View of The Field of Play: An Ecology of Being in Music Therapy

[Research Voices: Theoretical Studies]

The Field of Play: Ecology of Being in Music Therapy

By Carolyn Kenny

This text was crafted in a performative writing style. Performative writing is often laced with auto-ethnographic elements. So, in a way, this is a brief version of the story of my life in Music therapy. Ideally, I would be standing before you and offering this text in the oral tradition. Then you would hear the sound of my voice. You would see the expressions on my face, my body language. You would hear the silences between words more clearly. You would hear the music.


I began my experience in music therapy in a natural way at the age of 16 when I volunteered at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta, Georgia. One day, I was doing my usual volunteer duty of sewing cancer pads and I started to hum. The supervising nun came up to me and said, “Carolyn, Mrs. White asked me if you would come beside her bed to hum for a while.” Before long, my cancer pad sewing days were over and transformed into humming and singing at bedside to many patients in the Cancer Home. This was 1962. I’d never heard of anything called music therapy at the time. I only heard about music therapy a few years later when I was an undergraduate student at Loyola University in New Orleans studying history, political science, and philosophy and met music therapy majors there. I had met my professional tribe!

In 1970, while working for the Canadian government doing spontaneous improvisation with several different groups including First Nations children on the reserve, I met a wonderful Musqueum elder named Walker Stogan. One day, I was walking with Walker beside the great Fraser River and beside the Longhouse where we played music with the children. I asked him: “Walker, what about this thing called music therapy?” Walker took a long draw on his cigarette, turned to reflect on the flowing river, tossed his cigarette to the ground, crushed it, then looked at me and said: “For you, in this world, that’s the one.” Thus, after completing another degree, this one in Music Therapy at Loyola University and receiving my music therapy credentials in 1973, I began my formal work as a music therapist.

Now as an older person myself, many years after my encounter with Walker along the banks of the river, I often think of my Native American mother and her advice to me while I was growing up. She always said: “Be a human being first. The rest comes later.”

I dedicate my text to all of those Native elders who walk this way, who stood before me and guided me, and on whose shoulders I stand here before you now. “All my relations!”

As you listen, you can sense that there are many stories to tell. And in this short article, I’ll tell you a few.

Doing and Being

Sometimes, I worry that as health care providers we respond to human suffering only by doing. We want to find concrete solutions to suffering. We make our theories. We standardize our practice. We collect our evidence about what works. And all the while, we rarely pause just to be with our patients and clients—to pause in long silences just to feel each other’s presence.

The Field of Play (REF) is about being. It is about giving our attention to the spaces we create in music therapy through an intense focus on being. And it is about the process of how we create the interplay between these spaces of creativity and wonder in the music therapy experience.

We have our ethical imperatives. There are many. One ethical imperative is to follow our medical and educational protocols and principles. Another is the aesthetic imperative, meaning that music is a form of beauty, as any art. As music therapists, we must adhere to our own ethical codes about what this beauty means and how we bring it to those in pain and discontent. Beyond our professional tribe, we also have our own personal and cultural imperatives.

If you take the time to peruse some of my scholarly works, you will find a very strong theme—stay close to the earth. This is a cultural imperative that springs from my roots as a Native person and my love of the beauty and majesty of the natural world.

I’ll tell you another little story. After my Choctaw mother died, I was adopted by a Haida elder. The Haida Gwaii is a magnificent group of islands just off the coast of British Columbia near Alaska. Because our traditional territory was one of the only areas of land in North America not touched by the ice age, we have magnificent old growth trees in our rain forests. Perhaps you can imagine my place, my space there in the Haida Gwaii.

Write it Down

Chief Simon Baker of the Squamish Nation always told us young ones – the young scholars – to “Write it down”. He said, “If you have a useful idea to share, write it down.” So let us turn to the scholarly part of the story.

