[Original Voices: Story]

Reflection on the GIM Level I Training

By Yumiko Sato


“When I close my eyes and listen to music, images come to me. And they take me to a place where I feel open in a way I never felt before,” said Rick, dying from lung cancer at the age of 59. I never suggested or encouraged Rick to use imagery while listening to music, yet it seemed to come to him naturally and spontaneously. During the course of music therapy that lasted nearly a year, Rick, who had kept his feelings inside throughout his life became a man whose heart was open to sharing his feelings. To witness his transformation was humbling and mystifying at the same time. I thought to myself: How did music and imagery transform Rick? The answer came while attending The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery & Music (GIM) Level I training. During the four intense days filled with powerful imagery, vivid dreams, and new insights, I began to understand the power of music and imagery Rick experienced.

All identifying information has been changed to protect patient confidentiality.


“When I close my eyes and listen to your music, images come to me. And they take me to a place where I feel open in a way I never felt before” said, Rick, dying from lung cancer at the age of 59. Rick asked me to sing Japanese songs in every session. He said that they helped him relax because he didn’t understand Japanese. I never suggested or encouraged Rick to use imagery while listening to music, yet it seemed to come to him naturally and spontaneously. He said, “Sometimes I lie at the foot of Mt. Fuji when I listen to you sing Japanese songs. Other times I’m near a beautiful stream. Then I feel relaxed, and I can talk to you about things I’ve kept inside for so long and let no one see.”

During the course of music therapy that lasted nearly a year, Rick, who had kept his feelings inside throughout his life, began to share his feelings with me - his regret and sadness over his estranged daughter, his anger toward his alcoholic father, and his gratitude for his family and those who took care of him. By the end of his life, Rick was a different man. He connected to parts of himself he had not been in touch with before. It was clear that music and the spontaneously evoked imagery contributed to Rick’s transformation, but I didn’t fully understand how this occurred.

Over the last 10 years of my work as a hospice music therapist, I’ve encountered a number of occasions in which my patients reported having imagery while listening to live music during our sessions: Such imagery may consist of scenery, color, deceased loved ones and pets, or vivid memories. It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of music it is. Music seems to elicit imagery in some patients without my intention to do so. And such experiences often become a turning point in therapy where the rapport between the patient and me is strengthen and the patient begins to connect with who he/she is as it happened with Rick. I’ve come to realize that spontaneously evoked imagery is quite a common experience among hospice patients during music therapy sessions. Yet, I never felt comfortable enough to explore these experiences, because of my lack of training in this area. After the encounter with Rick, I realized I needed to learn more about the relationship between music and imagery and its effect on a person so that I could develop anappropriate approach to my patients’ experiences.

In the fall of 2013, a year after Rick’s death, I attended the GIM Level I training at the American Music Therapy Association conference in St. Charles, Illinois. The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) is a specialized area of music therapy in which a trained therapist uses specially sequenced classical music to guide a client into imagery experiences. I went there to explore the power of music and imagery first-hand. Even though what I had done with Rick and other patients was not GIM, I thought that the GIM training would give me insights into their experiences, and that the best way to gain skills in this area was to experience it for myself and to learn from GIM trainers.

There were twelve participants who came from all over the world to attend the training. The trainers were Fran Goldberg and Louis Dimiceli-Mitran, both experienced and gifted practitioners. On the first day they told us that the focus of the four-day training was self-exploration through music and imagery. I was a little nervous about that, but their presence reassured me that whatever happened would be okay.

On the third day of the training I experienced GIM as a traveler (in GIM the client is called a “traveler” and the therapist a “guide”). Lying on a blanket on the floor, I closed my eyes and followed the induction. By the time the music began, I felt very relaxed. Soon after that my imagery began, and I encountered a crowd of dead people - my deceased family members and my former patients including Rick. As I looked around, they were all smiling. I felt tremendous energies that surrounded me to provide protection and guidance. As the music changed, the dead turned into colorful birds. “We’re dead, but we’re still with you.” The birds spoke in unison. Tears of gratitude started to flow, gratitude for their continued presence in my life. When the music changed again, the birds merged into one and became a large white crane. I was left with a powerful feeling that all those who had died were still with me.

