An Interview with Bitesize Irish on learning the Irish language

I was interviewed in the Spring by Bitesize Irish Gaelic for their educational blog about setting goals for learning.  Here is the link to that entire post:

Bitesize: Where about in the world do you live?

Melinda: I live in the countryside near Hillsdale, NY, USA, which is a small village in a beautiful rural area of New York State bordering Massachusetts and the Berkshire Mountains. We are about 40 minutes south of Albany, NY (capital of NY State), 2.5 hrs drive north from New York City, and 3 hrs drive from Boston, MA to the east.

Bitesize: What got you wanting to speak Irish Gaelic?

Melinda: I was first exposed to Irish when I began studying the cláirseach (wire-strung harp) in 1987 with a very traditional teacher, working with the Bunting manuscript and other early Irish harp repertoire. During that time, I was also immersing myself in and studying the Irish myths and legends and other literature.

In 2006, I became a lay member a Gaelic-based monastic tradition that carries devotional chants and roscs in Old Irish, Middle Irish, Modern Irish, and Scots Gaelic as part of the practice and oral tradition. I know and sing many of these chants and began to feel the need and wish to understand the language more deeply as I took on responsibility as an elder. I’d thought of studying Scots Gaelic, as many of my colleagues were, but somehow it did not resonate so much with me.

Over the last five years, I’ve been drawn to studying sean nós singing, and especially the beautiful singing traditions of West Cork, as exemplified by the singing of Iarla Ó Lionáird; and of An Rinn. And the Munster dialect seemed particularly beautiful and accessible to me. I also began researching the home-places of my Irish great-grandparents in Munster, and decided in 2016 to seriously study an Gaeilge, because its beauty spoke to me deeply and felt like “home.”

Bitesize: Do you have Irish ancestry? Tell us about it.

Melinda: Yes. My grandfather’s (my mother’s father) parents were both Irish immigrants from the Carrick-on-Suir area. As far as I know, they came into the USA via Ellis Island in NYC. My grandfather, Eddie Powers, died suddenly and tragically right before my 2nd birthday. Nevertheless, I have very vivid and lovely memories of him, as our family lived just a few blocks away from him in Brooklyn, and he used to visit me every evening after work. He was a charismatic fellow: a NYC boxing champion (aka Eddie the Kid), newspaper photo-engraver, supporter of several extended-family businesses, health-food advocate, and lover (and collector) of animals of all sorts. I’ve always felt a strong connection to that Irish branch of our family despite the strong Italian heritage of my grandmother (Eddie’s wife) and my father.

I was greatly influenced by my uncle, Hugh McCormack, who always lived nearby and was very proud of his Irish heritage. He was the person who introduced me to Irish and Scottish music when I was a child. He also gave me my first Chieftains recording.

Bitesize: How do you use Bitesize Irish Gaelic?

Melinda: When I began, I was delighted to find Bitesize, because Eoin’s approach was so friendly, clear and accessible, and…it was the Munster dialect. I started going through the lessons in order. I find right now that I most use Bitesize to study lessons on my own that are related to what I am studying in my weekly Irish class, because Bitesize often helps me understand things more clearly, and also gives me the Munster pronunciation, and practice with it. My weekly classes are in the Ulster dialect, so it can be confusing. I also listen to the audio lessons in the car, and really appreciate the conversation opportunities with Siobhan. I am finding that on-line studying on my own every day is helping me get the most out of the face-to-face classes.

Bitesize: What advice would you have for a total beginner of Irish Gaelic?

Melinda: 1) As you begin, be willing to start to think about what your long-term goal might be. Entertain the questions: Why am I studying this difficult, beautiful, and rich language? What do I want to accomplish? That long term goal might take a while to come into a clear form, but when you can finally articulate it, my experience is that opportunities to accomplish the goal will start presenting themselves to you more and more.

For example, I am soon turning 71 yrs old, and my long-term goal is to be able to speak Irish with a bit of comfort and fluency by the time I’m 75. Not long after that goal became clear, I heard about the Summer Gaeltacht Scholarships, and so I’ve applied to participate in a 2-week immersion at Colaiste na Rinne in the Waterford Gaeltacht in August this year. Just applying for such a grant has inspired my learning, so whether or not I am lucky enough to receive it and go is secondary.

Short term daily or weekly goals might be as simple as deciding to do a Bitesize lesson and/or Memrise or Duolingo each day or listening to Radió na Gaeltachta a bit each day or all these things!

Then longer, but still short-term goals. If you like to sing, learning a song by heart, which for me requires understanding what each word means. An example: I’ve been personally inspired by the singing of Iarla Ó Lionáírd and the band he is in, The Gloaming. Some of their songs are well-known songs that you can easily find the lyrics for. (Samhain, Samhain, for example). Two of their songs are settings of poems by modern poets Michael Harnett and Seán Ó Riordain. I found the published poems in works with English translations, and have been learning those songs. The songs have opened the door to the other poetry of these Irish poets.