In 1976 I began a program of sustained scholarship to explore new ways to imagine and describe our music therapy experience that traveled beyond the technical categories I perceived as limiting. At that time, having been a practicing music therapist for ten years, I became rather disenchanted with standard terminology from related disciplines such as psychology and medicine to describe our work with clients and patients. I was inclined to explore ways to describe our experiences that did not separate us according to categories of existence like disabled, dying, psychotic, and many others. I was also searching for something innately humanistic that bound us together as human beings as opposed to separating us – something non-hierarchical. This desire to go beyond standardized terms, concepts, and theories also sought something beyond ill and well. I hoped that my exploration would help to define the role of the music therapist within such a theory.

As a Native American, I had a wealth of traditional knowledge to access in my discovery process. Traditional knowledge is filled with intuitive science that has been passed down through the generations in a different way than Western science. For example, in my Native education, I learned that music is an energy system. Traditional knowledge is shared across the generations through practice in the oral tradition. In addition, a high value is placed on art, especially in the application of healing of any kind. So, in an ideal situation, we would have a perfect balance between art and science.

In my music therapy practice, I had noticed similarities between the music of patients in psychiatric units at the Health Science Center Hospital at the University of British Columbia and Native people who were participating in music making at urban Indian Centers and also on reserve. These similarities can be summarized as a natural tendency to create music that emphasized tension and resolution, which I interpreted as analogous or even metaphorically attached to a death/rebirth theme or myth.

In my first formal research project I looked through historical and clinical perspectives. I observed the importance of the death/rebirth themes and processes in patients and also healthy Native children, as well as other clients and patients. The expressions of tension and resolution that I interpreted as death and rebirth themes were never suggested and naturally occurred within the musical improvisations in both settings.

This formal program of study became The Mythic Artery: The Magic of Music Therapy (1982, 2006). I perceived and interpreted the theme of death and rebirth as a primary theme in the living of human life and a critical element in the healing process. The metaphor of the mythic artery suggests another Native traditional teaching that healing spaces are spaces of loving and creating that join us to the great river—the artery that flows through of all humanity and all living things.

After more years of practice, in 1984, I felt that I had to take up some new issues to keep developing my ideas about music therapy, to find a new language and concepts that more closely described my experience in the work. Because my image of music therapy was not bound by particular techniques like improvisation, guided imagery and music, song writing, or other specific methods or the nomenclature of conditions like disabled, I knew that I was striving for a general theory for music therapy (Kenny, 1999, 2006).

In my own practice I had used so many different methods or techniques. I had used vocal choirs, hand bell choirs, improvisation, performance, guided imagery with music, improvisation or recorded music with arts, clay, collage and dance, song writing—whatever the occasion called for. And by this time I had done music therapy with people from age 3-102 in every imaginable human condition. In addition to my own practice, I spent several years observing Nordoff-Robbins music therapy practice in the United States and Great Britain and had observed and had my own experiences in Guided Imagery and Music. Drawing from this wealth of experience, I felt that I was equipped to launch into a general theory of music therapy that could be applied to many approaches. Thus I began the process of investigating such a theory, which naturally involved creating a new language and concepts to describe our experiences in music therapy. Eventually, this theory became The Field of Play (Kenny, 1989, 2006).

The Field of Play is a general theory or perhaps a pre-theory or philosophy for music therapy that does not prescribe particular methods of practice like improvisation or imagery with music or other approaches. Rather, I like to imagine that the Field of Play is the great river that flows beneath all of our practice. In fact, it could be the river itself—the one that Walker observed as he stood on the banks of the Fraser beside the Longhouse those many years ago. It is about imagination, consciousness, presence, attitude, and being. The Field of Play is all about conditions in the space, the primary one being, as my mother instructed, being and a focus on being. It is a theory that suggests connection to all living things. Imagine a rain forest or a field of daisies—ecosystems just like us with conditions. A rain forest is a bioregion. The conditions in the forest determine what will flourish there and what will die. It is the same for human beings. We need the best possible conditions, both in nature and in nurture, to make a good human life. There are constant modulations in all ecosystems and bioregions. We are all in a state of dynamic flux.

