Helen Bonny as Teacher, Mentor, and Supervisor

By Roberta Wigle Justice with Min-Jeong Bae, Nicki Cohen, Barbe Creagh, Connie Isenberg, and Margareta Wärja


A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.  ~Henry Brooks Adams

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Roberta Wigle Justice

Six individuals who trained with Helen Bonny over the years were asked to reflect on their perceptions of her as as a teacher, a mentor and a supervisor. The experience of these individuals spans the time period of Helen's training, from her first training sessions to her retirement from training. At the Bonny Foundation, they took a three level training; Helen Lindquist Bonny was Director of the Bonny Foundation; Lisa Summer was Director of the GIM Training; Frances Goldberg was Primary Trainer

We asked each person to address several topics specifically, with some general reflections and memories which the author synthesized into an overview. 

What has emerged from the memories of the seven people contributing to this reflection is a picture of a multifaceted person and her style of teaching, including three outstanding characteristics of Helen. Their valuable insights were in relation to Helen in three roles: teacher in the training seminars, individual supervisor and individual mentor

“Please describe your perceptions of Helen as a teacher/mentor/supervisor. What impacted you the most? How has it affected your clinical practice?” (Question posed to the following people who trained with Helen: Min-Jeong Bae, Nicki Cohen, Barbe Creagh, Connie Isenberg and Margareta Wärja.)

Helen’s Way of Teaching

Following are four specific areas which the contributors to this article remember from Helen’s teaching.

Music and Music programs

Music is central to the Bonny Method. When Helen spoke of the music in trainings or supervision, she used a blend of language from music theory and descriptions of her experiences with the music, whether personal or while guiding. She spoke of how she would hear a piece of music somewhere that she thought might be useful, and write down the information on a slip of paper. She tossed these into a shoebox. Periodically she would go through the slips in the shoebox, pulling out pieces that she wanted to focus on, or while looking for something for a session. She described her own process of listening to the same pieces of music diversionally, analytically, imageically, and kinesthetically; until she had a deeper sense of the potential of the music. She reported sometimes asking someone else to guide her to them, knowing that in an altered state she would experience them differently. She expected that we would do the same when learning music programs during training, listening and experiencing them in many ways. During a seminar she guided us to experiencing a piece of music she was thinking about using in a program by moving to it and being aware of our movements as guided by the music. Having had dance training, this was one of most natural ways for me to respond to music, however I personally had not thought about using it as a way of analyzing the music, and learning about the music through my own physiologic responses. Thus, when the “Music for the Imagination” CD’s were available, I experienced every unfamiliar piece of music this way, as well as through listening. I use this in teaching young professionals about using music in all aspects of music therapy.

All of this, in addition to the actual Bonny Method process of traveling to the music, had profound effects on most of us. We speak of how our relationship with music has been permanently changed. It’s rare that I hear a new piece of music without thinking of how it might be useful, or not. Different trainees, of course experienced different reactions. In most trainings there were musicians and non musicians. For those of us who were musicians, she required that we experience the music in many ways other than our music school analytical training. This facilitated a change in our relationship with music, sometimes helping heal the rifts in our love of music that happened during music school. For others, it rekindled that love, or gave it a new depth. Helen’s love for the music was evident in the way she spoke about it, the way she guided to it, the way she played it.

“She helped me to connect to music in ways that was beyond anything I had experienced before... having been trained in behavior modification as a music therapist, and I was starved and longed for music...I had that deep connection to music as a child. A relationship that was totally unconditional and that just carried me over abysses and filled me with beauty and love. So being with Helen as my teacher and supervisor helped me to restore that relationship – and to realize that it had always been there and that it was never really lost, just a bit unconscious as I was caught up in personal turns and twists along the way (Margareta Wärja) .
“Helen helped me accept the musician within myself” (Connie Isenberg)

For music therapists, the change allowed us to embrace music as a friend, a compatriot, a co-therapist, a teacher, instead of mostly a tool. For me, this has filtered into every aspect of my music therapy practice, how I think of my client’s experiences with music, how I use music in my sessions. The deep connection with music allows me to be a better musician, a more present musician, a more expressive musician. This allows the clients a better therapeutic experience.

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Barbe Creagh, Ph.D. Private practitioner, Transpersonal Psychologist, Fellow in the Association for Music and Imagery, Fellow through the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Bereavement program manager and faculty of the LIFE Instuitute for Rainbow Hospice and Palliative Care in Park Ridge, IL.Adjunct professor for Loyola School of Social Work and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Trained through the Bonny foundation with Helen as mentor and doctoral committee member (1993-2001).

