Excerpt from the chapter Musical Connections: What Can Music Do? in Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness, April 9, 2024 by Renée Fleming. Viking.

When I first saw your little face

Oh, how I cried to see your face

You were so small, yet you were

All I ever needed to erase my fears

You were yawning and smiling in the bright morning

Suddenly I saw the light open up in me

And you gave me the peace sign

So now I’m giving it back to you

I’m wishing you

Peace tonight

Excerpt from “Peace” by Tamilles and Deidre

In the late summer of 2011 I sat in a big room at Jacobi Medical Center, one of New York City’s public hospitals in the South Bronx, in a planning meeting about what we might undertake next in Carnegie Hall’s partnership with the hospital. The Jacobi team spoke about pregnant teens having a hard time developing the kind of emotional attachment to their babies that is crucial for the long- term health and well- being of mothers and their children, and ultimately families. We wondered . . . what if young mothers had opportunities to work with artists to write lullabies for their babies? Might that creative time give those mothers the chance to step outside of their situations, to think and dream a little about what they hoped for themselves and for their children, and to put those hopes into lyrics and melodies? Could that intimate song build connections within and beyond that family? In that moment, the idea for the Lullaby Project was born.

The lullabies that emerged were sweet, funny, and playful. Many were soothing and peaceful, in the traditional way of lullabies, but some parents wanted to write joyful, animated songs to reflect the energy they felt from their infants. These beautiful, personal songs work their simple magic in both directions. In the early days and months of parenting, personal lullabies can be grounding and comforting to sleep- deprived parents who sing them to children at all hours of the day and night. Lullabies also capture and channel a parent’s flood of feelings. As Solangie Jimenez, an early Lullaby writer explained, “Being part of the Lullaby Project impacted me to become a better parent because sometimes I get too emotional expressing my feelings and it’s easier for me to write it down…Many years from now, after I am gone, my child will have this song to remember me and the love I had for her unconditionally.” 

Participants involved in our studies of Lullaby have also told us that the songs they wrote have given them connections that result in more social support. This is crucial for the overall health and well- being of young families. Lullabies also sustain— or even mend— connections across generations. The “Ave Rojo” song, written in Philadelphia in both Spanish and English during COVID, is a lullaby featuring a red bird (a cardinal) who is the embodiment of a loving grandmother’s spirit coming to visit a young family from whom she was separated by the pandemic. As Tamilles Fernandes, another lullaby writer at Jacobi Medical Center in 2013, shared: “Being a part of the Lullaby Project was truly a blessing. It has brought so many positive things and people into my life . . .” We have seen this added effect in many parents; at a time when all attention is focused on the promise of the baby, a parent’s own sense of agency and creativity is bolstered by Lullaby.

Eighty percent of brain development happens in the first three years of a child’s life. But all this development requires a healthy pregnancy and a family that is safe and well supported through these early years. In the United States, we fail to make sufficient investments in the well- being of young families. In 2015 the United States ranked 33rd out of 179 countries in the international State of the World’s Mothers report. These terrible outcomes fall disproportionately on poor people, families of color, and those without the essential resources of stable, safe housing; proper nutrition; and good health care. The encouraging news is that positive change is possible through collective efforts involving diverse community stakeholders focused on making sure that mothers and young children have the support and resources they need to develop and thrive. We know from our observation and evaluation over the years that the Lullaby Project and related initiatives can contribute in small, low- cost ways to that larger imperative.

Once we began looking at the work in this holistic way, all kinds of opportunities for analyzing impact and thinking about program design emerged. For example, we noticed that staff at the neonatal intensive care unit asked to write a lullaby of their own to process the intensity, intimacy, and potential grief of the work they did daily. We saw correctional staff contributing to the songs incarcerated fathers and mothers were writing, and coming back on their own time to attend the concert at which their songs were featured. Our long-time teaching artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles said that writing original music with the population of birthing people at Rikers Island Correctional Facility was unlike any other songwriting experience she’d had up to that point, with participants expressing a deep communication of love to their future and existing children. We started to see how a project might ripple out in all directions, touching people, communities, and even systems. 

One aspirational goal for the future of Lullaby came from a participating father. He and his wife were part of a CenteringPregnancy program in Washington Heights. In Centering women go through prenatal care as a group, rather than as individuals. With their husbands/ partners they develop relationships with their medical teams and one another, moving their care into a more relaxed and human environment than the hospital exam room allows. The medical team leading this particular Centering group had decided to incorporate Lullaby seamlessly into their regular monthly sessions. In one of the later workshops, a father who took part related a story about a recent conversation with one of his friends whose wife was also pregnant. In that conversation he had asked his friend what his lullaby was like, and was surprised that his friend had no idea what he was talking about. Because he encountered the Lullaby Project as an integral part of regular prenatal care, he thought that writing a lullaby for your baby was a normal part of what everyone experienced when preparing for the birth of a child. Hearing that story, the Lullaby staff team immediately started to think, why not? Why couldn’t a simple Lullaby- writing workshop be part of preparation for birth for everyone? How might that idea be carried into the health- care system and spread across the country, contributing to parents’ preparation for the arrival of a child and the overall well- being of young families? This is now one of our dreams, or moonshot ideas, for Lullaby, and I love that it came from a participant who thought that this was already a common practice. 

I trust you

You know what to do

And even when it’s dark

You have the light coming through

Always remember

You can be tender

Give and receive and lead with love

You can be open

You can be broken

You can be free, hold and be held

Excerpt from “For Nico”— with Alexis Cariello

Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness, April 9, 2024 by Renée Fleming. Viking.

Author(s)

  • Chief Education Officer and Director, Weill Music Institute, Carnegie Hall