[Columns and Essays]

The Social Currency of Imagination: The Arts in Leading Change

By Alpha M Woodward


A personal reflection of how aesthetic and/or artistic abilities offer resilience for social change and personal transformational experiences.

Keywords: music therapy; imagination; social transformation; social currency; courage

‘So…this is it’, I thought miserably, as I kicked at the tire of my car willing it to produce my missing key. I had felt the comfort of it in my pocket for most of my trek up Lough Derg – but now it had simply vanished. When did it leave my pocket? Both hands had been stuffed deeply in both pockets for most of the trek. Irrational thoughts pervaded reason. I am a Canadian with an outsider’s notion of Irish folklore, and in avoiding the blame for this mysterious loss I considered the whimsical idea of little people sneaking it out of my pocket. Didn’t Sherlock Holmes say – ‘when everything possible has been tried, then the improbable is the only answer left?’ Dusk was close – reason returned and I considered my options. I called a taxi and scoured the mountain area where I had trekked so jubilantly just hours before. Upon returning to my car with no key to show for the cost of the taxi – there was my key, resting on the top of the very tire I had kicked 20 minutes earlier.

The charm of my experience becomes a muse for writing. I am later reminded of the usefulness of absence brought to life in the jungle imagery of Ibottsen’s (2006) Illusion of Leadership. Ibottsen is a theatre director and understands the potency of space, time, and absence when filling a blank canvas – or empty stage. He takes me from my mountaintop experience to ponder metaphors from the jungle and what this might have to do with music therapy. My proclivity for integrating disparate concepts is excited by the problem of giraffness, the primacy of lions, and the significance of absence in theatre direction. Space - time – absence – elemental for survival in the jungle and pivotal for human and planetary evolution on a larger scale—are quite possibly the basis for creativity in the artist.

For Ibottsen, the presence or absence of a ‘thing’ in art functions creative potency. Art (as in life) is always in the state of becoming. The problem with giraffes is that they are unfinished in their evolutionary path, but humans are aware of their incompleteness and thus their moral obligation to continually improve the human condition (Freire, 1998). Artists make choices along the way to suspend the process in certain ways, or to develop it – by being present or by being absent – collapsing time, or expanding it. Active or inactive; there, or not there, it has an affect on the space around it, and the ‘the nature of something behaves differently because of it’ (Woodward, 2015). We can see this in the environments in which we work—especially in institutional settings where absence of an aesthetic invites despair, anger, and withdrawal (Woodward, 2004). But silence – or the absence of sound – becomes a therapeutic device for music therapists, inviting something new to emerge into the music space (Kenny, 1989). When lions sleep, some animal or another might live another day, give birth, or become another’s meal because of it. Ibottsen connects jungle life to the stage, where the theatre experience is ultimately affected by the presence and absence of the characters that move in and out of the play. But the point to be made, is that the mechanism that makes the disparate connection from a missing key to theatrical experiences, institutional behaviours and the moral and incarnate evolution of humankind – is the unfettered imagination – the creative, therapeutic potency on which we depend as music therapists.

I began with the vignette because it is one of many charming, and not so charming, adventures I have had while working as a music therapist in different landscapes and cultures in Northern Europe, the Balkans, and Canada. In 2004, I took a leave of absence from a full time position as a music therapist in a large hospital complex in Vancouver and turned to humanitarian development aid in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for the charity Warchild. For the next 4 years, I worked with children and youth who had been traumatized by the Balkan wars in the early 1990s.

The author playing guitar with a child.
Figure 1. We All Live Under The Same Sun. © Alpha Woodward. Permission to use generously granted by the parents.

Optimistic altruism, meaningful engagement, and a peculiar patience with confusion and complexity carried me forward in those days. Over time, the reality of death, war, and human conflict, shaped these altruistic and aesthetic sensibilities into a more pragmatic idealism. These experiences have changed me in profound ways. It is not possible to look into the face of mass grief and not be affected at deep levels. When I returned to Canada in 2008 I entered a doctoral program in Leadership and Change to explore how aesthetic sensibilities and the arts are integral to humankind’s transitional experiences—and have been throughout history—in potent ways.

