Amina is just 7 months old, but when the choir began singing the lullaby — her lullaby — she looked up.
“Your smile sends love everywhere you go,” the octet sang, circling back to the girl’s nickname: “Mina, Mina.”
As their voices filled the hall at Plymouth Congregational Church, Amina’s mother, Arianna Caver, bounced the infant on her lap. Caver, 19, wrote the words to this song, as well as its melody. The four-part harmonies? For that, she had a little help.
This fall, VocalEssence teamed up with four teenage mothers to create lullabies for their children as part of the “Lullaby Project.” It began as a Carnegie Hall outreach program in New York that recently has expanded to ensembles across the country. The project builds off research showing the importance of a parent’s voice to a baby’s development, giving the new mothers a tool to connect with and calm their children.
“It’s a way of helping the moms to build confidence and awareness,” said G. Phillip Shoultz, associate conductor. “To share their gifts not only with their children but the world.”
In New York, the program pairs musicians with new and expectant mothers in schools, hospitals and homeless shelters. Minneapolis-based VocalEssence crafted the lullabies with students at Longfellow Alternative High School, a public school for young women who are pregnant or parenting.
“We’ve kind of adopted the school,” Shoultz said, “and they’ve adopted us.”
For the first year, the nonprofit choral group and a Spanish-speaking conductor worked with six Latino students. This fall, Shoultz and Melanie DeMore — a composer and self-described “vocal activist” — wrote with four black mothers. They met at the south Minneapolis school, which has a day care attached, for three days in November.
They reunited last week in the church’s Guild Hall, a room with high ceilings and wooden beams. Microphones above their heads, the vocalists sang the lullabies to the moms, who were hearing the full arrangements for the first time. It was a rehearsal of sorts for a small concert that Thursday evening.
“What do you think?” Shoultz asked Caver, studying her face.
‘I will never doubt you’
They began each writing session last fall by singing, babies in their arms. They talked about their children’s nicknames, habits, favorite things. Then, between bottles and diaper changes, the young women wrote love letters to their little ones.
The musicians listened, grabbing hold of details and murmured melodies. They sang options and asked for feedback. Fast or slow? Major or minor? Instruments or a cappella?
“We ain’t writing your song. We ain’t writing about your life,” DeMore said. “It’s your life. It’s your song.
“And our job is to help you figure out how to sing it in the best, sweetest way.”
Tristiana Coffee wanted to include in her lullaby her 1-year-old daughter’s name, Ivory, and her big cheeks. “She’s so chubby,” Coffee said, laughing.
The lyrics that the shy, smiling 17-year-old wrote start with frustration — “Hey Ivory, guess what? You’re driving me nuts” — dissonant harmonies driving home the point. But the chorus turns sweet, its tempo upbeat:
“I never knew what love was until I had you. I want you to know that I will never doubt you. I love everything about you: Your smile, laugh and chunky chipmunk cheeks.”
Other mothers’ lullabies, too, dig into tough stuff, tantrums included. That’s not unlike traditional lullabies, some of which feature melancholy lyrics and minor keys. “Hush-a-bye, don’t you cry,” one classic goes, “Go to sleep, little baby.”
In writing the choral arrangements, DeMore worked to reflect the lyrics’ ambiguity with “a little grease, a little tension.”
“Don’t be afraid of the dissonances. Don’t be afraid of the rough patches,” she said. “Because if you just sing through them, or walk through them, you’ll get to the other side.”
‘Like the real deal’
The bus picks up Caver for school at 8:45 a.m. most days. Most nights, she starts work at UPS at 10:30 p.m. If she can’t get a ride, she said, she finally gets back home around 4 a.m. Good sleep comes on weekends.
The schedule is difficult, Caver said, but being Amina’s mom is easy. “She’s a really good baby,” Caver said, and she giggles all the time. “Whatever I do, she laughs.”
One game inspired her lullaby: She moves Amina’s feet side to side, singing “Beep-beep” and “Boop-Boop.” Those words formed the base and playful rhythm of her song. Caver was excited, she said, for the concert, “because my family and everybody gets to come see what I made.”
On a chilly Thursday night, she arrived at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis with her parents and Amina, who was wearing a little hat with a big pompom on top.
They settled into pews close to the sanctuary’s front, near another mother, Adrianna Blackmon and her 2-year-old daughter, Ameira Ré. DeMore and a few vocalists came by to say hi. “Hey guys!” said Rob Graham, a tenor. “I’m so glad you made it!”
Then the vocalists took the stage. As they began singing Blackmon’s lullaby, her mouth dropped into a wide smile. The 19-year-old, a first-year student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, had missed the practice session, so the arrangement was new. (“It sounds official — like the real deal,” she said afterward, still smiling. “They turned my idea into something bigger. They amplified it.”)
After the first take, Blackmon joined the singers onstage, leading them off: “Hey, Meira Re! What’s wrong? What’s really going on?”
Someone had handed her lyrics, but she knew the words by heart.
Then the group began Amina’s lullaby.
“Never lose the light in your star. Mina, Mina.”
Sitting in the pew, Caver looked down at her 7-month-old. Each time they sang “Mina, Mina,” she gently tapped the baby’s chest. At one point, Caver began quietly singing along, playing with the curls on the back of her daughter’s neck. She looked into her eyes.