As an educator in the field of Music Therapy, I have found myself constantly—and gratefully—moved by a diverse array of music genres. Whether it is through the passion for popular music by female artists such as Sia, Alicia Keys, Brandi Carlile, Florence + The Machine, and Yola to use my voice and sing at the top of my lungs; the grounding tones of Nina Simone, Bear and a Banjo, and Hozier; the sense of freedom of movement and expression demonstrated by Lizzo, Khalid, Lorde, and Bishop Briggs; or the internal exploration of unconscious material through the use of carefully chosen classical composers, I have nothing but continually growing respect for the diverse nature of music. For this paper, I have chosen to approach this topic by sharing a personal experience for two reasons: One, to model the importance of receiving therapeutic care for those in middle adulthood and above; and two, to share in the advocacy of mental health that has been modeled for me repeatedly by students in their early 20s who are willing to speak about their personal experiences to promote the growth of themselves and others. I will focus specifically on Wagner’s Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 1, for its unique and sustaining impact on my personal understanding of self-love. However, it should be known that this piece was preceded—and thus influenced—by four other well-known pieces by Beethoven, Vivaldi, Bach, and Faure within a specifically designed music program created by musician and music therapist Helen Bonny while receiving a therapeutic session using the Guided Imagery and Music technique.

Helen Bonny is the creator and founder of the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (BMGIM), a form of depth psychology that focuses on the use of specifically chosen and created music programs to explore unconscious material within a person’s

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psyche. The music programs themselves are created by experienced BMGIM therapists, or “guides,” and go through a testing process to ensure their efficacy before being implemented with clients, or “travelers.” The BMGIM method must only be implemented by a credentialed therapist, who has achieved at least a Master’s degree in a related therapeutic field and completed the minimum four-year supervised training in BMGIM. The typical format of a BMGIM session includes a preliminary conversation in which the guide acquires the necessary information with which to choose from one of the many pre-designed music programs for the client’s self-exploration. The therapist then provides a brief relaxation induction for the client to settle more deeply and comfortably into the therapeutic space. This relaxation is quite important to the process of the BMGIM, as it lessens the likelihood of the traveler analyzing their imagery/experience as it occurs during the music. Once the traveler has entered a relaxed state, the guide begins the music program. The music program is typically around 30-45 minutes in length, during which the client reports images they are experiencing as they arise, and the therapist responds in a way to encourage further exploration and engagement with the imagery. Imagery can and often does include all the senses: visual, olfactory, kinesthetic, emotional, and taste. Once the music has come to a close, both client and therapist have the opportunity to process the imagery experience together through art, music, movement, and/or verbal therapy (Bonny, 2002).

The music programs themselves are numerous and varied in their intentions. Bonny began creating these music programs in the 1970s. Some programs were created to elicit relaxation, emotional support, and a sense of groundedness, while others were designed as “working” programs, meaning they provided space for the traveler to explore deeper emotional wounding and relational conflict. Within these working programs, the traveler has the opportunity to work through and strengthen the psyche, find closure, empower the self, and so on. Additionally, she created programs that focused on spiritual development and explored the transpersonal for the more experienced travelers (Bonny, 2002). While Bonny is credited with creating no less than a dozen music programs, experienced BMGIM practitioners have gone on to create upwards of 100 programs and counting (Grocke, 2019).

The personal account for this paper occurred around my 30th BMGIM session, having expressed a desire to explore generational

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trauma: Specifically, I was concerned with feelings of low self-worth. Despite my cognitive understanding that there was no “logical” explanation for feeling this way—I had a fulfilling job, a beautiful family, and strong relationships with my friends—I could not shake this emotional feeling of unworthiness. I had been doing some research on generational trauma after reading Resmaa Menakem’s 2017 book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. I was curious if there was something deeper influencing these feelings. That said, I should note that I am writing and exploring generational trauma through the lens of a cisgender, able-bodied White woman, and understand that no matter my experience, it in no way compares to the personal, emotional, mental, and systemic trauma that has been and continues to be experienced by generations of Black women (and men) today.

By this session, my guide felt that I was ready for a transpersonal program, one that could allow for a “bigger picture” for personal exploration. She chose a music program designed for spiritual/transpersonal/rebirth opportunities titled “Peak Experience.” Throughout each piece, there is an underlying feeling of love that magnifies as the program progresses (Bonny, 2002). For the preservation of the programs—and the protection of each person’s psyche to not try this depth of personal imagery without the assistance of a trained Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) therapist—I will not list the titles of the other pieces within the program my GIM therapist used, but will include composer names.

During the opening Beethoven piece, the music allowed space for me to see both light and dark—or, my perceptions of my sense of worthiness and unworthiness—before providing an opportunity for my sense of worthiness to grow by integrating the light into my body. Once I was able to do this, I could feel the light’s love and power, strengthening me to better see the darkness around me—including what was hiding within it.

