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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mothers Give Unborn Babies a Life of Song

The gathering of pregnant women Tuesday at the Center for Rehabilitative Medicine looked like a cross between a meditation session and a kindergarten singing class.

Many future mothers talk and sing to their unborn babies, but it didn't seem very promising when a half dozen women sitting in a circle around a gray-haired, mustachioed pianist started singing children's songs looking slightly uncomfortable.

It became a bit more intriguing when the man asked his pregnant students to stand up and practice humming various sounds while gently shaking their rounded bellies.

But it got curiouser and curiouser. The teacher asked the women to drum out a rhythm on a matchbox placed against their stomachs, communicate with their babies by tracing shapes with flashlights and then talk to the babies inside their womb through a contraption called an audiophone. It is a plastic tube with funnels on each end: one for the mother to speak into, while the other is placed against her stomach.

The teacher is Mikhail Lazarev, a doctor, poet and composer who is obsessed with his idea of harmonic upbringing. Some 15 years ago, he came up with an original system of prenatal development based on the assumption that unborn babies can hear, and that the first sounds they hear leave imprints on their personality forever.

"The human voice has everything - breathing, emotions, intellect and physical vibration," Lazarev said. "Sound is pure vibration and the baby hears it - with its bones if not with its ears."

The son of a pianist, Lazarev studied at a musical school before he entered a medical college. After he realized he couldn't be a surgeon because of an allergy to certain anesthetics, he decided to find a way of combining his love of music with medicine.

First he developed breathing exercises for children suffering from asthma and then for pregnant asthmatics. When his wife gave birth to their first son, watching her sing to the baby gave him the idea for his prenatal development system.

"In fact, I didn't invent the wheel," Lazarev confessed over herbal tea after the class, wearing a blue medical robe but looking more like a Cossack. "It's all in Russian folklore."

Lazarev called his system Sonatal, from the Latin words for sound and birth, and described it in a book that was published in 1991, and only in English translation in the United States.His method was long dismissed in Russia as nothing more than an amusing pastime, but about two years ago it was recognized by the Health Ministry and is now promoted.

Lazarev prides himself on its success. In the Volga River town of Naberezhniye Chelny, where it is widely used, he says infant mortality has gone down and fewer babies are born premature.

Over the years, Lazarev has composed more than 1,000 songs for pregnant women and newborns, as well as 14 children's operas.

"Music is the evolution of our emotions," he said. "Nobody can tell exactly why a minor key makes us feel sad and a major key cheers us up, but I believe these things have deep roots in physiology."

Musical rhythms effect the speed of a pregnant woman's breathing and heartbeat, Lazarev said, which then transmit emotions to the baby. For instance, lullabies make the mother relax and slow down her heartbeat, thus calming down the baby, he said.

A believer in Ivan Pavlov's famous system of conditioned response, Lazarev teaches future mothers to plan their day according to the baby's schedule after birth. They are to eat seven times a day at certain times, and wake up and go to sleep early.

Every action of the mother that Lazarev calls "ritual," such as eating, bathing and stretching after awakening, is to be accompanied by a particular song or noise. The mother has to sing for two hours a day to produce an effect, he says, and the routine continues after the baby is born.

"The mother's voice is a tuning fork for the baby's perception of the world," the doctor wrote in the book's preface. "Even if she doesn't know how to sing and her voice seems awful to herself, that's vibrations of life for the baby."

The singing sessions do have an effect on her baby, said Olga Makarova, 27, who is seven months pregnant.

"He always tosses and turns a lot, but as soon as I start singing, he just gets so quiet and starts listening," said Makarova, who attended Tuesday's session and taped every song on her tape recorder.

Another student, Svetlana Kravchenko, 25, said her baby was energized by the music. Every now and then during the class she would grab her stomach with both hands and let out an exclamation: "Oh stop kicking!" She seemed pleased, however.

"My husband begged me not to go today because it's so slippery outside, but I couldn't miss such a perfect opportunity to meet women in the same situation," she said. "At the clinic, they prepare us practically for labor, but this is for the soul."Kravchenko said her husband used to be skeptical about her interest in Lazarev's singing methods, viewing it as a whim of pregnancy, but has grown more understanding lately.

"Now he tells friends not to call at 9 p.m. because that's when we are having a lullaby," she said, smiling happily.

Lazarev's group, accompanied by students of the Gnessin Academy of Music, give a concert once a month at the Shuvalova House near Novy Arbat.