Play Lullabies But Don’t Bore People To Sleep

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concert-sleep1Lullabies are tricky beasts when it comes to interpretive approaches. What should the performer’s goal be in playing a lullaby? There is no shortage of opinions out there with regards to the interpretation of lullabies. Some say that in order to stay fully committed to the authorial intent of lullabies, our ultimate pursuit should be to bring listeners into a state of relaxation, and if possible, put them to sleep altogether. I, myself have fallen asleep in the past listening to certain performances, and (dare I say?) it was nice. The sleep felt good but the performance was an absolute bore as the performer failed to keep me engaged. After all, what can communicate more detachment from the performer than to fall asleep during his or her performance? I guess death could… I suppose that if I had died on that chair, I would have been even more detached from the performer.


Here is an alternative suggestion for the playing of lullabies: imagine that when playing a lullaby your goal is not to put a baby to sleep but rather to explain the sleeping process to a sleep specialist or describe the singing of lullabies through your instrument. Yes, there is a branch of the medical communitty focused solely on the study of sleep habits and disorders and these folks do a lot of good out there. They are the archenemies of coffee companies that keep people awake.


What if your goal in playing a certain lullaby would be to describe various aspects of the sleeping process? What if you could musically portray the sensation of falling or slipping that many experience at some point or another right before they  begin to enter the REM (rapid eye movement) stages? Why not attempt to portray a brief bizarre dream or a short instrusive nightmare? How would you express the return to the sweet sleep in the REM stages through your playing? How would you replicate the singing of lullabies in your playing? Would you maintain metronomical rhythmic consistency or would you bend the rhythm to account for the informal approach to lullaby singing? How would you express with your instrument tonal colors and volume changes? How would express the transition from full voice to falsetto singing and, at times, even rhythmic whispering that is so much part of lullaby singing?


When we think deeply about our playing and  it is at that time that we make lullabies exciting to play and to listen to. Here is an example of how I tried to bring all this out in playing Cancion de Cuna, an Afro-Cuban Lullaby arranged by Leo Brower. These are my internal mental processes and, of course, they need not become yours. These personal thoughts may not communicate to the audience with the same level of detail. However, even your listeners don’t associate specific aspects of sleeping or lullaby singing to your actual performance, at the very least, they will be drawn in by the variances of tonal colors, volume and textures.

  • 0:00-0:54 Introduction of the lullaby with more rhythmic consistency to account for the first time the lullaby theme is introduced.
  • 0:55-1:28 Less rhythmic consistency and more flexible rhythmic phrases to prevent listening and performative boredom.
  • Interpretive contrast between 1:28-1:39 & 1:39-1:52. The softly played notes and the strum at 1:39-1:50 are meant to imitate the whispered singing of a mother.
  • The sharp ponticello at 1:50-1:52 is meant to denote that very brief sensation of falling or slipping right before the realization that everything is well in the world and I could return back to my sleep at 1:53.
  • 2:25-2:47 introduces a new theme, a more dissonant theme. The louder volume and sharper ponticello tones are meant to describe an intrusive strange dream that may disturb the sleeping for just a little while.
  • 3:16-3:37 The out of shape chord strum at 3:16 (same notes just played on switched strings) introduces the ending of the piece. The ending is rhythmically loose and it is meant to imitate the final singing of the lullaby theme right before the baby is laid down for the night.

Also I thought I would one of my favorite lullabies played on the guitar. This is a masterful performance of Tedesco’s “La Arruladora” by Christopher Parkening.


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