Over the next 6 years my imagination was informed by new frameworks, doctoral residencies, and heavy tomes on leadership and change theories -- balanced with a more existential philosophic question to confound it all --‘does this matter’? Well – yes it did. It mattered to me. But to qualify as a doctoral study, it needed to make sense ‘out there’ in my community of peers. I continued to reflect, write, and immerse myself in how change and leadership mattered to me as a music therapist – as a leader, as a foreign citizen, and as a humanitarian. Leadership can be elusive—a theoretical labyrinth of viewpoints and debates when it is intellectualized. Change, however, is another matter. Change is life. And it occurs to me that artists accept this. Artists make their living by moving, painting, playing, drawing, singing, and writing about internal transitional forces. Artists have the courage to face these dilemmas and to make them palpable. I can’t imagine a world without artists. There would be no evolution, no creativity, no vitality – no life, at all. There would be no mythopoeic consciousness, and quite possibly, no attunement to a higher sense of morality. I mean this concretely. It is only art that makes sense of what we do—that gives meaning to what we do. While the polity of life seems to give us direction and provide a rationale for rules and regulations, it is art that makes change possible—life livable. Art oxygenates life. I saw this in Bosnia and Herzegovina over and over.

Ellen Dissanayake (1995) who wrote Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why postulates that humankind has evolved through its ability to imagine, to create, and to work in synchronized ways. It is not so much about being the fittest, the biggest, or the fastest – but about being the most imaginative. Dissanayake is persuasive in her views. It is not so illogical to consider there may be an aesthetic gene that hides in our DNA—hardwired into human evolution. She postulated that art is not only the reason for bringing people together, but it is also the aesthetic mechanism of doing art—artistic behavior-- that makes it possible for us to work together. I am very much intrigued by Dissanyake’s intellectual hypothesis of an artistic gene. It provides a robust rationale for the work that I do, namely, music therapy. Music is a unique resource for both my client and myself. If this basic essentiality were not so, the use of music would make no sense at all. But Dissanyake’s work led me to reflect how our aesthetic sensibilities intimately connect us to our environment as well as determine how we may behave artistically throughout our lifetime (Woodward, 2002).

So I turn to my perceptive, aesthetic self as something I can trust. It is fed by all of the senses—hearing, touch, sight, and the temporal experience of these. And I love that I have an imagination that allows me to consider little people sneaking off with my keys and providing excellent mischief. It makes life a little more palatable against the paradox of rational thought—and a little more interesting.

But the aesthetic within us has social currency in a more serious world. In 1992 while many of us went about our own business, Serbian snipers opened fire in the market place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, killing 22 people who waited in line for their water ration. A few days later a solitary figure dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a cello, sat down in the middle of the nearby shattered, bombed-out National Library and played Albinoni’s riveting and soulful “Adagio in G”. He played while sharp shooting Serbian snipers terrifyingly and methodically shot at anything and everything around him. But every day for 22 days he came back to that same spot and played the same Adagio for each of those who had been gunned down. Vedran Smailovic, a cellist, struck a universal chord for sanity and inspiration while the rest of us watched—impotent—helpless—against the unconscionable madness. On November 16, 2014, the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance welcomed Smailovic to play the closing finale performance for Convocation20’s ‘Artist as Citizen’. Smailovic played from the heart a very moving performance of Nigel Osborne’s Adagio for Sarajevo--composed specifically for Smailovic and hand-delivered to him by Osborne in the midst of the Balkan war. The standing ovation Smailovic received that day was not just a testament to the moving power of the music, but it also paid respect to the stand he took as a musician in the blood-soaked Sarajevo market over 20 years ago.

