A child claps during the Lullaby Project Song Circle at Siena House. CNS/Fadi Kheir, courtesy Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall artists help moms in need compose lullabies

By  Maureen Pratt, Catholic News Service
  • September 14, 2019

NEW YORK -- Lullabies have been sung by parents to their children for time immemorial.

At Siena House, a temporary residence for families in the Bronx, parents are continuing the tradition by crafting their own memorable lullabies that are emerging from personal experience and deeply held emotions.

With the help of artists from Carnegie Hall, the Lullaby Project is helping parents who are experiencing significant life crises — homelessness or domestic violence — bond with their children through the creation of personal lullabies.

Composer and music educator Thomas Cabaniss and other Carnegie Hall artists developed the project in 2011.

“The project was structured over the course of a month,” said Tiffany Ortiz, assistant director of early childhood programs at Carnegie Hall. “Eight to 10 women and seven Carnegie Hall artists spent an hour together, to establish a level of trust. The mothers wrote letters to their babies, including nicknames, hopes, dreams and wishes for their child. They distilled those key phrases and put hearts around the words they wanted in the lyrics to their lullabies. Then they worked on the music side.”

The result was so positive that, in 2013, officials at the New York City Department of Homeless Services recommended Siena House be one of the first places for the Lullaby Project to expand.

“At first, there was some hesitancy from the mothers,” said Dominican Sr. Mary Doris, Siena House director. “They were not sure they would ever be able to compose a lullaby for their babies..

“We have a lot of victims of domestic violence. Women who have endured rape. Women who come from families that are rejecting them due to the fact that they have this child or are pregnant. Our women come from a place of anger, and many times they’re frustrated, screaming, telling the baby to shut up,” Doris said.

“But with great sensitivity and gentleness, words were created and set to music.”

When the creative process was completed, the lullabies endured. The mothers professionally recorded their lullabies and received CDs of the songs. More importantly, they continued incorporating them into daily life.

“I remember hearing some of those lullabies in the hallways,” Doris said. “They were actually using them.”

As the lullaby forms, so do deep emotional bonds.

“Crying happens,” Doris said. 

“A couple of little toddlers might be clapping, dancing. It’s a time with the mom, when they can set aside their anxieties and zero in on this precious gift. And, I say, ‘When your little guy gets to be 21 and you play this lullaby, it’ll carry on for that child’s life, too.’ ”

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