The next was a piece by Vivaldi. As my sense of worthiness grew, I became aware of the presence of my father (who is living at the time of this writing) and his father (who died nearly two decades ago). I was aware that my grandfather had a history of alcoholism and withholding of love, which wounded my father. Likely because of this, my father also experienced alcoholism and, I suspect, struggled with his feelings of self-worth. In my imagery during this piece of music, they both have their backs turned to

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each other and appear physically weak and defeated. I begin pleading with my father to tell me why he looks this way. I finally hug him and he turns into a little boy; he shows me a memory of himself looking through the window of a bar and watching my grandpa sitting alone drinking.

After that came a piece by Bach, and together my father—still a little boy—and I walk into the bar and approach my grandpa, who appears to be in his late 30s or 40s. My dad, surrounded by light, takes the alcohol out of my grandpa’s hand. My grandfather has no light, but when my dad climbs into his lap and hugs him, a soft light begins to grow in my grandpa’s belly. Together they walk out of the bar and I follow.

During a piece by Faure, my Grandpa leads us to an old farmhouse where he looks inside a window. As we watch, I realize we are witnessing my grandfather’s birth—it is heartbreaking because we know that his mother is about to die due to complications during this process, something that remains a significant wound to him his entire life. But in the imagery, his mother gets to hold him first: Both she and baby Grandpa are full of light. Then, her light begins to fade as she dies; he is given over to his father to hold, who has no light to offer his new son. As we watch from the window, my grandpa is on his knees, my dad’s boyhood arm is around his waist, and a light begins to grow in my grandpa’s chest. I am weeping through this piece.

Finally, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Prelude to Act 1, begins, and we watch as another woman enters the bedroom. I realize she is my Great-Grandmother Laurie, the woman who would become Grandpa’s stepmom within the first few years of his life. She is full of light, and the room radiates with it. We can feel it from outside the window. She sees us watching from outside and approaches, leans out the window, and wraps her arms around us: We all begin to radiate with this deep sense of love and light. She reminds us that we are all worthy to be loved, and with that comes a deep feeling of appreciation and connection with my roots, as well as an understanding of how these experiences can be passed down through our genetics.

In all truth, I have read the preceding paragraph countless times, and I still cannot convey with words the feeling of wonder and deep love that I felt not only as I was in the imagery and music, but for days afterward. While many months have passed since this

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experience, I can return to the memory of both the image and the feeling of love from my great-step-grandmother when those feelings of doubt begin to surface again regarding my self-worth.

As mentioned earlier, my awareness of generational trauma began with Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands, and my desire to understand and grow continued with Mark Wolynn’s It Didn’t Start with You (2017) and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score (2015). I encourage the readers of this article to pursue all of the above-mentioned books if any part of this writing resonates with you. Wolynn (2017) writes about how emotional trauma can be passed through our genetics for up to three generations and from the genetic code of mother, father, or both from the moment of conception. In this particular session, I was able to view it from the history of my father and his father. Van der Kolk (2015) also shares how trauma not only affects different parts of our brain but can get held—stuck even—in different parts of our body. Because of this, traumatic responses—fight, flight, freeze, or fawn—can be activated when we least expect it. Both authors also provide suggestions for working through these traumatic experiences, personal therapy being a primary resource for both.

Finally, while this article focused on classical music, it should not go unsaid that my journey of self-love, feelings of worthiness, and path of empowerment are from the combined use of multiple music styles. I highly encourage all educators, musicians, and you the reader, to remain curious and open to the music that is around you. Let it inform, enlighten, and guide you to a greater understanding of yourself, a greater understanding of those around you, and a greater respect and understanding for those who came before you.

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References:

  • Bonny, Helen L. (2002). In L. Summer (Ed.), Music and consciousness: The evolution of Guided Imagery and Music. Barcelona Publishers.
  • Grocke, Denise E. (2019). In D. E. Grocke (Ed.), Guided imagery and music: The Bonny method and beyond, Second Edition. Barcelona Publishers.
  • Menakem, Resmaa (2017). My grandmother’s hands: Racialized trauma and the pathway to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press.
  • Van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
  • Wolynn, Mark (2017). It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. Penguin Books.

Authors:

Katurah R. Christenbury

Katurah Christenbury, MMT, MT-BC, FAMI, teaches full-time at Appalachian State University as a Senior Lecturer within the Music Therapy department of the Hayes School of Music. She is also a Music Therapist, a Fellow of the Association of Music and Imagery, and is currently in training to receive certification in Vocal Psychotherapy. Formerly a foster parent, she and her partner reside in the mountains of North Carolina with their adored child. She can be reached via email at .

How to Cite This:

Christenbury, K. R. (2023). One educator’s journey of understanding generational trauma through classical composers. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 352-357.

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