display. In retrospect, it was an omen.
At the close of the afternoon session, my accompanist and I found a room for practice. We soon had another listener, Dr. Laubach. ‘You play as if God speaks through your violin,’ he said. I was shyly pleased and flattered. ‘Would you play for the service tonight?” That night I thought of his words and noticed his bowed head as we began ‘The Swan’ from Saint Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals. All went well until the repetition of the first theme. Then everything changed. It was as if the violin was not my own; bow arm and fingers were held in abeyance/obedience to a light and wonderful infusion that created an unbelievable sound I knew I had not ever produced before. The notes mellowed and soared with exquisite grace. Astonished, delighted, I almost stopped what I was doing to fully hear the beauty. Fortunately I thought better of it and provided the bow and fingers, but without the vibrato or bow pressure to create a good sound. Nonetheless, the beautiful music continued to the end.
I was trembling when I finished, and as I sat down I began to shake even more violently. Then I heard Dr. Laubach’s words, ‘That violin was so beautiful, I cannot speak. ‘Let us meditate for a while.’ At the end of a short talk, he turned to me and said, ‘Would the young woman play for us again?’ I was still shaking uncontrollably and realized that controlling the bow and fingers would be impossible. Nevertheless, I hoped for a repeat of the marvelous music saying to myself, ‘If it happened once, it can happen again.’ And after the first few shaky notes of Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria, it did. If anything, it was even more beautiful and expressive than before (Bonny, 2002, pp 5-6).
A further description:
Mid-way through the short piece a radical and inexplicable event occurred. Suddenly the tone quality issuing from my violin changed in volume and texture. It was of incredible beauty. Although I have often prized myself on the quality and warmth of my tone, this was different. Far surpassing my best efforts, the tones soared with an ease and purity beyond the boundaries of remembered sound. My first shocked impulse was to stop playing. My second, which overcame it, was an intense desire to remain connected with this ongoing beauty. To do so, I methodically placed my fingers on the strings and drew the bow taking care not to vibrato or impress any interpretation of the continuing melodic line. Unimpeded, the marvelous flow of music continued despite my clumsy, wooden efforts (Clark, 2002, pp. 6-7).
She was not able to sleep that night. The numinous state continued for about two weeks as she experienced a deep sense of peace and joy as well as a visual experience of clarity and beauty in everything that she saw. She spoke with Dr. Laubach who advised simply that she pray regularly, get a prayer group together, and read the Bible” (Clark, 2002). As Bonny continued,
The quality of the experience is as fresh and real today as when it happened over 50 years ago. Its inspiration has continued to periodically reawaken any flagging zeal that overtakes me as I share my work with others. Although the experience occurred in response to music, and my performing of it, the depth of its impact has affected every aspect of my life - philosophy, belief systems, and professional motivation - and is the creative force behind the development of the Guided Imagery and Music procedure (Clark, 2002, p. 6).
This epiphany transformed Bonny’s life and inspired a new direction for the rest of her years. It led to the opening of her inner life and revealed music to be the core of her personal search. Years later, it led her to realize that what she had experienced could be of service to others and to enter the music therapy program at the University of Kansas where she received an equivalency and master’s degree in music therapy with an emphasis on music therapy research. Her premise was that “the magic could happen to others, as it had for me, if a way might be found to enter and uncover the creative potential in each person through the use of carefully chosen music.” And she was determined to discover how this might be done through research in music (Clark, 2002, p. 8). This profound peak experience on her violin at the age of 27 was the epiphany that led her to take the steps that eventually led to the development of the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, which today helps people around the world to tap their own personal potential as this experience had tapped her own.
Bonny was an active violinist ‘inseparable’ from her violin, from the age of 7 until her death at 89 years of age, which was 82 years of her life (Bea Bonny Stoner, personal communication, August 30, 2010).
