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In Memoriam: Carolyn Kenny

October 31, 2017 10:36 AM

Music Therapy Community Mourns the Death of Music Therapist and Author

Carolyn Kenny passed away on October 15, 2017. Carolyn had a tremendous impact on music therapists and others around the world through her writing, presentations, and in-person supervision and teaching.  She had great skill as a mentor for many music therapists, many of whom are prominent writers, researchers, educators, and clinicians. Her work and life ripple out to continue to impact this field. Tributes on social media sites have made this impact very clear. Many of those who wrote have described Carolyn as the most important influence in their music therapy life. Carolyn’s son and daughter, grandchildren, and brother, as well as untold numbers of music therapists around the world, miss her and value the contributions of her life.

Carolyn is well known for The Field of Play, which introduced a theoretical framework that afforded new possibilities in thinking and acting for music therapy researchers, scholars, and practitioners. In this seminal work, Carolyn introduced general systems theory and field theory to describe the complex, reflexive interplay of therapist and client in the “music space.”  In this improvisational space the “aesthetic” of the client and the therapist are  each transformed. The Field of Play has informed and influenced research and practice for generations of music therapists.

Carolyn wrote about herself for the book, Profiles in Creativity, edited by Joseph Moreno and published by Barcelona Publishers. What she wrote has been cut and adapted here to tell about her in her own words:

My earliest musical memory is my Choctaw mother singing a Choctaw lullaby to me while she rocked me to sleep. My father was very musical. In 2000, Haida elder Dorothy Bell adopted me into the Eagle Clan of the Haida Nation. As a participant in my village of Masset in the Haida Gwaii in Canada, I have been blessed to have many wonderful experiences that included music and the arts. I loved music, dance, and writing and to be immersed in my studies at an early age.

I was drawn to music as therapy because I experienced the deep healing potential of music myself and initially saw it in volunteer work in the Cancer Home at age 16. It was a spontaneous vocation. In fact, I really rejected the idea of music therapy when I first heard about it, because it seemed that this “profession” did not have much in common with my sense of what music therapy was or could be.

I first heard about a formal profession called “music therapy” when I was an undergraduate student at Loyola University in New Orleans. I was taking my degree in history and philosophy with a minor in journalism. Yet I continued my studies in voice and piano. This meant that I would use the music practice rooms in the basement of the music building on most nights. Coincidentally, I made friends with some of the music therapy students who also practiced there. They encouraged me to switch my program of study and to transfer into the music therapy program.

My formal music therapy studies included two years as a student at Loyola University and Delgado College taking the courses I needed to get my RMT credential. I was able to study music therapy with Charles Braswell, which was a valuable experience for me. Through Dr. Braswell, I got a sense of a very fun-loving, supportive community. We rarely agreed on anything, but we developed an impressive respect for one another as people. He gave me the space to develop my studies in a much broader way than the required program allowed.

Bill Sears was a big influence on me. I knew him for such a short time. But I felt that our connection was very important. Another important friend and mentor was José Argüelles, whom I had the great privilege to know over a period of about three years. Both Bill and José were interested in systems thinking. This encouraged me to study systems thinking. These two men came at systems thinking in entirely different ways. And both were fascinating to me. In my doctoral studies, I had a lust for systems thinking and used this school of thought at the basis of most of my learning areas.

Barbara Hesser has been an important person for me in the music therapy world. Her ability to create community and her sense of community impressed me a great deal. I would have left the field of music therapy in 1981 had it not been for Barbara Hesser. In her own mysterious way, she pulled me in and offered an alternative way of being in the field which was so much more intimate and substantive. She invited me to gatherings that actually meant something to me. The people she gathered represented broad ideas, which were inspiring and creative.