For non music therapists, the experience helped develop an understanding of the depth of music in therapy on a level different than generally thought. “Helen introduced me to music in a whole new way through GIM. She emphasized that music was the primary therapist. Her expectation was not only that we had an analytical understanding of the music and the music programs, but rather that we knew them in our bones” (Barbe Creagh).

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Min-Jeong Bae, MME, MT-BC, FAMI trained with Helen while she was attending Utah State University. She met Helen in 1995 through GIM level I training in Cleveland, Ohio. Min-Jeong continued her relationship with Helen while pursuing her master’s and doctoral degrees in music education with an emphasis in music therapy at the University of Kansas. Min-Jeong is currently in private practice in Beijing, China. She works with children and adults using GIM, mindfulness meditation, and group drumming.
“Helen stressed the importance of experiencing music and imagery on a personal level before learning the specific contents of a particular music program. ... The essence of each music program was often delivered with allowance of personal journey and witnessing others' journey through music, and not limited to objectively dissecting and analyzing the musical elements of each piece” (Min-Jeong Bae)

Helen’s teaching of the music programs, and music programming was similar to her teaching about the music. She described her process in developing the first programs, her frustration with recording equipment and sound quality (before computerization), and with the copyright laws. Helen explained her view of the over all format or blueprint of two of the earliest programs using a graph to indicate the potential for depth of travel to the music pieces, based on her research done at The Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. She described the programs in theoretical terms and in descriptive terms. We all experienced the music through traveling and guiding to it. Since we were in a group of people, we heard about others’ experiences as travelers and guides to the same music. Thus we had an opportunity to gain insight into how the music program could elicit a variety of responses, as Helen had indicated.

Helen stressed that in order to guide to the music and music programs, the guide must know the music and the program intimately (or in our bones as Barbe Creagh stated above). This allows for the guide to know what’s coming next, to facilitate the listener’s experience of it. She reinforced that it’s not wise to guide to unfamiliar music, as the guide will be unprepared for what might happen. This does not provide for the best support for the traveler. She also stressed the importance of listening to several different interpretations or recordings of a piece of music in a program before choosing one to use. This was in response to her preferred recordings not always being available as people were putting together their copies of programs from a discography. I have found this to be also particularly helpful when making decisions about substitutions in a program (using a vocal rendition of a piece rather than an instrumental version for example). As she discussed various programs of music, and how she felt they were useful, she made a comment, which has stuck with me through the years. The choosing of a program should be based the contour of music in it, and how it might fit with the client that day, not the title. Since the title of some of the programs sound like they might be prescriptive (e.g. Transitions, Relationships), she stressed the importance of the content of the music when making the decision for a session. During supervision, she invited the trainee’s reflection about a chosen piece of music with a single “well”, spoken in a tonality which indicated that there could be another option, which she might suggest, or she might let the trainee grapple with. Of course, there was always her non-judgmental quality during this process.

In the Bonny Method, Helen taught us, sometimes a client may move into a state which is not being facilitated by the program being used. At that time, a change of music may be necessary. She gave some examples of that, but also said “when in doubt, trust the program”. I have used that advice many times, particularly now that we have iPod flexibility, with good results.

“I remembered Helen say “Trust the music”. I found that riches abounded when I was truly able to do so.” (Barbe Creagh)


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Margareta Wärja, Music Therapist, Expressive Arts Therapist, Licensed Psychotherapist. Clinical Supervisor and Director of Education at the Swedish Institute for Expressive Arts, Stockholm. Primary Trainer in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (Trained with the Bonny Foundation: 1990-1995).
“Helen was so bold! And daring! I hear her voice inside. When I hesitate I listen for Helen inside…[I] just hear her say: “go, go go with the music, open to the music, just open!”(Margareta Wärja)

Helen was bold. Her deep love and intuitive understanding of the music allowed her to use rich, evocative music successfully where the rest of us would need to use more conservative choices. She related stories of her choices over the years, not as examples of what to do, but in the context of understanding the breadth of the music choices we have. Her teaching enabled each trainee to develop his or her own relationship with the music, to be able to choose the best music for guiding in each situation.

For me the epitome of Helen’s value of non judgment manifests in the role of the guide, and the guiding process. Teaching by example, she showed us how to be non directive and accepting while guiding. As Margareta states above, the concept that the music is the therapist, the guide for the traveler, underscores the importance of the music in the method. If the guide defers to the music, the traveler will respond. Helen demonstrated non directional guiding and processing in the trainings; and in supervisions and mentoring helped us learn to let go of our judgments and expectations to facilitate the traveler’s experience. This is no easy task, it requires again personal experience as the traveler to fully understand its importance and therapeutic impact. I remember, when I was very new to the process, talking with Helen about a person she had been working with, who was not able to connect with the meaning of her imagery for several sessions, as an example of how the process unfolds in its own time for each person. Of course the person did discover the image’s meaning at some point, and Helen said she had thought to herself “Finally! I’ve been trying to get you to see that for a while”. When I asked why Helen didn’t just tell the client what her interpretations were, she smiled and simply said “The joy of self discovery.”

