Esther Brazil - Lullay, Lullay
Lullabies are often the first music to which we are exposed as babies. The earliest written example of a lullaby, etched onto a clay tablet by an ancient Babylonian, dates from around 2000BC. Yet how often do we consider this formative genre, and what's it like singing lullabies to your baby as a professional singer?
Esther Brazil tells us more in this fascinating article...
The phrase ‘sleep like a baby’ caused a lot of hollow laughter in our household after my daughter was born. Babies sleep deeply, yes, but briefly. At the beginning it’s simultaneously nightmarish and beautiful, the endless wakefulness and short snatches of rest: you should really be sleeping when your baby sleeps, but you can’t help staring at their little hands and feet and face. And then they wake up again.
Even when they start sleeping for longer periods, they have trouble actually letting go and nodding off. Good rhythmic singing seems to apply in all cases as an ancient, effective way of easing babies into slumber, or at least calming them down sufficiently that they’re able to put themselves to sleep. There’s the very quiet kind and the stronger sea-shanty kind, and everything in between. Anything that’s hearty and strophic is good for striding along with a pram, particularly hymns. Simple tunes are good. Repetition is magic: mesmerising and soporific.
You would think that a professional singer would find it the most natural thing in the world to sing to her own baby. Maybe I’m unusually self-conscious, but before Beatrice was born, I discovered that there was an uncomfortable disjunct for me between being a performer and the idea of ‘performing’ to one’s child. I was at a loss as to what kind of voice I should use. Domestic, quiet singing requires a different approach to sound production, which was problematic for me when I tried singing to her in the womb. I don’t perform folk music, so I was initially mortified at the thought that neighbours might hear me through the wall quietly singing folk songs to my baby. The informality of it felt uncomfortable. I was much happier singing to my baby when I was actually at work: I loved being pregnant and doing concerts. She seemed to like the continuo instruments the best, and the next-best thing was singing polyphony. My final project while pregnant was a Monteverdi Vespers a couple of weeks before she was born, and I found myself gently swaying back and forth to what I was singing - not so much that the audience would notice, just a slight movement that made me feel like I was rocking her in the womb. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, quite different to sitting in a quiet room in my house and trying to sound convincing in an unaccompanied rendition of ‘Blow the wind southerly’.
Mirroring my obsession and anxiety over names, I wanted my selection of children’s songs to be perfect. A good balance of new things and traditional, with earthy, wholesome folk tunes, and a decent smattering of the Appalachian stuff and protest songs I was sung as a child, alongside the new English things I planned to introduce to her - because, after all, I was about to have a British child, though neither I nor my husband are British by birth. And what about Scottish and Irish things? Would singing them be some kind of cultural appropriation? Above all, would I sound silly?
So I procrastinated, before she was born. I wasted a lot of energy worrying about which songs would be the best ones without doing much about learning them myself. I remembered my father singing Stan Rogers songs to me before bed when I was a child, so I looked up a few and was led down a rabbit-hole that ended in uncontrollable (hormonal) sobs when I discovered that ‘The Flowers of Bermuda’ was about a father-figure captain who sacrifices himself so the other eighteen sailors can escape on his personal boat. A friend came round and, when I asked her what her toddler liked best, she sang a folk song entirely unselfconsciously while I sat on the couch next to her, frozen with the awkwardness of it all, wishing it would end. She had a lovely voice, simple and pretty and kind, but my phobia for informal singing had reared its senseless head.
Then I had Beatrice and was immediately thrust into a more pragmatic frame of mind. After having her at home I had to be transferred to hospital, and my mother immediately flew out from the US to help us. My husband went to pick her up from the airport, and 24 hours after giving birth, I found myself alone in my room in the neonatal ward with a screaming baby, desperate to comfort her. I did the only thing that seemed right: walking her around, bobbing her gently up and down in my arms, and singing a song I’d made up myself, a mostly meaningless thing about a bumblebee. It sort of worked, so I kept singing it every day when she needed to be soothed, and I haven’t stopped. I’ve added other things to my small repertoire of regular songs, but the first one is still her favourite. She always recognises it, and it elicits a little smile. This is another little piece of the puzzle: things that are familiar can soothe purely by virtue of being already known. Lullabies can be safe havens.
I did a very unscientific survey of my friends, asking them what was sung to them as children, what they sing to their children now, and how they feel about it. I got a flood of responses. The thing that struck me most was the emotional resonance of songs from childhood, both one’s own childhood and that of one’s children. Whether or not the songs were musically or poetically any good didn’t seem to matter much. One very distinguished musician gave her newborn a toy that played ‘You are my sunshine’ seventeen years ago, and when she hums the tune to him now, he knows that she’s telling him she loves him in a coded way, and smiles. A lot of friends told me that just thinking about the songs they had sung to their (now older) children as babies and toddlers had made them cry with happiness. Those memories were deep and visceral.
One woman sings herself lullabies, wrong words from childhood deliberately included, when she needs to calm herself down. A fascinating study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing (2008) showed that lullabies were the most successful sound-based source of stress relief and the improvement of psychological health in pregnant women, and there is a wealth of information now about their therapeutic value for premature infants: live singing to early babies results in improved sleeping, eating, weight gain, and even shortens the length of their hospital stay. Lullabies are often therapeutic for the mother too, providing a source of comfort and sometimes amusement. At the other end of the spectrum, they can be an outlet for reflection on difficulty: traditional lullabies sometimes express worry about famine, poverty, or war.
I wish I had space here to tell you all the stories I heard from friends. Professional singers commented that they used the ritual of singing to their children as a way of reconnecting with the fundamentals of singing - breath control, support, setting themselves the challenge of singing incredibly quietly in any space - while not worrying about what their children thought, because their children didn’t care about how ‘good’ it was; they just cared about the intimacy of it.
‘I’m all for spreading love,’ said one singer, ‘Which is, to me, what singing is, whoever the audience is.’ A lot of it is to do with routine, the larger wheel of the day within which turns the tiny rhythmic cog of the lullaby, usually sung at the very end of the day before sleep comes, finally, mercifully. Many friends said they’d be different people now if it weren’t for having been sung to as children. Singing comforts, but it also forms us. It is elemental, primal. My own baby taught me what I should have known all along: what matters isn’t how good you sound, but rather the ritual, the closeness that you create, and the bonding that results.