Published: Feb. 9, 2021 By

From the comfort of her home in Ward, Colorado, Susan Ornitz held her baby Zoe as the 9-month-old giggled and jumped to the sound of a song made just for her.

On a computer screen in front of them, a CU Boulder student musician sang:

“Little Zoe River, with your friends you go and play. Full of life and laughter, you’re sure to find the way!”

Student musicians created this lullaby with Zoe and Susan as part of an interdisciplinary project between CU Boulder’s Renée Crown Wellness Institute and College of Music.

The Lullaby Project, which started at Carnegie Hall in New York City, pairs new and expectant parents and guardians with artists to write and sing personal lullabies for their babies.

Researchers and musicians brought it to Colorado to connect participants across the state and study the effects of the project on the mental health and well being of children and parents.

“We wanted to address difficulties with mental health, social connection and loneliness and provide an experience that can be joyful and meaningful for parents,” said Anne Frtizson, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and Renée Crown Wellness Institute who wrote about The Lullaby Project for her master’s thesis.

College of Music students created 39 custom lullabies over Zoom between April and August. Participants attended a group conference call with other parents to learn about the process and were then invited to work one-on-one with a student musician to create a personalized lullaby.

Under the mentorship of her graduate advisor and Director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute, Sona Dimidjian, Fritzson analyzed surveys completed before and after lullaby sessions to gauge impacts on parental mental health and on connection with their children.

“Nearly 100% of parents who signed up completed the program and reported that it was a positive experience,” Fritzson said. 

They also showed improvements in social connection, decreases in loneliness and improvements in symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Parents and guardians from communities across the state participated, including mothers, fathers, grandparents, parents planning to adopt and parents of children with disabilities.  

Some wanted to find new and creative ways to connect with their children. Others wanted to share their stories of healing from postpartum depression following the birth of their child. 

Although the traditional interpretation of a “lullaby” brings to mind a calming song played at bedtime, student musicians created a variety of songs for parents based on their needs--fun songs for play time, soothing songs for mid-day temper tantrums and songs that conveyed an important message from parent to child.

“Some mentioned that their children would often ask for their lullaby at bedtime, which led to bedtime being less stressful, while other parents spoke about how they bonded more with their children, their partners or their families since creating their lullabies,” Fritzon said.

Student musicians wrote a lullaby titled “Little Wild Thing” for Susan Ornitz, her husband Zach and their daughter Zoe. 

“I actually sang Zoe the song at 6 a.m. this morning while she lay on my chest in our bed and she fell asleep for another hour and 20 minutes to it,” she said. 

COVID-19 impact

Frtizson went to Carnegie Hall to learn about The Lullaby Project in 2017.

With help from the College of Music’s Entrepreneurship Center for Music (ECM), the pilot project through CU Boulder was ready to launch in December 2019.

Two months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“We had partners, sponsors and participants lined up and ready to attend in-person creative sessions with our teaching artists,” said Grace Law, who is earning her master’s degree in flute in the College of Music and has a graduate appointment with ECM.

Law selected and trained teaching artists, garnered funding from sponsors and worked with local hospitals to recruit new and expectant parents.

Both Law and Fritzson agreed the project was even more necessary amid the pandemic. 

“We have seen an increase in mental health difficulties and loneliness, which is exactly what this project and research seeks to address,” Fritzson said.

Law immediately reached out to consultants to figure out how participants could connect with musicians through a screen and still feel valued, heard and engaged.

In just two months, she was able to re-recruit participants from digital databases and reformat the project to provide parents with a deeply personal, yet virtual, experience.

For Law, the project was personal, too. 

“To be brought into somebody’s life and get the privilege to hear about their stories and experiences is something I honor a lot,” she said.“Only in witnessing the process from start to finish did I realize how important this project was, especially during the pandemic.

CU Boulder was one of Carnegie Hall’s first partners to offer a virtual format of The Lullaby Project. Since then, several other universities have connected with Law to learn how to adapt theirs.

Promoting accessibility 

Although it was intended as an in-person program, going virtual has had its benefits, enabling the project to broaden its reach to different communities across Colorado and providing a more comfortable setting for participants to open up. 

“Everyone is in the comfort of their own home, so it makes teaching artists and parents feel comfortable and less formal, especially when discussing such intimate topics,” Law said.

The research team hopes to continue to offer a virtual option and expand the project to different languages and communities across the state.

The Ornitz family cherishes their lullaby and their experience in the program. 

“I was caught off guard at how emotional I was when I heard the song for the first time. I was teary eyed,” said Susan Ornitz.“ It just felt so special that it was made just for us.”

CU Boulder’s Lullaby Project is currently accepting registration for spring sessions. If you’re interested, visit their website to learn more. 

Jeffrey Nytch, director of the Entrepreneur Center for Music, was Law’s faculty mentor and played an integral role in bringing The Lullaby Project to CU Boulder.