States of Consciousness

“[Helen’s] understanding of consciousness and the importance of GIM for the evolution of consciousness was always at the forefront of her work. She knew the exploration of consciousness on many levels and recognized the value music brought to this exploration” (Barbe Creagh)

During the trainings, Helen shared her early work and research at the Maryland Psychiatric Institute, including experiences with altered states of consciousness. She often made didactic presentations of basic concepts of different states of consciousness, as they related to the process of the Bonny Method, particularly her cut log diagram. She gave examples of training participants’ experiences in imagery using the cut log diagram to help us have a general idea of what was happening in the music, whether a person was exploring various aspects of his/her psyche or moving in deeper to work with an issue, all without judging. This allowed us to gain insight into the process from others’ perspectives as well as our own, and start to form a basis of understanding about responding to music in an altered state.

However, the depths of Helen’s knowledge of levels of consciousness were not taught so directly. Through mentoring and supervision, she assigned or suggested various sources for the trainee to read, based on the individual, which facilitated each person’s own growth and knowledge about consciousness. She shared her own stories of conversations and interactions she had with leaders in the realms of consciousness research and theory. She encouraged advanced trainees to explore consciousness in new areas of therapy, with different populations, and on a larger scale, all with her accepting guidance. I believe she knew that too much information would overwhelm many people, and she allowed people to move to the level with which they were comfortable and for which they were ready.


Two themes were common in our experiences of Helen’s teaching about spirituality; groundedness and expansion. Helen was grounded in her own spiritual path, but that path was not narrow. Her openness and acceptance of other’s paths facilitated our individual growth. She encouraged trainees to explore their roots, and develop their own paths, mostly individually. In general trainings as a teacher, she shared her personal experiences with religion and music, and her knowledge of a diversity of spiritual concepts mostly in response to the processes occurring in the sessions. She described her own process of going deep within, which she taught could access connection with different levels of consciousness, including the spiritual, for self care. She encouraged explorations of Reiki and Mandala work. At the trainings she provided materials for use at the trainee’s discretion.

Individually, as a mentor, she suggested general and more specific readings, and sources for trainees to explore. Her own deep spiritual essence was part of her presence. She taught by example, not what to believe, but how to be grounded in the belief. Being grounded allows the guide to facilitate the exploration and expansion of the traveler, as Helen’s groundedness allowed the exploration and expansion of the trainees she mentored.

“GIM has had a profound effect on my spiritual path in ways that has both grounded me and opened the space of the infinitive. I feel both carried in a supportive vessel and given the space to expand and expand and just feel totally connected to the whole. For me GIM has provided me with the material and building blocks to fully walk and embrace a spiritual path – my path. In this Helen supported me along the way” (Margareta Wärja)

Helen’s Way of Being

Through the various examples of her teaching, three attributes were described by all, unfolding the essence of the teacher.

Helen was non-judgmental. “She always honored everyone’s individual journey.” (Barbe Creagh) This was true of each trainee’s personal sessions, as well as each person’s journey of becoming a guide. This was true about the journey’s of those clients being guided by the trainees. This was true in discussions about other forms of therapy, or modifications to her original method. This was a foundation of her being which permeated her teaching, supervision and mentorship.

During training retreats Helen often gave demonstration sessions. Each training, with different people, provided different issues and different responses. Each person contributing to this refection remembered something different, yet we all remembered the foundation of non-judgmental, unconditional acceptance through her example.

During the individual components of training, Helen often supervised GIM sessions. The foundation of non-judgment encompassed her supervision. More than one trainee worried that she would not be up to par. More than one trainee had moments of doubt when she made a clinical decision in a session to veer from the “rules” of the method under Helen’s eye. More than one trainee learned about non-judgmental supervision.

Helen supervised me with some of her own clients in Kansas. I was more than a little intimidated. We discussed the clients and the music choices in depth prior to the sessions, and I was totally conscious of her presence in the beginning as she sat and watched. As with my peers, whose comments are below, when I focused on the client and the process I did what I felt was important in the session, and was less conscious of her presence. Afterwards the anxiety returned. As with my peers, my concerns were unfounded.

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Connie Isenberg, Ph.D., MTA, MT-BC, FAMI is founding professor of music therapy and full-time faculty at Université du Québec à Montréal since 1984; a charter member of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy; and chair of committees for NAMT and the WFMT. She has worked extensively as a clinical music therapist specializing in BMGIM, and is also a psychoanalyst, a clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist.
“Her ... comments reflected her sensitivity and flexibility while emphasizing my clinical skills. Rules were to be broken in the face of clinical needs” (Connie Isenberg).

