An Interview with Jim Borling

By Yumiko Sato

Jim Borling
Jim Borling MM, MT-BC is Professor of Music and Director of the Music Therapy Program at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. He holds the designation of Fellow of the Association for Music and Imagery; he is a Board Certified Music Therapist and is a member of the American Music Therapy Association. Over the years Jim has held contracts with Lewis Gale Hospital Alcohol and Drug Program, Lewis Gale Clinics-Chronic Pain Program, Life Center of Galax Treatment Center, The Center for Behavioral and Rehabilitative Medicine, and Avenues to Recovery Adult and Adolescent Programs. He has provided Music Therapy trainings throughout the United States as well as in Korea, Germany, Canada and Mexico. He is widely published, contributing both to professional journals and book chapters on a variety of topics around the clinical applications of music therapy. His primary clinical focus currently includes special applications in the field of addictions and men’s work. Jim and wife Nannette are Co-Founders of "MusicVisions, LLC-Services for Healing and Growth", a private practice in Roanoke, Virginia offering Music Therapy and Reiki services.

“I love music therapy more today than I ever have,” says Jim Borling, who has been a music therapist for over 30 years and teaching music therapy for 28 years at Radford University. How has he kept his passion for music therapy for so long? I’ve never had the chance to ask him that question – until now.

It was Mr. Borling’s belief in the power of music and his commitment to music therapy that inspired me to become a music therapist when I was a graduate student at Radford. I remember going to my first music therapy class, not knowing what to expect. By the end of the class, I knew I had found what I was looking for. Along the way he encouraged a self-awareness that has propelled my growth as a person and as a music therapist. Borling teaches students and clients alike that such growth is a possibility in every stage of life.

Borling has always been an active clinician while holding the position of Program Director of Music Therapy at Radford. He specializes in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), in which the therapist uses sequenced classical music to guide the client’s journey for healing. He sees clients in his private practice and works in an outpatient program for people with addictions. In the classroom he often talks about what happened with a client on the day before, making his lectures fresh, vibrant, and interesting.

I spoke with Borling at the AMTA conference in Cleveland. In the corner of a restaurant next to the lobby we found a quiet table overlooking the downtown square. A generous man who agreed to take time out of his busy schedule for the interview, Borling looked as happy and lively as I remembered him. His eyes brightened when he talked about his work as a teacher and as a clinician. He still has that contagious excitement about music therapy.

How would you respond to a client who asks, “What is GIM?”?

Bonny Method of GIM is a music centered process that taps into the client’s own abilities to enter and participate in the healing process; to explore, and to connect with the answers deep within. Philosophically as a music therapist I do believe that we have answers inside of us already. We have the ability to heal from the inside out. If we can access that in a meaningful and intentional way – and GIM in my mind does that ---, then healing naturally occurs.

One of the ways I talk about healing rather than thinking of it as “moving away from pathology or chaos” is really moving towards “wholeness.” It’s the same process but it’s conceptually different. We’re all trying to move toward wholeness whether we carry a disability or an addiction or whatever might be. When I was looking at what was happening with clients in the GIM process, and even in things like lyrics and drum circles, I realized that clients already knew what they needed to do. They just need someone to provide a platform from which that can happen.

Do your clients believe that they have the abilities to heal themselves when they first come into the session?

No, they don’t necessarily believe that. Here in the Western culture we’re so used to the allopathic approach to medicine that states that if there is something wrong with me, I can take some external source that will make it right. That’s a very different paradigm from one that says healing comes from inside. But when I say to my clients, “We will do this together. If you will take responsibility for participating in your healing process, I’ll be with you every step of the way,” it resonates with what’s already going on inside of them. If they know they’re going to be supported, and that they cannot fall down, then I think that they’re willing to take that step. So initially no, they don’t believe it. Probably more accurately, they don’t understand it. So they need the ideas presented to them.

In your opinion, why do you think music “works”?

Music speaks to us very deeply. Music carries a message that the listener understands. You and I may listen to a piece of music, and we may have different understandings of that music, and that’s okay. Both are correct, of course, because it’s connecting with us on the level that we’re ready. There is a sense of readiness – for us to say, “Yeah, I’ll acknowledge that, I’ll talk about that, I feel that, I may play it out, I may write a lyric about that.” Music can touch us on these deep levels.

I also want to answer it in a little different way. That is, music is an alive sense of our own spirit. What I mean by that is that we can talk about many things, but it’s hard to bring it to life. I can talk about my sadness, my craving, or my own sense of spiritual dimension, but music in a very alive and vibrational way connects me to it. That’s very exciting. And it often does so without words needing to get in the way. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it. Of course, we talk about it; and so, verbal skills are very important for music therapists as well. But because music is a different type of energy, it allows us to experience those deeper parts of ourselves that words simply can’t envelope.

Could you talk more about the use of verbal process in GIM?

Traditional GIM involves what’s called post session processing. It’s a verbal process, reflecting on the whole experience. In that reflection there will likely be some insights where clients will make connections between point A and point B. Verbal processing is often as important as the music session – not instead of, but along with music.

My belief is that music therapists need to have an integrative approach to the verbal process. Each of us has an orientation to our professional work, but we can’t be limited by that orientation. Many therapists use a cognitive or cognitive behavioral approach. Others use a person centered-approach, and some may be oriented to the Gestalt way of working. But to use one principle at the exclusion of the others is not doing our clients any good, particularly when we engage the deepest levels of the healing process. So we must be educated, not just technique wise, but experientially. We must be educated about all models and processes, so that we can see a Gestalt process emerging, see those calls for the aesthetic experience, and get a sense of the transpersonal state presenting itself. If we ourselves don’t have a container for that, we won’t be able to help the client.