Or, if you are not into singing, learn a prayer or poem by heart. (Thank you, Siobhan, for the prayer videos!) There are some wonderful books of old Irish prayers as Gaeilge with good English translations, and wonderful poetry, as mentioned above.

2) In the USA there is a political saying from our last election: “She Persisted.” That seems to be one of the keys in learning Irish for me. And equally, patience. It is easy to be overwhelmed, but at the same time, it is lovely to notice that indeed, I’m making progress, bit-by-bit

3) Be willing to participate in challenging opportunities even if you are not ready. I know that I am a very slow language learner — especially when it comes to speaking. But, I went to a week-long immersion that just happened to be fairly local when I had just begun studying with Bitesize for four months. I could barely speak at all, and it was terrifying as a shy person. But, participating was great fun and it inspired and helped me get in touch with why I was studying the language and what I wanted to accomplish.

4) Really important for me has been finally finding weekly classes within a challenging, but doable driving distance (1 hr). Finding like-minded people that I can study with face-to-face consistently has been a joy. It is fun and enriching, and our group also offers periodic social opportunities for conversation with native speakers, and social events like a pop-up gaeltacht every once-in-a-while.>

Moving towards Samhain

As we move towards the dark half of the year, this poem speaks to me......


I dreamed of Orchil the dim goddess
Who is under the brown earth in a vast cavern
Where she weaves at two looms;
With one hand she weaves life upward through the green grass,
With the other she weaves downward through the mold.

And the sound of the weaving is eternity
And the name of it in the green world is time.
And through all, through all, Orchil weaves the weft
Weaves the weft of eternal beauty,
Eternal beauty, that passeth not
Though its soul is change.

By William Sharp aka Fiona Macleod


Interview in the Fall 2017 Harp Therapy Journal

Melinda Gardiner's New Journey

by Sarajane Williams

     In spring 2005, The Harp Therapy Journal featured an interview with Melinda Gardiner, executive director of the Music for Healing and Transition Program. She officially retired from that position in April. Here, we celebrate Melinda's experiences and new plans from the following email interview.

Please tell us about the growth and changes that you've seen, under your leadership of MHTP and in the field of therapeutic music.

That is a lovely question!  It is quite extraordinary to gaze back to 1990, when I originally began searching for more education in order to responsibly use acoustic sound and music as therapeutic modalities in my nursing and hospice practices. I had training in quite a few integrative modalities, and was working as an RN in an integrative medical practice, but wanted to make sure that I would “do no harm” with music.     I got involved in MHTP in 1996 as an Area Coordinator to offer the training here in the Hudson Valley of NY.  Shortly after that I became a faculty member, and then a Board Director (President of the Board) in 1998.  At that time, I also took up running the day-to-day details of MHTP, so that Margo Drohan, the new ED, could focus on implementing a complete revision of the curriculum and strategic planning.  So, it has been over twenty years of involvement.  

I have seen the refinement and professionalization of the training and certification process for therapeutic musicians in the NSBTM accredited programs.  There has been an incredible growth in employment opportunities for therapeutic musicians, and increasing openness in healthcare to our presence as part of the healthcare team.  I’ve participated in the establishment of the NSBTM, the creation of Standards for the profession, and seen growing respect of our profession, as well as  collaboration, with the American Music Therapy Association.  There is also the on-going growth of smaller educational programs that offer trainings in creative ways that might not meet the NSBTM Standards, but are still adding to the possibilities of sound and music assisting the healing process for people needing care. 

 What will your new relationship be with the MHTP?

I continue as a member of the MHTP faculty, teaching MHTP’s Module 1 as well as the live, remote-learning Module 3.  I remain an Area Coordinator for the Hudson Valley, and I have just become an MHTP Advisor to students.   

Since I love teaching,   I will continue developing and teaching MHTP-partnered continuing education workshops for therapeutic musicians.  These offerings expand on the classes I have taught over the years at conferences, like the Somerset Folk Harp Conference.  They will primarily become live webinars via the Zoom platform.   Offering these workshops as webinars makes them very accessible and affordable for people, and allows me to continue supporting MHTP and my therapeutic music colleagues.  I am also finding that it is great fun creating them.

For example, I am offering a six hour (6 CEU) webinar, A Primer on Gregorian Chant for Therapeutic Musicians in August, and again in September 2017.   I had already taught this content as a workshop here in Columbia County to about 25 therapeutic musicians, but CMPs in other parts of the country requested it.  I found that it was surprisingly easy to put into webinar form.   So, I am excited about the creative possibilities.

 What dormant and new ideas do you have to explore?

