MELINDA GARDINER
MELINDA GARDINER

Melinda Gardiner, a parishioner at Our Lady of Hope parish in Copake Falls, has donned many hats throughout her life in the Albany Diocese.

She is a singer, a registered nurse, a hospice volunteer at ­local hospitals in Columbia County, and has spent almost 50 years studying, teaching and working in integrative healing and medicine.

But at her parish, where she serves as a liturgical musician and cantor, she wears the most unusal hat of all, that of “parish harpist.” 

For more than 20 years, Mrs. Gardiner has been accompanying her parish choir and music ministry team on the harp. She often plays for special holidays, such as Easter, Christmas Eve or during Advent, and for parish weddings or funerals. 

“I just love playing the harp,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “I’ve had some amazing experiences.”

Steve Gubler, previous music director for the parish, was a fellow harpist and taught Mrs. Gardiner how to play a few years after she joined the parish in 1984. Mrs. Gardiner said they were the two “harpers” of the church. 

Mrs. Gardiner has performed traditional church hymns, such as “Silent Night” and “Stay With Me,” for her parish. She has also played, and sung, the works of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century nun who was a writer, philosopher, healer and musical composer fond of the harp: “She wrote amazing music,” Mrs. Gardiner said of the medieval mystic.

Mrs. Gardiner said she believes the harp helps cultivate an ideal environment for prayer and contemplation. “I think music is the most powerful way to help people bring their mind into their hearts,” she said. “Music helps us be present in God because it includes all your senses and you integrate your whole being.”

Especially during funerals, Mrs. Gardiner can see how playing the harp brings a sense of peace to those attending the service.

“Music is so important and fundamental, especially when you have something so tragic,” she explained. “You can feel this tension and grief building up, but if I just play the harp, it helps people. Or people might start crying; it’s like a release and it helps people be present.”

Steve Wildermuth, current music coordinator, said the harp is “definitely a benefit” to the parish community and Mass environment. 

“She adds a lot to the parish,” he said of Mrs. Gardiner. “[The harp] really sets the mood for the whole service.” 

Outside of music ministry, Mrs. Gardiner enjoys playing traditional Irish and folk music on the harp. Music, in general, has been a large part of her life since childhood, she said. While growing up in Connecticut, she taught herself guitar and was involved in her parish’s choir from a young age. It wasn’t until later in life, after moving with her family to the Albany Diocese, that Mrs. Gardiner began playing the harp: “I was a late bloomer,” she joked.

In 1967, Mrs. Gardiner moved to Columbia County with her husband, Bruce, to enroll their children in the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School in Ghent.

In 1987, one of her sons chose to build an instrument for the school’s required senior project. Mrs. Gardiner suggested he make her a harp, which is exactly what he did: “He made me my first harp, and that’s how I started playing.” 

At the time, Mrs. Gardiner was already a volunteer at Community Hospice of Columbia-Greene counties in Catskill and Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson. After a couple of lessons with Mr. Gubler, she decided to bring the harp to her hospital visits. Right away, she noticed how the harp calmed each patient she would play for.

She began looking for a way to further study the effects of music in healing and decided to become a Certified Music Practitioner (CMP), a musician specially trained in providing emotional, spiritual or physiological comfort to patients — typically the dying — through live music at a patient’s bedside. 

She completed her certification in 1998, through the Music for Healing and Transition program (MHTP). Mrs. Gardiner currently teaches classes for the program online and served on the program’s board. 

The harpist said that her time as a CMP had many parallels to her work in music ministry: “It’s about being with the person, not about performing,” she said. “It’s about helping somebody.”

During a visit to a local nursing home, Mrs. Gardiner recalled playing the harp for a dying woman. With all of her patients, Mrs. Gardiner plays off the cuff and tries to match the patient’s breathing. Over the period of the visit, the woman’s breath began to slow down; after about an hour, she died while Mrs. Gardiner was playing. 

“She died completely peaceful,” said Mrs. Gardiner. “It’s an incredible sacred moment.”

For information about Melinda Gardiner, visit her website at www.melindagardiner.com or contact Our Lady of Hope parish at (518) 329-4711.