[Columns & Essays]

The Student Practitioner-Researcher as Hero in Her Own Journey – The Value of a Story

By Sarah Hoskyns

My brother-in-law Roger is a story-teller living in Nelson, New Zealand, and during the feverish last year of my doctoral thesis, I had the good fortune to talk with him. I had been searching for ways to bring together my study findings, and shared with Roger an enjoyable discovery of a connection in my findings with aspects of The Power of Myth (Campbell & Moyers, 1988). Roger’s personal study and experience of telling a huge variety of international folk tales and contemporary stories also linked with Joseph Campbell’s writing, in particular observations of many unifying features and characteristics of stories across cultures. My thesis topic had been about how music therapy educators, practitioners, researchers and students experienced the integration of practice and research in music therapy Masters’ education. My interest in our story-telling discussion was a parallel between Campbell’s description of the "Hero of a Thousand Faces" (a resonant Jungian archetypal myth) and one of my core themes. I titled the theme "Being on Fire" and here is its definition.

In the collected reflections developing connections between research and practice, participants demonstrated widespread recognition of an energy or passion that people discover to go and "find things out" about the music therapy field. The awakening of curiosity in students and practitioners was observed as central - in "research" and in "creative" practice. The participants talked about this both within themselves (what has excited them) and recognizing and nurturing it in students. This was linked directly with the process of practice and of research (about practice). Empowerment and confidence developed through encouraging this spark and it sustained people through hard work and difficulty. Personal growth of the therapist was also harnessed and the idea of the "quest" – of going in search of previously unknown territory – provided an integrating metaphor connecting the planning and thinking of research with the learning journey of a therapist. "Not knowing" and searching are integral to both.

The features of this core theme – awakening curiosity, the excitement of inquiry, the inspiration of wise mentors, the importance of helpers and collaborators, travelling into the unknown, and toil, labour and bravery in the face of difficulty – all these evoked the parallel with Jung and Campbell’s overall shape of the Hero’s Journey (Campbell & Moyers, 1988; Jung & Von Franz, 1964). There were also some links to the other core themes in my findings, which emphasised the idea of change and personal growth and the idea of confronting complex challenges, and having the flexibility or ingenuity to persist.

Some further inquiry revealed of course that others have made associations with student research – and also with the different stages of education – and journey metaphors or archetypal processes in learning. Willig (2001) began an introduction to qualitative research with the call to adventure and noted the distinction between her early experience of learning about research which she describes as following recipes and the later mature excitement she experienced of the journey into unknown territory. Mayes (2005) made an interesting observation in tertiary education about the need for the student to be open to the unfolding journey of learning. He/she has to put aside a previous life, and be prepared to enter new realms. This is a psychological challenge for the student and the role of the teacher in archetypal terms becomes the wiser old man or woman. In a seminal article on the development of research in the music therapy discipline at the end of the last millennium, Kenny (1998) drew attention to therapist curiosity as an essential driver in the process of effective research about practice. Kedge and Appleby (2009) made a similar point about the nursing profession.

As I shared my thoughts on my work with Roger, he reflected on tales of a particular sort of young hero going on a journey, who he had always loved in his story telling. This was the Ash Lad or Askeladden an important character in Norwegian folk stories (Asbjørnsen & Moe, 1960). The Ash Lad is a sort of archetype of the young inexperienced person who has to go and "find himself" on a journey. The Ash Lad is characterised as a young boy who stays in the Viking house, raking out the ashes, looking after the fire, listening to people around, but has no experience of the world. He suddenly finds himself drawn to the task of marrying the princess (his curiosity perhaps?) and has to go on a series of trials and adventures where he will be really tested. In the process the young person willingly (and with full trust) picks up others, who are slightly strange but with unique skills who want to come with him. He just does this in a friendly welcoming way (he is used to being alongside others and likes company). Of course when he undertakes his trials, all these people help him, and his trust is richly rewarded. He wins the princess and comes back home to live in a rich and active and "grown-up" way.

Campbell highlights the "Hero of a Thousand Faces" in his writings and interviews and regards it as a highly significant myth. He observes the pervasiveness of this myth in the stories about youth and growth across cultures (Campbell & Moyers, 1988). In popular culture at the time of co-authoring The Power of Myth, he emphasised the popularity of the Star Wars cycle of films and more recently we might note the excitement and investment internationally about New Zealand’s own film of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson, and of course the popularity of Harry Potter for a younger generation of story-readers (Rowling, 1997). What these myths emphasise is the endless retelling of the idea of the growing person (the student-in-training here) going out into the unknown and developing knowledge and experience for herself and her community. The process involves trials and labours (the hard work) that must be passed through. The requirement on the young person is (for example in the story The Ash Lad and the good helpers) (Asbjørnsen & Moe, 1960, pp. 170-177):

  • to have the interest, energy and bravery to go out into the world
  • to develop wit and resourcefulness (find skills in yourself you didn’t know you had)
  • to do things step by step (the stories tend to emphasise repetition and stage by stage process)
  • to invite or be willing to accept the help of others
  • to come back home and share your new knowledge

The way that my research participants revealed their experiences of research about practice in their core training as music therapists and in following research degrees identifies a markedly similar process to this journeying out to discovery, enduring trials and bringing back knowledge to benefit the discipline. Margaret Attwood (2000) observes the need for a journey or a surprise or something of the unknown to make a story. The protagonist sets out on a journey, or perhaps a stranger comes to town. There is no story if there is no unknown. We need to encounter things outside ourselves, and what we do not know. "In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It's loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road" (p. 518). It is also the story of the journey of education where we build towards knowledge and maturity.  In that process we need some adversity and challenge to help us gain awareness and skills, but also to provide excitement drive and energy. In my particular study this "story of a journey" also brought together the idea of therapeutic travel towards self-knowledge and inward understanding and the researcher journey towards new insights and connections. An exciting integration of therapeutic practice and research!