Following her years in Kansas she moved to Baltimore, where in the 1960’s and 1970’s she established and became Director of the Music Therapy Program at Catholic University, performed music research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, completed her Ph.D. at Union Graduate School, and founded the Institute for Consciousness and Music to provide training in the new method she was developing. These were busy years for her, but she was still able to stay active with her violin. Evenings of musical ‘happenings’ with Bonny’s colleagues and GIM trainees were a regular part of the Institute for Consciousness and Music during the late 1970’s (Lisa Summer, personal communication, September 29, 2010).
However, in 1980 Bonny took an early retirement from professional activities due to health issues. During this seven year period she was actively involved in the musical community in Port Townsend, Washington. She played with local chamber ensembles, the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra, and a string quartet that met weekly and gave several public performances. In addition, she taught violin and worked especially with one talented student who distinguished himself in a public recital that was given positive reviews in the local newspaper (Pat Yearian, personal communication, August 18, 2010).
In 1987 she left Port Townsend to return to her native Kansas, settling in Salina, where she established the Bonny Foundation for Music-centered Therapies with Carolyn Kenny and Barbara Hesser. This marked her return to a more active professional life. During her fifteen years in Salina she continued very actively with her music. She served as concertmistress and soloist with the Salina Symphony Orchestra, played in a string quartet, and continued her teaching.
When she retired from the Bonny Foundation and moved to Florida in 2002 at the age of 81, she discontinued her formal professional work with the Bonny Method but still continued an active life as a musician. She volunteered her services as a violin teacher in the community and as a performer to elderly residents at assisted living facilities. In fact, even in the last weeks of her life, she was still playing the violin (Bea Bonny Stoner, personal communication, August 30, 2010).
Linda Keiser Mardis, trained in keyboard, voice, and musicology, collaborated with Bonny to develop a listing of core GIM programs (Bonny and Mardis, 1994). In addition, they played music together in Baltimore and Port Townsend.
Mardis spoke eloquently of the joy of playing music with Bonny, stating that Bonny was probably the best musician she ever played with. She described it in this way:
We played easily together. That was the first thing we noticed. We both had command of our instruments, lots of good training, and lots of experience. So playing was a natural thing. We also seemed to have common understandings. We both grew up in the church and had had lots of good experiences with hymns and church music and choirs and church performances, etc. Those common understandings seemed to undergird most of our musical playing experiences with one another.…
And, we had this LOVE of music, vibration, sound, etc., that didn't need to be spoken.
Whether we were just jamming for the fun of it, or preparing to play for others, we acted like pros. We arrived on time, we had our music prepared, and we got right to it. Helen would make some comments about tempi and dynamics, and I understood them.
We used to play together at odd times - in between sessions or seminars - in the old Victorian house that ICM had in Baltimore. I don't remember who had contributed the upright piano. It wasn't too bad, actually. And we played lots in her place in Port Townsend, sometimes just for ourselves, and sometimes for others who joined to listen in. I think we had the most fun there. And looking out of the large windows onto the vast ocean and becoming one with the violin and piano sounds was joyous beyond description.
Our last performance was the historic "Lark Ascending" at the AMI conference in California – the 1998 celebration of the 25th Anniversary of GIM. However, it was another of those "moments" - maybe not unlike the historic experience in her early life. The room had good vibes; the audience was projecting so much supportive energy that we hardly had to touch our instruments! And the piece almost played itself (Mardis, 2010).
Mardis also shared an important insight regarding Bonny and her music:
The French have the word "connaissance" - meaning deep, personal, intuitive, etc. knowledge. That's what Helen had about music. It always came through in her playing. Her ear was great. Her technique was always on target. Even in later years when her fingers could not press quite so hard on the strings, there were moments when she overcame that, and "something else" seemed to take over. I think she just loved the vibration of the violin through her body; and I think that vibration plus the ensuing sound allowed her to get beyond whatever weaknesses were occurring in her physical being. And it could be that in later years especially, playing the violin could help her reference that early experience in her life (Linda Keiser Mardis, personal communication, August 23, 2010).