Afterwards we shared our experiences as a group. Someone asked if I thought that the crane came to my imagery because of its symbolic meaning in Japanese culture. I thought that was a possibility, since a crane could be a symbol of peace and gratitude in my culture. But it was only after returning home that I realized the real meaning of the crane: While talking to my parents about my imagery, it occurred to me that tsuru, a Japanese word for a crane, was the name of my grandmother who had died 3 months before. I learned that on the week I was taking the GIM training, my family in Japan was gathering for houji, a ceremony to honor the 100th day after her death. In the Buddhist tradition, it is believed that the dead remains on earth for the first 100 days and then departs this world for the next. Even though I wasn’t consciously aware of my grandmother’s houji at the time of my GIM experience, I might have been connecting to this significant event on an unconscious level through GIM. In the last scene I viewed, the crane rose up to the sky, circled above me, and flew away. I now understand that the crane symbolized my grandmother’s departure for the next journey.

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This mandala was drawn shortly after the GIM experience. The spirals represent the energies of the dead who turned into colorful birds. The crane shown in the upper left corner symbolizes Grandmother Tsuru’s spirit.

On the last day of the training I suddenly experienced something completely new and unexpected: It was a deep sense of knowing that everything I saw - trees, a river, a squirrel, strangers, and I were deeply related. It was as if we were different organisms springing out from one giant root. We looked different above the ground, but underneath the root connected us all. Then I felt a sense of judgment toward myself and others melting away, because there was no use for judgment in a state where everything was one. I felt an overwhelming sense of connectedness, peace, and openness. This incredible state lasted only half a day, but the experience had such a powerful impact that it began to change my perspective about the world around me and my existence in it.

It was four intense days filled with colorful imagery, vivid dreams, and new insights. I was surprised by how easily and naturally imagery came to me and by the depth of meaning it carried. Seeing my dead family members and my former patients during GIM gave me great comfort in knowing that they were still with me in some form. It was also a reminder of how much grief I carried as a hospice music therapist who also experienced personal losses in recent years. Through GIM I felt connected to the unconscious parts of myself, a transformative experience that deepened my understanding of music and imagery.

The training also provided valuable knowledge that informed my work and helped me understand the imagery experiences reported by my patients: I learned that imagery could include things such as memories, thoughts, and feelings, and that a client may not understand the meaning of the imagery until much later as it was the case with my imagery of the crane. I also learned how different components of music might elicit imagery and how carefully music was selected for GIM. For instance, when a vocal piece is used, a guide needs to make sure that it is sung in a language that the client doesn’t understand. It seems that if a client knows the language, he or she will pay attention to the words, which may interfere with the imagery experience. This information helped me understand why Rick always asked me to sing in Japanese, not in English. He said that Japanese songs brought imagery to him because he didn’t understand the language.

Music could evoke imagery and have a profound impact on a person in a variety of ways – as it happened during both Rick’s treatment and the GIM training, even though the methods were different. With the knowledge and the experiences gained through the training, I now feel much more comfortable in supporting my patients’ imagery with the understanding that my skill in this area is still limited (To practice GIM, one must complete GIM Level III). Perhaps most importantly, I can now relate to what my patients are experiencing when imagery arises and understand the possible impact such experiences could have on them.

Three months have passed since the training, and I can still feel the effect of it on both personal and professional levels. There is a sense that something is beginning to change and grow within myself. And as it turned out, growth and evolution are the symbolic meanings of the spiral, many of which are found in my mandala drawing. What has also come out of this experience for me is a sense of wonder and awe at the power of music and the inner wisdom of psyche. It has opened me up to new ways of thinking, giving, and receiving. Perhaps that’s the way Rick felt, too. I’m reminded of what he said shortly before his death: “It’s the music that takes me to a place where I feel open in a way I never felt before.”


This story was written in memory of Professor Michael McGuire who supported the study of music psychotherapy through the establishment of the Florence Tyson Grant.


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Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy (ISSN 1504-1611)