This was true of her as a mentor as well.

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Nicki Cohen, PhD, MT-BC, is a Fellow of the Association for Music and Imagery and Professor of Music Therapy and Voice at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, TX. She began her employment at TWU in 1992, and trained with the Bonny Foundation from 1995-2001. During her Level Three training, Nicki was privileged to work with Dr. Helen Bonny as her mentor and Dr. Roseann Kasayka as her supervisor. Nicki’s private Bonny Method practice is called “Guided Imagery and Music Therapy Services”.
“Helen's acceptance and kindness...made me feel as though all of my efforts were worthy.  When she gave constructive feedback, she did so from a place of acceptance and love” (Nicki Cohen).

The attribute of being non-judgmental pervaded all aspects of her teaching. Her willingness to be open to everything led to a depth of knowledge which allowed her to teach on many different levels and for her trainees to learn on many different levels. She incorporated acceptance of more than one way of thinking or believing, many different systems, values, spiritualities, and sciences in to her work. This opened the door for us to expand our knowledge and awareness of the possible levels of our own GIM experiences, and those of our clients.

This unconditional regard for our clients, acceptance of their experiences and their responses has filtered into all aspects of my own clinical practice, as it has for many of my peers. It has filtered into our teaching of younger therapists. It has filtered into how they develop as therapists, and how they will teach others.

Helen was authentic. “Helen lived what she believed and she believed deeply. Her authenticity remains a hallmark as well as her humility” (Barbe Creagh)

“I ...experienced her as a GRAND human being who carried a deep commitment and a sense of having answered a calling and followed that full heartedly... and I also experienced her as an “ORDINARY” person – with that I mean down to earth in the everyday life, easy to be with no “diva” tendencies – just there as a fellow human being with me” (Margareta Wärja)
“She was humble and willing to learn new aspects about self and others, always being ambitious…learning about the world around her deepening her understanding. She simply practiced what she believed”(Min-Jeong Bae)
“I remember one specific GIM session ... during this session she struggled to find the ‘right’ music, that is, music that could match [the traveler’s] state while furthering her therapeutic intention. …Finally she settled on a tape that ‘worked’ for both...She told me that she had never before had an experience of this kind. I appreciated her candor. After all, who knew these tapes better than Helen?” (Connie Isenberg)

To Helen being authentic meant being herself in every role, whether personal or professional. Her deep knowledge of many things, her researcher’s curiosity, her respect for others, her humility and openness to learning are all seen in the reflections above. She shared her learning, from successes and struggles, candidly teaching by example. I try to instill this in our young therapists, hopefully by example as well. Living life authentically allows people to know that interactions and caring are genuine. When this is present individuals will feel accepted, and be able to enter into their own journey toward self understanding, authenticity and wellness.

Helen taught best by example. Whether it was levels of consciousness, music programs, or guiding techniques, Helen believed in learning through experience, as well as through didactic information. Her own attributes of being non-judgmental and authentic demonstrated how these are effective in therapy. Her demonstration sessions were more educational than words. She modeled presence, particularly the non-verbal aspects of presence. Reading some of the experiences of others in their trainings left me wishing for a video collection, to be able to have experienced the vast repertoire of her guiding abilities. At the same time, she believed strongly that we trainees should develop our own understanding of the process through our own experiences, and being part of the experiences of others. This allowed each of us to develop into the professionals we are today. That allowed for “adaptations” of her method and applications in new areas. She shared her experiences of working with those who developed other methods (eg. Kellogg and Grof), and those who were leaders in consciousness research. The sharing of her own experiences modeled ways that BMGIM could incorporate or interact with other ideas. This allowed the trainees to develop greater depth in understanding of the phenomenon we were using in therapy.

“With her guidance and demonstrating, I begin to access and act from my heart rather than my head. I learned the concept of presence from Helen. That has transformed who I am in every situation, including with my clients, friends, or university students”(Nicki Cohen).


Throughout the process of compiling this retrospective, various images of Helen were shared, snapshots into our less cognitive connections to her; again unfolding essences of a multifaceted person. There is an image of Helen as a tree with deep roots, a strong and old trunk, and a spacious crown; a tree that goes through the cycle of four seasons. There is an image of Helen as a fellow traveler in a meadow before an enormous fountain of light. There are images of Helen as a cloaked wise woman, who is synonymous with the imager, and of Helen as one of a group of sisters who live on and in a mountain.

And there are images of Helen the person, a gracious teacher, a partner to take in music with for hours; a nurturing, compassionate, warm, loving person with an aura of peace. And lastly there are images of Helen the therapist, a gentle but powerful guide, which resonate with our descriptions of her as a teacher and mentor.