Lisa Summer, a trainee of Bonny’s in the 1970’s at the Institute for Consciousness and Music, became Coordinator of GIM Training at the Bonny Foundation from 1988-1997. She confirmed that Bonny’s traditional “evenings of music makings” that had begun at ICM in the 70’s were continued at the Bonny Foundation in the 80’s and 90’s. She reported (Summer, personal communication, September 29, 2010):
Helen Bonny believed that the music therapist’s personal relationship with music was of primary importance for clinical practice – that our passion for music was as important as the development of our clinical music skills. Although Bonny’s main contribution to music therapy is her method of GIM, I feel that she also serves our profession as a consummate model of a music-centered music therapist. She began every training with a passionate description of her love of music, and with the story of her musical “epiphany”; and every workshop we gave included spontaneous music making on Bonny’s Orff instrumentarium. Music was the center of Helen Bonny’s personal and professional life. In fact, the theory I developed about the music therapist’s relationship with music (primary music transference in Summer, 1998) can be directly attributed to her influence upon me.
One event from 1978 when I was a GIM trainee stands out to me. My husband (an opera composer) prepared a musical surprise for one of Bonny’s invitational improvisation evenings at the Institute for Consciousness and Music. It was a humorous, conceptual guided imagery piece that unfolded moment by moment by following Joe’s written instructions. The musical ostinati and humorous images delighted her, and I clearly remember her intensity as she flipped her note cards, playing as instructed, and her joy in participating in this “new music.” She was always open to playing and listening to new works and she always sought out new pieces of classical and contemporary music for GIM.
Another memory is from 1984 - we tackled the ultimate French horn and violin piece – the Brahms Horn Trio – at a music therapy retreat in Phoenicia, New York. Her passionate love of Brahms was so evident in the intensity and concentration of her playing. Bonny’s development of GIM came directly from the depth of her personal passion for the aesthetic beauty of classical music. And her greatest desire was to bring music into a primary position in our culture as a tool for therapeutic and spiritual transformation (Summer, personal communication, September 29, 2010).
I first played music with Helen Bonny as a trainee at the Bonny Foundation, when she and Bonny formed a piano trio with another trainee who played piano.
The thing I remember most from the experience of playing music with Helen during that week-long intensive was Helen’s joy and enthusiasm for playing music whenever we could. We all loved the Beethoven piano trio music, and we made time to play every day, frequently during breaks and lunch hours. She expressed a great love of music, and her confidence and quality of playing inspired the other two of us to play at our very best. I also played with her when she visited my home with her violin and we added a pianist and played Beethoven piano trios, and again at her home when I played the piano accompaniment for a violin solo she was practicing to perform with the Salina Symphony. These moments of playing music with her remain precious memories. Her love of classical music and joy in playing continue to serve as inspiration for me (Vaux, personal communication, October 10, 2010).
Sterbick, a university-trained choral director, was conducting her choral group when she met Bonny in 1981. They were preparing a performance of Bach’s Wachtet Auf, and Bonny was serving as concertmistress of the orchestra that was providing the accompaniment. She and Bonny very quickly recognized in each other a deep feeling for the spiritual nature of music and a deep respect for the divine inspiration that can become expressed in a performance. Each one had experience with the expanded awareness and deep spiritual connection that performing and listening to music can produce.
As Sterbick worked to make her dream of an inspired performance of the Bach happen, Helen saw in her someone who had the dedication and skills that could help her in realizing her own dream of bringing the therapeutic use of music to others. So, in addition to their deep connection around music, they began to work together to promote Bonny’s Music Rx program (Bonny, 1983; Sterbick, personal communication, August 24, 2010).
Yearian, a violinist and violist, played in a Baroque chamber orchestra with Bonny in 1981. In 1982 they formed a string quartet that continues to rehearse to this day.
In speaking of the experience of playing music with Bonny, Yearian referred to her as the ‘wise woman in charge’ of their music-making. Bonny was a generation older than the others, highly trained, and a superb player, so the other members of the quartet were glad to learn from her and defer to her judgments about how the music should be played. Yearian expressed her admiration for Bonny’s beautiful playing, noting her warm tone, even vibrato, and wonderful sweeping bow arm when needed. She felt it was a blessing to have someone of Helen’s caliber with them and called her ‘a wonderful gift that landed in our musical life.’
