Cynthia Robinson ran Mrs. Cynthia’s Munchkin Romper Room, a family day care center in Germantown, for more than two decades. She taught nursery rhymes and the ABC tune to dozens of children — including her granddaughters, 3-year-old London, who lives with her, and 15-month-old Zain.
But it had never occurred to Robinson to compose a song herself — not until she joined the Lullaby Project, a six-week free workshop that pairs professional musicians with parents and other caregivers to create and record an original lullaby, which they receive as an MP3.
“My talent is not singing. My talent is teaching,” Robinson says. But through group music-making sessions and one-on-one collaboration with guitarist Todd Henkin, she took her granddaughters’ term of endearment for her, “Yah-ya,” and wove it into a song: Yah-ya loves us, this we know. For her heart shows us so. With both arms open wide, she can put us both inside.
The Lullaby Project began in 2011, an initiative of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute to promote maternal health and parent-child attachment through music. Now it reaches 300 families a year in New York City and 400 more around the United States and beyond, including in Greece, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.
This year, Philadelphia joined to carry the tune. With World Cafe Live as an artistic partner, several social service organizations helping to recruit participants, a cadre of teaching artists, and a three-year, $716,500 grant from the William Penn Foundation, the project was poised to start in March.
After two in-person sessions, COVID-19 quashed the plan. Organizers spent several months rebooting the workshop to happen online, then launched a six-week pilot in the summer, with 23 families participating and a culminating concert that streamed on YouTube. A new series began in early November, and there will be another series of workshops in late January and again in the spring. (To register, go to www.liveconnections.org/lullaby-project/.)
“This was right in line with our mission of how music connects people, how music can be a way of building community, how music can be a way of learning,” says David Bradley, producing director of arts and learning at World Cafe Live.
Organizers were uncertain about how noisy, interactive, in-person sessions, which featured dancing and musical instruments for adults and children to play, would translate to Zoom. But Bradley, the musicians, and the parent and grandparent participants found that the online format fostered a disarming intimacy.
Families were in their own homes: bouncing cranky infants on their laps, fetching bottles and sippy cups, chasing toddlers across the room. The musicians used puppets; they invited participants to stand up, wiggle, and sing along in a kind of Zoomy cacophony.
Bethlehem Roberson, a “vocussionist” who combines vocal performance with body percussion and use of a tarima, a wooden platform that is both stage and instrument, took part in the summer’s pilot series. The project, she says, has particular value during a time of pandemic. “I think the [Lullaby Project] gives people an outlet, a way to use this anxious energy, this fearful energy. It gives them a way to transmute it into something positive.”
Mariah Harris, 24, was an exhausted, euphoric, brand-new mom when she saw an Instagram post about the Lullaby Project. Not long before, she’d read an article describing an African tribe in which parents wrote a lullaby for their baby before birth, then would sing that song to the child for the rest of their life.
She wanted to create something like that for her son, Samir. She began with the Lullaby Project’s first prompt: Write a letter to your baby or child about your hopes and dreams. Henkin read that letter, then asked questions to coax more ideas: “You said Samir’s the reason you smile. What else is he the reason for?”
Harris talked about her own grandmother, who advised her when Harris was bullied at school by saying, “You have to be like a rhino. You have to have tough skin.” She thought about her grandfather, who taught her that Black history didn’t begin with enslavement, but with tribes and kings and queens in Africa.
What kind of music do you like?, Henkin asked, then played with different guitar riffs: a Marley-esque rhythm, a Motown vibe. They recorded the song, “Mama’s Reason,” with Harris speaking a dedication, Henkin playing, and Roberson providing both melody and harmony via song-editing software: You’re the reason I smile. You’re the reason I breathe… You’re the reason I wake up in the morning… You’re royalty. A king to me. I love you so.
“To be able to sing this song that I created for him and see him light up, as if he already knows that this is his song — it’s an amazing feeling,” Harris says.
For the musicians involved — a range of artists, some Spanish-speaking, with expertise in classical, folk, and other genres — the project called for sensitive collaboration, eliciting words and melodies from people who didn’t necessarily consider themselves to be creative.
“I believe everybody is creative; they just need the right push and care and framework,” says Ami Yares, a guitarist and vocalist who took part in the pilot and is also working with the current cohort. When he read participants’ letters, he looked for poetic images, for cadence and rhyme. He’d strum the guitar — do you like that major chord? or how about this minor key? — and encourage the parents or caregivers to sing phrases out loud.
The Lullaby Project dovetails with the William Penn Foundation’s focus on children from birth to age 8. “We know that children are listening and learning right from the moment they’re born,” says Elliot Weinbaum, program director of the foundation’s Great Learning initiative. The foundation is working with WolfBrown, an arts education research firm, to study whether the Lullaby Project boosts parent/child attachment, parents’ sense of confidence and the strength of their social support network.
For now, Cynthia Robinson is content to sing her lullaby to London and Zain; she especially loves it when they scurry over to hug or kiss her during the “Yah-ya loves me” refrain.
“I was in the market one day, and London was with me, in the cart, and she started singing the lullaby,” she says. “When she started singing it without me, it almost brought tears to my eyes. I knew it was hers, then.”