At the root of all power and motion, at the burning center of existence itself, there is music and rhythm, the play of patterned frequencies against the matrix of time. We now know that every particle in the physical universe takes its characteristics from the pitch and pattern and overtones of its particular frequencies, its singing. (Leonard, 1978)

There are seven fields in the Field of Play that interplay and interact in this dynamic musical dance.

I call the first one the aesthetic. The human being is an aesthetic—a form of beauty. Let’s think and feel into that for one moment. When I begin my music therapy sessions, I always focus on the beauty within the person—inside and out. What are his or her qualities, the human conditions that form the beauty, even in the face of suffering and disablement?

Once, I experienced a moment of confluence when I observed Rachel Verny, a British music therapist, performing a music therapy session with a child at the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre in London, England. Rachel was creating a field of being through which she interpreted his human conditions musically. She had an extraordinary facility with music. I observed her creating a space, a place in the interplay between her form of beauty and that of the child. This field of being, the coming together of two aesthetics, reminded me of the Navajo Blessing Way:

With beauty before me, I walk
With beauty behind me, I walk
With beauty above me, I walk
With beauty below me, I walk
From the East beauty has been restored
From the West beauty has been restored
From the South beauty has been restored
From the North beauty has been restored
From the zenith in the sky beauty has been restored
From the nadir of the earth beauty has been restored
From all around me beauty has been restored.
(Witherspoon, 1977)

As we move more toward beauty, we move toward wholeness. This is the Navajo way. If we adapt this Navajo ideology to music therapy, our premise is that our patient is already beautiful and whole—no matter what the disability. However, we have an opportunity to move into a deeper and richer beauty and wholeness in our experience together.

Using her training in the procedures designed by Paul Nordoff and Clive Robbins, Rachel took the lead in this interplay between two aesthetics—the Music Child and herself. This space was open. I saw a field of existence in which musical forms came to represent human existence. Rachel interpreted this child’s human conditions through her improvisations. And the child did the same.

In my own work, I constantly nurture an open attitude to the beauty of my clients. This is a beauty that has no bounds. My client, like the Earth, is a place, a space with certain human conditions. My job is to get to know these conditions while we are in our music. Each musical rendering educates me about these conditions because they represent significant aspects of the person’s being. Music is knowledge that cannot be translated accurately into words.

In the case of Jack, who I met in the hospital after he had a serious physical injury, I came to understand his “g” tonality as an aesthetic preference that had meaning. Perhaps I could not interpret that meaning in words or concepts, but I knew it as one of Jack’s aesthetic preferences. And I trusted that it had meaning for him. His senses selected “g” after a great deal of play. This was primary. Any verbal or conceptual interpretation would be second order. As well, I got to know his favorite rhythms, as he got to know mine. All of the elements of music were included in our play. This is a relational context—the interplay of aesthetics (Kenny, 1987, 1989, 2006).

Once I get to know my clients’ aesthetics, we begin to form a closed and intimate field, which I call the musical space. This is a context born out of our aesthetics, and our aesthetic experience together in the music. It emerges when we have gotten to know each other enough to close ourselves into a musical cocoon.

One of my clients in music psychotherapy described the musical space like this:

It definitely was the space. The sound took place in a space that was already created. Maybe the kernel was created and the sound gave it more form. But the space was a wedge of time, a sector of time which became infinite, expanded, separated from ordinary time, ordinary reality. It was like crossing a threshold into the space, the nature of the space was, that whatever was, was supposed to be. It was opening into this vastness that didn’t have any structure or form to constrict and bump up against. But it was like a padded space because there were boundaries. There is a difference between form and boundary, and there was a sense of container. There was a web around this or basket around this. It was loose, but it was really very much there within that boundary – everything was infinite and there were no forms to fit or fill.