One of my inspirations is the life-work of St. Hildegard of Bingen, and I am continuing to deepen my exploration of her music, theology and approach to therapeutics.  I have offered retreats on her unitive picture of reality, and will continue to do that, and am looking forward to finding new ways to share her imagination of Reality.  I think her work has much to offer us in these times.

As I have been reflecting deeply on why certain musicians have had, and continue to have a profound effect on my own heart-space, I have realized that it has to do with the quality of Devotion.  That has led me to explore the act and feeling of Devotion and how it is relevant to our work as therapeutic musicians.   The word comes from devovere, " to dedicate by a vow,"   The  official definition is “the act of dedicating oneself to a cause, enterprise, or activity.”  I have an inkling that embodying Devotion has something to do with one’s ability to empty oneself and surrender.  Perhaps surrendering to the Word, the tune that is coming in, or perhaps the guidance of the Higher-Self of the patient you are playing-for.  I feel that this is definitely worth exploring more deeply.

 Please tell us about your healing work with crystals and gems.

I studied the use of quartz crystals extensively about 25 years ago for 10 years as apprentice to a Native American elder.  Like sound and music, it is a modality that simply uses the inherent vibrational quality of crystalline Silicon Dioxide, ie: quartz.  Quartz crystals are transducers and transmitters.   My work with them now is mostly everyday personal use:  to help focus intention, to enhance the environment at home.  Interesting, St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote an entire book on the use of gems and crystals for healing. The book is only available in German and is out of print.  Her writings are harmonious with what I understand from my earlier studies with Natïve Americans, perhaps indicating that there is a cross-cultural understanding about the healing potential of these beautiful minerals.  I am considering having the book translated so that we might publish it.

What is your involvement with the works of Hildegard von Bingen?

In the late 1980’s I was exposed to St. Hildegard’s holistic approach to health via a German friend, as well as in my Anthroposophical nursing training.   I took a week-long workshop with Therese Schroeder-Sheker at Amherst Early Music, and in 1993 my husband found the now out-of-print book of Hildegard’s Symphonia in Gregorian notation on a business trip to Germany.  That led to my deep immersion in the music so I that I might sing some of the pieces for special liturgies in my parish.  

During that period, I was also participating in all of Don Campbell’s Toning courses, so was becoming quite sensitized to the effect of sound on my own body/mind/spirit.   Hildegard’s music has a particular intervalic “architecture,” and that, plus the pure vowels of the Latin and the powerful images in the pieces, affected me profoundly.  As I became more involved in therapeutic music, I felt that some of her music could be used therapeutically, and that led to writing a book of her songs that included Gregorian as well as modern notation with Mona Peck, my colleague in MHTP. 

I have taught, and hope to continue to teach, workshops and longer retreats focused on St. Hildegard’s extraordinary work.  So far, the workshops have been focused on the music and its therapeutic aspects.  In retreats, there is time to explore St. Hildegard’s unique, visionary, creation-centered theology, and interesting, holistic approach to healing, as well as the music. 

 In the past, you've been a producer for Nemeton Productions. Do you have any plans to return to that role?

I am considering initiating Nemeton formally again, but I would partner with my church to help support that parish community.  I am fairly certain that there would again be the possibility of developing a regular audience for Celtic music in our area.   When I was actively acting as a producer from 1987 until about 2005, offering  six concerts plus workshops a year, my intention was to bring in musicians (lots of harpers, of course) who were able to create a sacred and liminal space with their presence and music.  That would be my intention again.  Back then, the Hudson Valley Harp Circle was in the mix, too, so I produced workshops with iconic harpers like Chris Caswell, Grainne Yeats, Sileas, many workshops with Robin Williamson, Robin Huw Bowen, etc. 

Tell us more about your vocal studies involving sean nós and the Céile Dé Order.

The Céile Dé is one particular expression of Celtic Christianity as a Wisdom Tradition.  It is anchored in the Gaelic tradition of Ireland and Scotland, the recognition of Nature as the first scripture, and was passed down orally.  The Céile Dé pretty much disappeared from recorded history as the Roman Church became pre-eminent in Ireland and Scotland.   I have been part of that contemplative, formerly monastic, tradition for about 12 years.   One of our practices is singing Irish (Gaelic) and Scots Gaelic prayer-chants that have been passed-down over generations (some in Old irish) but also include newly composed prayers.  I have always been a folk musician, learning primarily through the oral tradition, with singing most essential and important for me.  So, in the last few years, I have been drawn to focusing on exploring sean nós singing---the old-style singing in Irish---though the style is also used for English songs.   It is another way to explore and experience the Word, feeling and melody intertwined and resonating within and connecting with Creation.

 How will your role change, as a founding member of the NSBTM?

I am on the Advisory Board, though I have taken a break in participating for several months as I explore my next direction.  I am looking forward to becoming engaged a bit more again in the Fall.

How has your music thanatology training affected your practice of therapeutic music?

