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Spring 2011

Unlocking the Lullaby

Heather Darnell explores the world of undergraduate research at Texas Tech through music of the Mediterranean.

by Kristina Woods Butler

Heather Darnell

It all started in an unlikely place – at a cous cous festival in Trapani – a town on the western coast of Sicily, home to beautiful beaches, Greek and Roman archaeological sites, plenty of food and wine, and an abundance of culture.

Heather Darnell, an undergraduate student at Texas Tech, double majoring in music and classics, traveled to Italy as part of a study abroad program through the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures, to learn about ancient Greek art, architecture, archeology, and language at the Mediterranean Center for the Arts and Sciences. But what she gained out of her time there was a new passion and understanding for music that would lead her on a path of research and discovery she never imagined in her future.

"I was walking through the streets, and there were these three musicians: one had a tambourine; one had a guitar; and one had a recorder. They were singing and playing this amazing music. It was incredibly expressive. It was like storytelling with music," Darnell said. "I sat there watching for a little while entranced in this music. Then people started dancing, and an Italian girl pulled me into this dance mix. We were just dancing around these musicians in the street."

At that moment she knew she wanted to research the music of Southern Italy, but it would be several months before she would fully understand where this path would take her, on a journey to unlock the mysteries of one genre in particular – the lullaby.

As she traveled around the country during her four-month stay, she couldn't escape the magical sounds, from street musicians, to singing street vendors, to the melodies of mothers singing to their babies drifting through open windows.

"Everybody was always singing," she said. "It was just such a dynamic, exciting culture, and I got really into the music and wanted to pursue a topic in it immediately."

Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate research is foundational to Texas Tech's journey to Tier One Research University status. The Office of the Vice President for Research provides resources to students to help them find the best opportunities to pursue undergraduate research.

Undergraduate Research Resources


Watch on YouTube

Undergraduate researchers including Heather Darnell, discuss their research projects and why they decided to participate in research at the undergraduate level.

Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.

Exploring Undergraduate Research

When she returned to the U.S., Darnell embarked on a journey to pursue her research. She was accepted into the Center for Undergraduate Research program at Texas Tech and received a scholarship to help her continue the new study. She began by listening to hundreds of songs from the Mediterranean, with the help of her mentor, Thomas Cimarusti, an assistant professor of musicology in the College of Visual of Performing Arts. While listening to the different Mediterranean tunes, Heather could not escape the haunting sounds of the lullabies she heard.

"When I was listening to the lullaby, without even knowing the text, it was just striking because they were really slow, beautiful melodies sung in different voices than we normally hear in America or western society," Darnell said. "And when I started reading the text of the lullaby I started to realize that women were expressing things that they weren't expressing in other kinds of music."

As she looked through the works of other scholars, she realized very little research had been done on the subject, which gave her more incentive to bring the lullaby to light. Her ultimate goal – to understand how the song is used as a vehicle for text for women to express their feelings and views about society and the world, and also to understand the cultural influences and functionality of the melody line.

"We're looking at a world where women haven't always been able to express their opinions and have found a private context to express their ideas, fears, anxieties, and views," Darnell said. "It's a very intimate meditative process, where it's just between the woman and her child. And a lot of the times the child is a newborn, so the child doesn't really understand what the woman is saying. While the woman uses the melody of the lullaby to put the baby to sleep, she'll start improvising text and start to recall her day, things that are troubling her, and her opinions, which might not be heard outside of her home."

With a background in Italian folk music, Cimarusti was an ideal mentor for Darnell. He helped guide her in the right direction of where to look for particular recordings or scholars and talked with her about her research papers.

"She's taken on a subject that I only grew up listening to. My mother was from Italy, and she used to sing me these lullabies. And when I play in my mind the music that my mom sang to me when I was a toddler, it has a deeper meaning than just studying these lullabies – I actually lived these pieces," Cimarusti said. "I've not studied those lullabies; I am studying them with her. And given the quality of her research, I have found that she has helped define who I am."

A Musician in the Making

You don't have to dig very deep to understand Darnell's connection with the lullaby and her passion for music in general. She was born with music in her blood. Her father, a musician in a well-known '70s Texas country and rock 'n' roll band, learned to play guitar and fiddle by ear.