Do you think that the professor’s philosophical orientation influences the way music therapy is taught in the universities?

I think that the philosophy of a professor colors the school. That’s certainly the case at Radford, and I acknowledge that. But one of the things I struggle with right now is how the profession of music therapy is preparing the young music therapists to work at these levels they’ll be presented with in the variety of clinical settings. We can say that there is an advanced practice; but you know what, any young music therapist who is board certified could be hired to do what I am doing in my addictions group work. Will they be prepared to deal with the issues that come up? It’s not like we can plan the advanced practice based upon the clients. Clients are there. I think universities need to look at how we are training our young music therapists. I believe that the profession must look at who is truly prepared to work at the deepest levels as a therapist. It’s an ethical responsibility in my mind.

What do your clients find most difficult about the therapeutic process?

I think what the clients find most difficult and most enlivening at the same time is that they have to do the work. They have to feel the feelings, go into the pain, and experience the struggles to get to the other side. Carl Jung said, “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.” When a client feels the angst or the real issue beginning to arise, particularly in the GIM process, they have to go into it and feel it. That’s difficult. At the same time I feel a parallel that happens with those clients who are willing to take the responsibility. They’d say to themselves, “I know I’ll have to do this. This is important. This is the work I’ve come to do.” So it’s difficult; but again at the same time it’s enlivening, because it takes you, as Jung would say, to the “passion.”

Human beings are passionate. We might not be able to express it all the time, but we are very passionate beings. So that passion comes through embracing the struggle. Jung also said that the shadow, the darker part of our psyche, is 90 percent gold and only 10 percent darkness. It’s that 10 percent that keeps us away from the gold. Well, the difficulty for the client is to embrace the darkness.

I can’t help but wonder if what you described to be the most difficult part of the therapeutic process for the client may also be the most difficult part of being a music therapist.

Yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it. You probably heard me say, “Do your own work.” You owe it to your clients, and you’ll be glad you did it. It’s curious to me why people choose to be therapists. I think fundamentally it’s all well-intentioned. But sometimes you encounter folks who want to become therapists, so that they don’t have to look at their own stuff. Well, that’s fine, but we’re talking about a very different type of healing here. Music therapy is a very dynamic process. So it’s our responsibility to do our work, so that others can do theirs. It’s huge in my mind.

I agree. This leads me to my next question: What’s the toughest part of being a music therapist?

Music therapists have to know a lot. We really do. We have to be good musicians. We have to have our own relationships with music. We have to understand therapeutic process and be good team members. And maybe one of the hardest things for any music therapist is helping people understand what music therapy is.

What’s the most enjoyable part of being a music therapist?

I’ll answer that in two ways. One is that I get to use music in its many forms. I had that strong connection to music as a child. On some level, although I didn’t have the words for it, I knew that music was really important, and that there was something big there.

The other is participating and supporting people in their healing processes. I’ve worked with folks who have such heavy histories of trauma, and they feel that they’ll never be okay. Yet, when music comes in and something wakes up, they say, “Maybe, just maybe, through music I can reawaken.” We try to help that unfold, and right there, it’s the healing process --- people becoming whole right before my very eyes. That’s pretty humbling.

I often wonder how a healing process exactly takes place. You talked about music awakening something within clients and them taking responsibility in their healing processes . But what happens next?

Well, I think what we’ve done is to set free what is a natural developmental process. In a humanistic view, if left to our own doing, we’ll reach our fullest potentials. Well, interference happens. We experience trauma. We get caught in drama. It then begins to impede our natural flow towards growth, individuation, and self-actualization. When music comes in, I don’t think it’s the matter of “we did something here now it’s done,” but we’re setting free that process of becoming alive again. So when people experience that in a GIM session or a music therapy group, they’ll take that away with them. It’s with them when they’re back with their families. It’s with them when they are back at their work places. It’s with them when they’re experiencing the seasonal holidays. I think the better way to look at that is we haven’t had the healing experience here, but we have set free that healing process within, so there is a continuous healing momentum toward wholeness wherever we go.

What I’m hearing you say is that our growth is like a river with its natural flow, and sometimes the flow is blocked. What music can do then is to set the river free, so that the natural flow will take place.

That’s a perfect analogy, absolutely. Maslow talked about development extending well into adulthood. And, that’s true. As a human being I feel that. My 30’s were good. My 40’s were pretty cool. And my 50’s? I think I’m starting to catch on, maybe just a little bit.

Really? That’s very exciting to hear. Do you have any advice for young music therapists starting their careers?

Jim Borling with Yumiko Sato, Cleveland 2011
Jim Borling with Yumiko Sato, Cleveland, 2011

If you’re enjoying it now, you’ll enjoy it even more in the future. But along the way, keep your music alive. Don’t let your music exist only in the context of your practice. When you feel the need to grow and there is a little sense of pain associated with it, see somebody. Ask for help. A dear friend of mine who is a music therapist said to me years ago that one of the most courageous things someone can do is to ask for help. I think that’s true for everybody, especially music therapists.

We see so much in the context of our professional work that is defined as abnormal or pathological, and we take that home. After 5 months, 5 years, or 20 years of that it takes a toll. So we need to find our own balance, and often times that means asking for help.

Lastly, what’s your secret in keeping your passion for music therapy for so many years?

A secret? I think making music is important. Also, I’ll tell you that there were times I asked for help, because I needed it. Perhaps it was growing pains, whatever we call it. I had to face my dragons. Today I can say that I’m very glad I did that, because that brought me to my aliveness. So I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced true professional burnout. I feel blessed to have found music therapy, and I can say that I’m still pretty darn excited about it.