I have always loved stories and metaphors in my experience growing up and as a student of literature at the university doing a combined honours Bachelor degree with music. Finding connection with story and myth in this research was thus a delightful home-coming experience. There was also a reflexive link to my own experience of being a thesis student. I was an Ash Lad on my journey of discovery undertaking research. I felt the parallels with the steps described above.

As I write this I feel a responsibility to our female-rich profession. Most of my participants were female, my "heroes" were generally women articulating something of the pattern of an outgoing journey of discovery. The stories I have mentioned above tend to be centred on the tales of boys and men. (One of the criticisms of Jung and Campbell has been the male predominance in their telling of the hero myth.) I realize the need to capture some supportive tales of women on adventures too. As a start, I remember a particular story I loved as a child, one of the Narnia series, The Horse and his Boy by C.S. Lewis. Although this story is on the surface about a boy, a key character is Aravis, a brave and exciting female horse rider (Lewis, 1954). I recall my strong identification with her and frequent re-reading of the story when I was in primary school. Readers will I hope be able to identify other examples.

Ledger and Edwards (2011) have valued the ongoing development and importance of arts practice in the methodology and dissemination of music therapy research. The development of stories and story-telling as a mechanism for communicating values and key concepts seems to be a resourceful option for researchers working with words alongside music. Indigenous research, which is building significantly in New Zealand, through Kaupapa Maori research developments, also values the process and presence of stories as one of the important ways of transferring knowledge (Selby, Moore &Mulholland, 2010). From another perspective of the story or narrative, Hadley’s work in a number of different domains explores the use and significance of narratives in professional and personal lives (Hadley, 2013a, 2013b, 2003, 2001, 1998; Yancy & Hadley, 2005).

I am brought to a surprising and satisfying full-circle at this point in my music therapy life. My first experience supervising student research at the Masters’ level was to support a thesis student at City University, London in 1989 and I enjoyed learning from my supervisee about her passionate interest in symbols, archetypes and Jungian theory. The young hero and his journey were one of the archetypes we discussed. My current 2014 experience of Masters’ research supervision includes an equally interesting journey with a student researcher who is developing a framework for indigenous Kaupapa Maori research of his own practice. A possible part of the conceptualising in this research could include a respect for and engagement in the stories of the culture, people and environment of the study.

But I shouldn’t pre-empt and hypothesise about work to come. What I am more sure of is that both these practitioner-research students – and many, many others in between (perhaps even me) – have been heroes in their own journey of research and practice, sharing passionate interest and engaging in their own creative discoveries. I emphasise the creativity. Research and practice put together sympathetically have the potential to unleash our imaginative capacities. Many good stories can be developed for the benefit of the discipline. And who can resist a good story?


Thanks to my research participants who contributed with such warmth and passion their own stories and adventures with practice research and teaching, and to Roger Sanders for his story-telling inspiration.


Asbjørnsen, P., & Moe, J. (1960). Norwegian folk tales (C. Norman & P. Shaw Iversen, Trans.). Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Attwood, M. (2000). The blind assassin. New York: Random House.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Anchor Books.

Hadley, S. (2013a). Dominant narratives: complicity and the need for vigilance in the creative arts therapies. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 40, 373-381.

Hadley, S. (2013b). Experiencing race as a music therapist: personal narratives. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Hadley, S. (2003). Meaning making through narrative inquiry: Exploring the life of Clive Robbins. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 12 (1), 34-54.

Hadley, S. (2001). Exploring relationships between Mary Priestley’s life and work. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 10 (2), 116–131.

Hadley, S. (1998). Exploring relationships between life and work in music therapy: The stories of Mary Priestley and Clive Robbins. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University.

Hoskyns, S. (2013). Enabling the curious practitioner: perceptions on the integration of research and practice in the education of music therapy students at Masters' level. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Massey & Victoria Universities, Wellington, N.Z.

Jung, C., & Von Franz, M. L. (Eds.). (1964). Man and his symbols. London: Aldus Books & Jupiter Books.

Kedge, S., & Appleby, B. (2009). Promoting a culture of curiosity within nursing practice. British Journal of Nursing 18(10), 635-637.

Kenny, C. (1998). Embracing complexity: the creation of a comprehensive research culture in music therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 35(3), 201-217.

Ledger, A., & Edwards, J. (2011). Arts-based research practices in music therapy research: existing and potential developments. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38, 312-317.

Lewis, C.S. (1954). The horse and his boy. London: Penguin Books.

Mayes, C. (2005). Jung and education: elements of an archetypal pedagogy. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Rowling, J.K. (1997) Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone. London: Bloomsbury.

Selby, R., Moore, P., & Mulholland, M. (Eds.). (2010). Maori and the environment: Kaitiaki. Wellington: Huia Books.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954). The fellowship of the ring (The lord of the rings, Vol 1). London: Harper Collins.

Yancy, G., & Hadley, S. (Eds.). (2005). Narrative identities: psychologists engaged in self-construction. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Willig, C. (2001). Introducing qualitative research in psychology: adventures in theory and method. Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press.