I have not taken music thanatology---other than the Contemplative Musicianship year offered by the Chalice of Repose, which I sadly did not complete because of family challenges and family.  So, I have not studied music thanatology, as that would have been the following two years.  But, I can say that my association with Therese Schroeder-Sheker has been an extremely important catalyst and inspiration for my own therapeutic music work.  Therese generously gave me the first suggestions of a path to pursue many, many years ago, and I honor her to be the Initiatrix of all of our therapeutic work in hospice and end-of-life, palliative care.  Therese was exploring and formulating methods of training therapeutic harpists long before the advent of the other training programs.

 Name three of the most important things that you have learned during your therapeutic music journey.

A.      I have learned that the people who choose to take up the work of therapeutic music are extraordinary people, each in their particular, unique way.   I have been marvelously gifted to meet so many of them, to get to know them, and to be able to, in some small way, assist them in fulfilling their destiny as therapeutic musicians.  I have worked with so many people over the years that inspire me and who have become friends:   MHTP Board members, teachers, area coordinators, staff and students; the founders of the NSBTM, the SAMA Board….the list seems to be endless. 

B.      Bringing the modality of Unitative Listening (a transpersonal modality for musicians based on the process of the Therapeutic Touch) into MHTP was a significant moment for the program.  What I did not expect was that over the years since I introduced it (I think around 2001), I have been  impressed by how many CMPs say it is one of the most important aspects of the training.  Developing the ability to be entirely present to, and focused on, the person you are playing for, while allowing the music to be the therapist is a key to our work.  I have learned that our genuine, mindful presence is just as important as what we are playing, and that it is a gift we offer to healthcare that few clinicians are trained to do.

C.      I’ve learned that it takes patient persistence and the willingness to educate the healthcare community over and over about our profession and what we can offer.  It is an on-going challenge that can yield wonderful benefits.

 Now, what is your vision for the future of MHTP and of/for therapeutic music?

My vision hasn’t changed much.  I see therapeutic music -- and the entire spectrum of live, acoustic music in clinical settings -- as becoming a larger and larger presence in healthcare. This is already happening.   I see it as being recognized by administrators and other healthcare clinicians as a cost-effective way to humanize, and thus support, the healing process in increasingly technologically-focused healthcare environments.  Bringing Beauty – through music – into healthcare.  I see it as becoming a norm.   As far as next steps for training:  I would love to see training in therapeutic music made available to music conservatory students as a career possibility.

In your experience, how does the role of the harp stand out or relate to therapeutic music.

Stringed instruments certainly comprise the most common group of instruments used in our field: harp, lyre, guitar, violin, viola, cello, hammered dulcimer, dulcimer, etc.  Of them all, the harp is a natural instrument for therapeutic work….particularly the lever harp because of its portability and simplicity.  There is the vibrational aspect and timbre of the long, unimpeded strings that provide an inherently therapeutic sound.  The harp is an archetype in its form, with association with healing and well-being in story and myth.  There are rare occasions when this instant association is a disadvantage, of course.  

Other comments

Thank you, Sarajane, for your vision, and gentle, steady presence.  I remember well the Therapeutic Harp Conferences in 2000 & 2001 in Richmond (I think those were the years!) and how important they were to our profession. 

A Beginning.... the Universal Prayer Garden & Labyrinth

Welcome!   This is my first post, so I thought I'd tell you a bit about the pictures of the Universal Prayer Garden & Labyrinth that I am using on this site. 

The Garden is located behind Our Lady of Hope Church (formerly St. Bridget's Church) at 8074 Rt. 22, Copake Falls, in beautiful, rural Columbia County, NY.

The picture on this page is of the approach to the garden from the church.  The Garden was a project nurtured by a small group of people to provide a prayer-sanctuary for all.  It was carefully designed and built by Robbie Haldane.  It honors the Irish immigrants who founded the original St. Bridget's Church in the village of Copake Falls in the 1800s.

The Garden is a circle of Irish-style dry-laid wall, with openings to the four directions, topped by a hawthorn hedge.   Interspersed in the hedge-mound are eight oak trees and eight crab-apple trees.  These trees--hawthorn, oak and apple--are three of the sacred tree species in Celtic lore.

Surrounding the walled garden are standing stones donated, blessed, and sent by elders of the Skatioke Indian Tribe.  Within the Garden is a cobble-stone 7-circuit labyrinth.

The Garden location was initially dedicated on the Feast of the Assumption in 2003, and the completed Garden was consecrated and blessed as a prayer-sanctuary on the Feast of the Assumption in 2008.

I invite you to stop by and spend some time in this lovely sacred, liminal space when you are in the area.  Copake Falls is tucked into the Taconic Hills near Taconic State Park close to the border of Massachusetts.  The church and Garden are situated on NY Rt. 22 between Millerton, NY, and Hillsdale, NY.