My client Robyn and I created the boundaries or container together through our musical forms, which had been presented through getting to know our aesthetics. Now we could create an intimate container, a safe space, and explore this land together as it expanded into new territory.

The music was always there—through improvisation, passive listening through my performances or taped selections, drawing, painting, clay works, movement, and many other approaches.

I felt such a musical space when one of my patients in a convalescent home, Maggie, just wanted me to play and sing “In the Sweet By and By” over and over and over again—no other selections. One day, while Maggie was sleeping, I took my pencils and drawing pad into her room and sketched her beautiful face—so many lines on the face of a woman of 102 years. After Maggie died, I gave that sketch to the family.

The musical space is a place of being that is not limited by the techniques I might use with patients and clients. The fields of engagement change when a patient or client feels secure in the musical space. All at once, there is a new freedom and sometimes a joyful sense of discovery, experimentation, and a new energy in the play. I call this space the Field of Play. Sometimes, we notice a bursting out or breaking through. So there is a new openness in the Field of Play.

Clinically speaking, play is an intensely important aspect of healing. It represents perceiving new possibilities beyond limitations and previously patterned boundaries. I have observed this field of play in many music therapy situations. Music therapists who are trained in the Nordoff-Robbins approach are particularly sensitive to these bursts of freedom, as the music child emerges. And in Guided Imagery and Music, the field of play and exploration are represented as the client journeys into unknown territory, inspired by the music, only to discover new elements in a forest that comes to symbolize new life.

These three fields—the aesthetic, the musical space, and the field of play—are primary fields. Though I have described them in a sequence here, they are not necessarily sequential in the music therapy experience. In fact, they can be present simultaneously. The essential element is being. However, a critical aspect of these three fields and the four remaining fields or concepts is that they all alternate in opening and closing—just like breath, just like the human heart, just like the Seasons on the Earth. This is the ecology of being and the rhythm of vitality and growth.

Within the field of play, we find four new fields—new horizons to explore.

Once particular elements of music or color or behavior within the musical experience become constant, we have rituals that are repeatable forms making space for innovation. These are steady and secure places for us to exist. This is an ancient and earth-based principle. The seasons come and go. The day turns to night. We wake. Then we sleep. We breathe. We follow the natural rhythms and textures of the Earth.

We all need our rituals, which give us closed and contained spaces for a while. Music is full of ritualistic spaces from which to spring. And we do see this with our clients and patients.

I have seen the melodic or rhythmic rituals or rituals of timbre or other musical elements in my own work and the work of many music therapists.

Previously, I mentioned my patient Maggie. Maggie’s ritual, the repetition of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” helped her to create a bridge between what she knew as life and what she feared or anticipated as death. This was the song that carried her across a previously unknown land.

When you observe Nordoff-Robbins work, you see many musical rituals in all of the elements of music. The repetitive patterns of ritual bring us into a particular state of consciousness. Once we experience ritual space, our consciousness begins to fly into another open space—a space of innovation and play of new patterns of existence, a place of dreams and songs and new healing images of all kinds, metaphors, new behaviors, new feelings and thoughts.

In Guided Imagery and Music, therapists are trained in an induction method to bring their clients and patients into this space. Once our consciousness is free to travel, more opportunities present. Once we are free to travel, we feel our power. Power is a closed space. It builds energy over time. Then breaks free into new embodiment, confidence, renewal, and revitalization.

I’m quite sure that if you have experienced a drumming circle, you have experienced such power. And we can observe this phenomenon in many clinical settings around the world. Ritual creates a particular state of consciousness and this consciousness creates power. This power is often referred to as empowerment. And it can be held individually or within the group. It is also held in cultures around the world.

The last field in the Field of Play is the creative process. The process is the product. This takes a lot of trust. But if we choose to join the river on its journey, we understand that the river embraces all things. Does the river know the end point of its journey? Does it know what joys and sorrows it will meet along the way to its destination? We feel the animation of the world and our place in it. We know that we are all connected and related. When we focus on the process, the outcomes or products are not predictable. However, we can feel secure in our authenticity, our being, and the value for presence as core to the healing process.