Yearian also appreciated Bonny’s spiritual understandings and loved learning more about the method of Guided Imagery and Music. As they drove the hour-long drive to Port Angeles and back each week to play in the Port Angeles Symphony, they enjoyed long talks about music and spiritual matters (Yearian, personal communication, August 18, 2010).
Though twenty-three years had passed since Bonny’s departure from Port Townsend, her presence was still very alive in the hearts of the string quartet in Port Townsend. Their memories of her were vivid, they talked of her often, and they had stayed in touch with her through frequent greetings back and forth over the years.
The members are Kristin Smith, the violinist who took Bonny’s place as first violinist; Catherine Campbell, who had worked in Helen’s office and joined the quartet as a violinist shortly before Helen left; Pat Yearian as violist, whose comments are discussed above; and Ruth Rogers as cellist, who also helped bring Helen’s Music Rx program to patients as a nurse in the hospital.
The most prominent memories centered on the beauty of Bonny’s playing. Kristin Smith spoke with special admiration, as she described Bonny’s beautiful ability to shape a note and to shape a phrase, the elegance and smoothness of her tone, her beautiful bow arm, and the sensual and emotionally intimate way she could play when the music called for it. The other players also talked of admiring Bonny’s skill and feeling appreciative of the opportunity to learn from her. They described Bonny as the ‘supreme musician’ of the group who took the lead with confidence while also being very supportive to the other players. They recalled that Bonny’s health sometimes required her to rest during rehearsals, and they admired her ability to refuel herself during breaks.
Thus, Helen Bonny served as an inspiration for the other members of the quartet, through her beautiful playing and confident musical leadership as well as her self-assurance and ability to overcome her health problems in order to stay active as a musician. They called her a "gentle power" (Port Townsend String Quartet, personal communication, August 19, 2010).
What stood out from these talks with musicians who had played with Helen Bonny were several important aspects of her role as a musician. One was the excellence, elegance, and beauty of her playing that was mentioned by each one of them. Each of her musical colleagues was inspired to better musicianship from their music making experiences with her. Another was the closeness of the personal relationships that she formed with the musicians with whom she played. She remained in touch with them for years after she played with them. Just as important to the profile of Bonny as a musician was the depth of her spirituality and her profound understanding of the connection between spirituality and music. She knew that music carefully chosen was an avenue to spirituality, and she was profoundly aware of the power of music to enrich, heal, and deepen the spiritual connection in our lives (Bonny, 2001). Ultimately, Bonny’s musicianship on her violin was the vehicle to the inspiration and greater vision that was at the core of all the accomplishment that was to take place in her life.
Bonny, H.L. (1983). Music Rx: An Innovative Program Designed for the Hospital Setting. Salina, KS: The Bonny Foundation.
Bonny, H.L. (2001). Music and spirituality. Music Therapy Perspectives, 19 (1), 59-62.
Bonny, H.L. (2002). Autobiographical essay. In L. Summer (Ed.), Music and Consciousness: The Evolution of Guided Imagery and Music (pp. 1-18). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.
Bonny, H.L. and Mardis, L.K. (1994). Music Resources for GIM Facilitators: Core Programs and Discography of Core Programs. Olney, MD: Archedigm Publications.
Clark, M. (2002) Evolution of The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. In K.E. Bruscia & D.E. Grocke, (Eds.) Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond (pp. 5-27). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.
Gonzalez, P. J. The impact of music therapists’ music culture on the development of their professional framework. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Temple University, 2010.
Port Townsend String Quartet (2010). Group discussion with members Kristin Smith, Catherine Campbell, Pat Yearian, and Ruth Rogers. August 19.
Summer, L. (1998). The pure music transference in guided imagery and music (GIM). In K. Bruscia (Ed.), The dynamics of music psychotherapy (pp. 431-460). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.
From Inspiration to Transformation (2008). DVD available at www.ami-bonnymethod.org