A listening session for lullabies

As Mother’s Day approaches, expectant moms record songs for their unborn children through the Lullaby Project hosted by VCU

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The soulful, reggae tones, operatic octaves and country and western drawl that filled In Your Ears Studios Thursday evening evoked tears and smiles from some, anticipation from others and accolades from all.

The professionally engineered and recorded music in the Shockoe Bottom recording studio was a unique listening session for lullabies. Each song’s lyrics were written by an expectant mom receiving prenatal care at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Their participation in the Lullaby Project is an effort to help mothers bond with their children, even before birth, through music.

The research project is a partnership between Carnegie Hall, the Arts Research Institute at VCUarts, VCU CenteringPregnancy and the VCU Institute for Women’s Health. Jennifer Hinesley, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at CHoR’s Virginia Treatment Center for Children, is the project’s principal investigator.

Oh, Naomi. Soft yet strong. My little, brown girl.

Each parent had two meetings, for song writing and recording, with professional musicians before their song was debuted at the sharing session.Chalene Jefferson-Harvey said she can’t wait to sing the lullaby she penned to her baby girl. The song, “Dear Naomi,” includes the lyrics, “Oh, Naomi. Soft yet strong. My little, brown girl.”

“I wanted to create something that was special for her,” said Jefferson-Harvey, who is six months pregnant. “Now, this song is something everyone [in my family] can sing when they have her.”

Jefferson-Harvey is a patient at the VCU Medical Center Nelson Clinic and found out about the Lullaby Project through a flyer she was given at an appointment.  

“I thought it would be somewhat of a stress reliever,” she said.

Chalene Jefferson-Harvey and Allen Stokes.
Chalene Jefferson-Harvey and Allen Stokes.

Strengthening the bond between mother and child, supporting maternal health, decreasing stress, and aiding in child development are some of the program’s hallmarks, said Sarah Cunningham, Ph.D., executive director for research at the VCU School of the Arts. Cunningham brought the project to VCU. It is now in its third iteration, however this is the first time project research has investigated enhanced prenatal maternal attachment, psychiatric functioning and maternal stress. Carnegie Hall, the project designer, commissioned a 2016 research paper, “Why Making Music Matters,” that emphasizes the healthy role music can play in a child’s everyday interactions.

Taylor Barnett, coordinator of musicianship studies in the VCU Department of Music, helped the eight moms from this session focus on being original and reflective with their melodies.

“Everyone has a story so we wanted the [songs] to reflect that story, and that looks different for each mom,” he said. “The goal is for the mom to feel it is their song and we encourage them to sing it to their child now. It can help them connect in a way that might not happen otherwise.”

On the cusp of Mother’s Day, one soon-to-be mom from the project is ready for the unpredictability and unexpectedness of motherhood. Amanda Adams is seven months pregnant and surprisingly excited about sleepless nights and dirty diaper changes.

“We struggled to get pregnant,” said Adams, a VCU graduate. “It was a long journey so our song is ‘Worth the Wait.’ I think we approached it differently, because we had to go through so much.”

In her lyrics Adams penned, alongside a reggae beat, “Worth the wait for an overwhelming love. You’re worth the wait. You’re Julia Faye.”

The Lullaby Project has one session each summer and fall semester. In addition to VCU Health, Cunningham’s team works with local nonprofit organizations to recruit participants.

“If we can use pieces of music to get moms more attuned to their babies, we want to do that in the most holistic way,” said Kirsten Olsen, the program manager with CenteringPregnancy at VCU. “This project is just one of the ways VCU is positioned to do that.”


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