In our work, we are most concerned with quality of life. And the many procedures that music therapists have created to mediate the sorrow of human conditions are elaborate and effective. Yet, this river that flows beneath all of our procedures, protocols, and principles in Music therapy is a river of great strength and commitment. We cannot deny the ontological significance of being and presence of all living things.

The Field of Play is not a theory about how to do. Rather it is a theory about how to be and how to notice shifts in particular states of consciousness and fields of existence—shifts that carry us along the currents and tides of the great river. It challenges our perception to notice these shifts while simultaneously following our prescribed systems or techniques of practice in music therapy, our layers of abstract theories, our cultural mandates, and our personal and professional ethical codes.

In a sustained program of research, one carries core ideas from one discovery process and time to the next. The primary bridge between the Mythic Artery and The Field of Play is ecology. As human beings, we are bioregions, just as the earth we inhabit. In these bioregions we have conditions just like any other living thing on this earth. Our beings are in a state of dynamic flux. Elements of our being are dying and being reborn constantly. Music is one of the sensory elements that permeate our consciousness to ground us in this ecology. In the Field of Play we experience the interplay between these essential components of our existence: our senses/body and our consciousness/mind, heart, and soul.

What does it mean to participate in an ecology of being in music therapy? There are no standard answers here. The answer to this question is only found by finding your place on the river, by returning to a kind of Aboriginal continuity in which we do not separate ourselves from one another and the Earth through categories of existence. Such an approach requires elements of complexity. Being aware of our own being in a deep and meaningful way must accompany myriad sets of concrete practices in our discipline, our profession.

We Are All Connected

In traditional societies, there are three mechanisms that serve as containers and guides to the spiritual principle of interdependence. These mechanisms nurture an attitude that embraces the principle of interconnectivity. They are ceremony, ritual, and play. Though technology has offered us a bounty of solutions to human problems, we must ask the question what have we given up in return? This question is thoroughly explored by Jose Arguëlles (1975). Arguëlles frames the dilemma as a continuum—technological advance on the one hand, and Aboriginal continuity on the other. His concern is that we are losing our sense of Aboriginal continuity in the face of our rapid technological advancements. As we enter this part of my text, it is important to remember that all people have tribal roots. Modern Indigenous peoples represent this tribal identity. But is there a possibility of re-membering the essential spiritual principle of the interdependence of all things embedded in our ancient tribal memory? Are we here to control or to sustain and be with?

Music therapists have an opportunity to explore these questions by embodying an attitude of ceremony, ritual, and play in our practice. Kenneth Bruscia approached this issue through his 1995 text on modes of consciousness while reflecting on the notion of being there: “It seems significant that we describe the experience as a way of being rather than a mode of doing or having. Moreover, this way of being seems to be spatial rather than temporal” (Bruscia, 1995, p. 167).

I begin my music therapy sessions the night before I see patients and clients through imagining them. They come to occupy my heart, mind, soul, and very being. I appreciate their beauty, their specific qualities, their human conditions, their musical preferences, the colors they like, the shape and tone of their bodies. Thus I enter a sacred space well before we begin our formal session. Perhaps I dream about them. My preparations begin in the night.

This preparation brings me into a ceremonial attitude. My being is permeated with ceremony.

Once we begin our session, I trust that the ritual forms will emerge. Perhaps my patient will begin with a familiar tonality or rhythm. Or they may begin with silence. In any case, I am always anticipating the rituals – the repeatable forms will constitute our musical expressions. After all, in the field of play these rituals make space for innovations, for new opportunities to expand our beauty and our wholeness. All the while, we play. Winnicott (1971) claims that play is the one human activity that provides the most opportunity for authenticity. Could it be that through playing, we find the depth of ourselves, those hidden crevices of being that are too afraid to be experienced in any other time?