"My first experience with music that I can remember is my dad singing Sons of the Pioneers songs on the guitar as lullabies," Darnell said. "When I got a little bit older I decided I wanted to be just like dad and play fiddle."

But he had other plans for his daughter, wanting her to learn how to read music and understand it in ways he never had. She began piano lessons at age 7, and from there, a progression of classical music studies in oboe and voice followed. It wasn't until college that Darnell was able to return to her folk music roots when she learned about the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech, an organization that offers in-depth research, teaching and performance opportunities in the world's vernacular music.

The Center allowed Darnell to combine her classical studies with the music of her father by joining the World Music Ensemble, founded in 2009 by Cimarusti. The ensemble consists of smaller groups or "ensemblettes" that focus on world music from various genres, like mariachi or zydeco. Each semester the group decides upon a theme or country to highlight, and then, they learn the instruments that go with certain songs. The group recently performed tango music from Argentina, holding several tango milongas at a local coffee shop and invited professional tango dancers to perform to the music.


Heather Darnell participates in a drum circle while in Italy Heather darnell plays a drum in Italy Musicians on the street in Tropani Heather darnell takes in the ruins in Italy

While on her trip to Italy, Darnell encountered many musical and cultural experiences that influenced her research, from participating in drum circles, to listening to street musicians and touring archeological sites. Click images to enlarge.


A Passion for Learning

Darnell's passion for knowledge and her desire to explore new areas of learning are just some of the aspects that set her apart from average college students. Cimarusti realized something special in Darnell that he feels other students could learn from.

"Heather is an incredibly bright student, and I don't say that because she does good work," Cimarusti said. "She is motivated, inquisitive, and articulate, and perhaps above all, she enjoys thinking and discussing important issues."

Cimarusti said undergraduate research is vital and believes it's a skill that all students should have.

"I think it [research] illustrates one's dedication to a subject. It certainly illustrates an ability to be meticulous! And whatever you do for a living, whether you are a violinist or an insurance salesman, you need to be meticulous – you need to be thorough. Research, I think, helps develop these skills," he said.

As for Darnell, she has some advice for those interested in research and interested in music in general.

"I encourage people to really understand where their music is coming from," Darnell said. "And I encourage people to not just sing, but understand why they are singing and what they are singing and who wrote it and where it came from and the history of their piece; and as far as I am concerned, the history of music in general, not just western civilization, but all over the world."

Darnell's undergraduate research studies will not end when she graduates in August. She plans to take a year off to possibly travel before returning to graduate school, where she will continue her research and eventually one day follow in her mentor's footsteps by becoming a music history and musicology professor. She wants to teach students and advocate for research in the humanities.

"We kind of have a skewed sense of research," Darnell said. "When we think of research, we normally think of people in a lab pouring weird chemicals with each other. But research is far more than that. And research in the humanities is important, because our world is a world of ideas. This kind of research, whether it is visual art, whether it is music, whether it is literature or language, all of this builds on top of each other to further our society and our culture, and gain a better understanding of them. So research, especially in the humanities, is extremely important, and I definitely encourage people to go into it and to look into its different aspects."

Although Darnell's route to her current study was not what she envisioned, she feels it was all for a larger purpose of learning and developing herself as a student and as a person.

"My musical experience has taken me down so many different paths, and all of this collects into my knowledge and my understanding of music – which is my ultimate goal – to understand as much as I possibly can about this beautiful gift we have as humankind," she said.

Thomas Cimarusti

Vernacular Music Center

Thomas Cimarusti is the founder of the World Music Ensemble, part of the Vernacular Music Center. The mission of the Vernacular Music Center is to provide a center for in-depth and comparative research, study, teaching and advocacy on behalf of the world's vernacular musics – their construction, history and role in defining cultural life in human communities – in all cultures and historical periods. The center offers courses, workshops, concerts, and other sponsorship, and serves as liaison between the School of Music and a range of outside entities.

College of Visual & Performing Arts

The College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech offers a diverse array of programs and courses in art, music, theatre and dance. The college seeks to prepare students who will be leaders in the profession by employing the highest standards in performance, teaching, research, and artistic and creative vision.

The College includes the School of Art, School of Music, Department of Theatre and Dance, and Fine Arts Doctoral Program.

Connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

Kristina Woods Butler is a Sr. Editor in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.

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Sep 24, 2014