In 1982, once again because of one of Barbara Hesser’s gatherings—the 1982 Symposium on Music in the Life of Man at New York University—I met another very important person for me. This was Even Ruud. After 1982 and over a span of about 25 years, Even and I have had good conversations about our shared areas of interest, which have been accompanied by a friendship that has reached out across many miles. The fact that we shared interests not only in music therapy, but also in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and cultural studies, has made our relationship unique, because we can be interdisciplinarians together in the same fields. This is very rich.

I think I am working primarily in the area of aesthetic experience. Quite often I combine the arts in my work. Music is primary. But that is mainly because music is primary for me. Because I am trained in several fields, I feel comfortable in selecting what works best for the patient or client. This includes verbal methods. However, I always feel that my verbal methods are best when I employ metaphors and symbols, such as in prose or poetry or story. However, my greatest love is music. For many years, my favorite method was musical improvisation. Still, spontaneous music-making holds a special place for me because one can really feel life being created in these musical experiences. They are so powerful. Because I was drawn to spontaneous improvisation as a child, I think I know its territory. I know how this method can alleviate suffering, can help one to feel the creative instinct from within.

Honestly, I have to say that the methods I use are invented and discovered in the moment. I can’t say that I have learned them from anyone in particular, although I share similar methods with other music therapists, for example, GIM or Nordoff-Robbins. I did not learn them in my music therapy training. But I like the challenge of having to invent new things. And the patients inspire me to do this, just by the uniqueness of their conditions. I think that this is a function of creative intuition and listening to the needs. I am most happy with my work when I can create something unique and spontaneous for my clients and students inspired by their immediate conditions.

The most significant personal contributions have been my clinical work. I have worked with so many people over the years, and in most cases I can honestly say that I have offered them something, whether great or small, for their own creative development. I also believe that I have been able to offer something to students—many students in Canada, the States, Europe, Japan, and South America. I have offered some interesting models and programs for educating music therapists, starting with the original program at Capilano College, then the pilot graduate program at Antioch University, and finally the graduate program at Open University in Vancouver.

It is my hope that my work in theory will offer something to the overall field of music therapy. I think that some people have benefited from this work already. But it takes many years to develop theoretical ideas. I think that it offers something unique and something that is really about nonverbal therapy. The two basic principles of my theory are that music is an energy system and that music therapy is a field of loving and creating. My understanding is related to the New Physics because of its focus on conditions and relationships. But my model is also phenomenological because it is based entirely on my own direct experience in clinical music therapy.

Carolyn’s influence as a teacher was broad and deep. She taught at many institutions in the U.S. and Canada. She started (along with Nancy McMaster) the music therapy program at Capilano College/University in Vancouver, BC, the first music therapy program in Canada; and initiated the MMT program at British Columbia Open University, Vancouver, BC. She was Professor of Human Development and Indigenous Studies in Antioch University’s PhD program in Leadership and Change from 2003 to 2014, from which she received the designation of Professor Emeritus. She also was a tenured associate professor in First Nations Education/Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University from 1997 to 2002, and was involved in research at the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. She guest lectured in Europe, the U. S., Japan, South America, and Canada.

Carolyn was also involved in funded projects with Aboriginal women in Canada and Arts Revitalization in New Zealand and had a role in Truth and Reconciliation processes in Canada between First Nations groups, the Government, and faith groups.

Carolyn was the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief with Brynjulf Stige of Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, the first music therapy open-access journal, and is a past editor of the Canadian Journal of Music Therapy.  She held lifetime memberships for outstanding service in many Canadian music therapy professional associations.

A memorial service will be held for Carolyn in Santa Barbara, CA, on December 9. Contributions to a memorial for Carolyn, supporting the music therapy program that she helped to establish in the Palliative/Hospice Care program at Serenity House in Santa Barbara can be made through



Authored by Barbara Wheeler with input from Terra Merrill, Susan Summer, and Alpha Woodward, includes autobiographical material written by Carolyn Kenny.  Material from The Lives of Music Therapists: Profiles in Creativity, Vol. 1, edited by J. J. Moreno, 2017, used with permission of Barcelona Publishers.