Answering Raven’s Call to Play

In fact, Raven teased the humans into existence through his playful song. The myth goes that tiny humans were hiding in a giant clamshell on the beach, afraid to come into being. Raven was flying around and flying around. Then he saw the clamshell and heard their sighs. He landed on top of the shell and began to sing to these little creatures. Gradually, they emerged from their hiding place in the clamshell to become human beings. Maybe music therapists can be like Raven. And even more significantly, maybe music therapists can access that part of our patients and clients that is Raven, too. Perhaps our patients and clients can learn to play of their own accord.

Forgive me for asking so much. Yes, yes, in addition to our music therapy sessions, we have charts to fill, instruments to store, meetings to attend, articles to read, trainings to take. We have more and more layers of responsibility as health professionals. All of these responsibilities are very important. How can I ask you to also take the time to just be? Yet, how can we not? And how can we not be a part of the great river that flows connecting all things? Arguelles’ aboriginal continuity is for everyone. Ken Aigen (1991) offers an example of our dilemma on the continuum between technological advance and aboriginal continuity:

Once, flying over the American Midwest, I was struck by the contrast between the straight and direct lines of the man made plowed fields, and the curved, indirect meanderings of the rivers crossing these fields. My initial reaction was to denigrate the linear, “shortest distance between two points,” logically produced lines, and to elevate the “natural,” curved lines that seemed to flow the whims of the river, unguided by any utilitarian purpose.
Yes, I soon realized that the lines described by the flow of the rivers were themselves guided by an inner logic, and remembered that geologist have actually devised formulae for describing the various curves and paths of rivers. The river is also guided by logic, though it is not a logic that is inflexibly direct and rigid, but instead, follows, helps to shape and mutually transform the contours of the land in which the river flows. (p. 44)

We each have different ways of nurturing our attitudes. And if we are to nurture an attitude of ceremony, ritual, and play, there will be myriad ways to cultivate these three important elements. The essential question is how do we come to a greater awareness of just being? And in an ecology of being, our second question must be how do we come to a greater awareness of the principle of the interconnectivity between all things?

For the most part, we no longer have the concrete tribal mechanisms of ceremony, ritual, and play, as enacted in ancient times. But many people do have these mechanisms planted in their daily lives. So this is where the awareness begins. Some music therapists have a meditation practice. And, surely, this is an excellent way of honoring one’s being-ness, as well as a good way to practice the principle of interconnectivity. For others, there may be the simple acts of bringing greater awareness to entering a room, arranging instruments, greeting a patient in a certain way. In a sense, these are modern ceremonies.

Once we begin our sessions, we can anticipate the rituals, the repeatable forms of gesture, sounds, rhythm, color, shape, timbre, texture, silence, and all of the elements of aesthetic engagement. As music therapists, we know so well those patterns and forms. These are the maps that guide our practice.

How about play? Perhaps this is an area that we do not reserve only for our patients. We must play ourselves as human beings. Play is core to our existence not only as human beings, but also as whole systems like cultures. This point was made so clearly by Dutch scholar, John Huizinga (1955) who claimed that play transcends the immediate needs of life and brings meaning to actions. Huizinga understood the importance of aesthetics and indicated that the only category that we can link to play is the aesthetic because it tends to assume important elements of beauty. In our playfulness, we find our authenticity, innovation, enjoyment, pleasure, and joy. If we are playful beings, we exude our playfulness in our experiences with patients not only in the music, but also in our very being.

Now is the time to remember old Walker Stogan. His face was very brown and full of wrinkles. How could he stare at the river so long before answering my question? What did he see down there in the water? Maybe he saw the movement of life because he was still enough to become part of it. He embodied an ecology of being, an embodiment that I have seen in many Native elders. And now that I am getting there myself, perhaps I can, too.


I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the help of my colleagues Ken Bruscia, Ken Aigen, Brian Abrams, Barbara Wheeler, Shannon Venable, and Jane Edwards in crafting this text.


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