Aesthetic altruism may have social currency, but sometimes it comes at great cost. Smailovic, himself, has not benefited by his act of courage. But his conduit, the cello, told the world there was courage, dignity, and moral fibre in the artist’s soul—as much as there was defiance and despair. For no other reason than to express his grief and outrage, Smailovic played for humanity, and the world listened.

The arts, especially the creative arts therapies, have long been effective in peace-building and social transformation in post conflict societies, but are largely under-researched (Woodward, 2012). In my paper that considered 27 empirical studies, it became apparent that it was art or music that sustained one’s courage and humanity in the face of very difficult circumstances. From using art as a means of existential and moral survival in a prison camp, to the social reconstruction of an entire country, I am reminded of Freire’s (1998) concientization of humankind. But I believe he may have understated the role of hope and how art engenders this. In my work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, music not only formed a metaphoric bridge across the cultural schism, it buffered one’s humanity through the soul-deep wounds of war and the confusion of culture shock. Music sustained me in those difficult years, and reminded me of humanity’s goodness.

Guitar players in a street marked by the war
Figure 2. Sarajevo’s Lost Innocents: The Children of Bosnia Under Fire. Retrieved from http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0405/remember_sarajevo.pdf © Roger M. Richards. Used with permission.

But change—where profound and prolonged shock has betrayed and fragmented one’s internal geography—does not come easily. Freire (1998) said that if we wish something to be something else, then our humanity compels us to be involved—to struggle. Conflict and diversity will be part of the struggle, but we cannot stand by and do nothing. I will add an important caveat that we cannot shepherd change for others, if we are not also servant to our own personal transformation along the way.

It is to this point that I found myself teaching in Ireland in the Masters of Arts in Music Therapy program at the University of Limerick. What I bring to life in my teaching is optimism and faith that students are called to this work – already persuaded at some level to participate in transformative learning experiences. In different stages of life, they appear at the academic doorstep ready to stretch themselves out of their comfortable cocoons in which they have inhabited. If this were not so, they would not commit themselves to 2 years of intense learning that requires them to dig deeply into themselves and to shift how they use music to enhance the health and well being of others. It is about content, theory, knowledge, and clinical competence—learning how to use music as a change agent in the service of others. Given that each student is ready to accept profound change in their relationship to music, I, as a teacher, must be comfortable with, and aware of, the dynamics of change, and what that might be for each student. It is my own legacy of being a humanitarian and a music therapist that allows me to understand this and to apply it in the classroom.

But staying open to new possibilities and ways of thinking becomes increasingly difficult in a global media-savvy world that has become dark, suspicious and paranoiac about its own humanity. We either acquiesce to these dark messages, or we move to the light and consider the lunacy of other possibilities. It is not complex. We don’t have to face a labyrinth of leadership theory, or face snipers as Smailovic did. But perhaps stretching toward the improbable provides a concrete answer in improbable ways. Perhaps the key will turn up when least expected when we kick a few tires, pay the taxi-man, or explore the hillsides. Most of all we must heed the aesthetic imagination—the answer is always there, somewhere. As aesthetic agents of change, we can be as quiet or as noisy as need be—but it still takes courage to walk that path.


Dissanayake, E. (1995). Homo aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ibbotsen, P. (2008). The illusion of leadership: Directing creativity in business and the arts. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kenny, C. B. (1989). The field of play: A guide for the theory and practice of music therapy. Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview.

Woodward, A. (2004). Finding the client in their environment: A systems approach to music therapy programming. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 4(2). doi: 10.15845/voices.v4i2.183

Woodward, A. (2012). Arts-based practices in regions affected by war. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 12(2). doi: 10.15845/voices.v12i2.633

Woodward, Alpha M. (2015). Tapestry of tears: An autoethnography of leadership, personal transformation, and music therapy in humanitarian aid in Bosnia Herzegovina. Dissertations & Theses. Paper 192. http://aura.antioch.edu/etds/192