Does being pregnant make women feel they are an unstoppable creative force? For the first two months I am content just lying on the couch, basking in the knowledge that, without moving a muscle, I am making something precious. But soon I become restless, and the force demands an outlet. I decide to resume my long-forgotten singing lessons. Over the weeks, as the small, breathless promise in my body becomes firm and solid, my voice strengthens. Soon, as I move from tentative scales and arpeggios to full-bodied song, I begin to trace shapes beneath my skin, and guess, astonished, at elbow, ankle and hand.
One day my teacher presents a new song – a vigorous Italian aria, high and forte and fun. I begin to sing, and the baby moves inside me. The bolder my singing, the more the baby moves. I stop. A little wriggling, then quiet. I sing again. Another flurry of movement. Slowly it dawns on me – my baby is dancing! When I sing slow and soft, the baby is tranquil; perhaps sleeping, or just listening, calm and entranced.
The father decides the baby needs to recognise his voice too. “Love me tender/love me sweet,” he sings into my belly in his very passable Elvis impersonation. I wonder how differently things sound deep inside the pod of flesh and bone and water that is my body. Lying in the bath, I listen to the wide resonance of my voice in my underwater ears. With each day I become more attentive to the world of sound being transmitted to my unborn child, choosing songs and music for us to share. We learn each other’s rhythms as I sing and talk, and massage the little limbs growing ever more distinguishable through my slowly stretching belly. Finally, in an operatic finale, the dancing shape emerges from my belly, as wide-eyed and perfect as all the wide-eyed perfect babies ever adored throughout human history. We all speak to him in singing tones, high and lyrical, the unmistakable crooning of baby love. Everybody sings to him, delighting in his instant and deeply focused response to music. I wear him all day in a baby sling, mindlessly rocking and incessantly humming and murmuring songs. When he cries, his Nonna marches him to sleep, up and down the hallway, singing in her deep, warm Italian.
He accompanies me to my singing lessons. Nothing, I notice, is too loud or startling for him: in the more vigorous passages he watches me, listening hard, rocking in his stroller; during the quiet, repetitive passages, he drifts to sleep. He wants music constantly, bouncing on the couch, calling for pieces by his own onomatopoeic names – “Humpa-bumpa!” (describing the bass line of a song), or “pah poompah” (for the introductory brass line of another). Fulfilling his musical cravings becomes a crucial part of my daily parenting. Wherever I go, music drifts into my ears like flotsam, and I trawl for treasure to bring this attentive little being. As he grows, he asks for songs the way other children ask for a teddy bear, or comfort food. Walking, we sing and stamp our feet in time. Driving, we sing and tap out rhythms on dashboards and windows. At the table after meals, we sing and play chopsticks and wooden spoons. At bedtime, we lie on his bed, and I sing until he falls asleep. He holds the familiar thread of my voice as he ventures nightly into the always-new landscape of sleep and dreaming. I sing of ships, stars and horses; of honey, rivers and camels. The images, in their cloud of soft melody, weave and drift him into dreaming. Eventually his little hand stops tapping out the rhythms on the pillow, his breathing steadies, and he sinks to sleep, my lips, now quiet, against his soft hair.
He learns to ask for specific songs. When he feels sad or threatened, certain songs make him feel happy or strong. Growling about being a great big tiger, or yelling about when those saints come marching in, leaves him tangibly enlivened. When we are far from home, he needs songs that call for us to insert the names of loved ones. If my choice is misjudged, he is quick to correct me. “Not that sad Ali Paka Pan”, he whines, when I put on Ali Akbar Khan, one of my favourite Indian musicians.
At seven years old, he undergoes a course of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Each morning of his treatment he chooses songs to prepare him for the horror of the day in hospital, and others for dancing it away at the end. These are not the old childish favourites – he moves into new realms of rock and rap, finding strength in the fierce angularity, the tough, masculine nonchalance. And for humour and joie de vivre, he falls in love with every song from ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’. We dance and sing together to Ry Cooder’s ‘Jazz’ album, its sweet ragtime gospel so full of life and grace. Mid-prance, I dash to the bathroom to secretly weep for his suffering, and for his courage and joyous determination.
I sing to him every night until he is a little more than eight years old. As long as he needs it, the challenges and difficulties of his life have a nightly resolve in this safe warm place, where the familiar voice, the reliable arrangement of notes, words and images, all drop him into the feeling realm, where body and mind can come to rest in all the wide and gentle mystery of music and love.
Now when we’re together, over a decade later, a shared song, remembered or unexpectedly heard, will still entrance us. Music has become our shared language, a vocabulary of feelings otherwise difficult to articulate. He spends hours of his week listening to an amazingly eclectic collection of music, and hours more composing and recording his own songs. I listen attentively, my heart full of love, my fingers tapping out the rhythms, as he sings them for me.
And I am still singing lullabies and children’s songs, professionally now, for small groups of pre-schoolers and their parents. Together we explore the immense sweetness of this delightful exchange. We sing and play bells and drums, chopsticks and wooden spoons. At unexpected moments, wild dancing erupts out of our joyous music making.
And sometimes, in the midst of our cavorting, I see a certain look cross a child’s face – the sudden, quiet despair of all-too-much that I recognise from my own little boy. The child will huddle into my lap holding a precious blanket or doll and request a favourite song.
Everything comes to rest in that timeless moment – the small weight so dear against me, and the world grown safe and small in the warm bubble of a loved song, sung from a loving heart.
Ruth Schoenheimer has over 25 years experience teaching music and voice to community and multi-cultural singing groups. She has also worked extensively with children. Her prose and poetry have been published in Australia and overseas.
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