Teaching Moment: On the Passing of Barbara Cook
Much of my professional life now is made up of hours teaching aspiring and professional singers and actors. As each year goes by, and the divide between my generation and my student's gets wider and wider (warning: it happens), I find myself in awe of what they don't know. Natural college professor evolution, I'm aware. College age students certainly seem more sophisticated and savvy than I remember myself being in college. They've been labeled the "iGen", never knowing a world without the internet right at their fingertips, and, for better or worse, technology serves as their primary means of communication.
Without going too far astray, I'll just say their "reality" and understanding of the world comes with its own set of unique rewards and challenges, particularly, for those young folks who bravely choose to study this thing we do, musical theatre. But, as I say to my college students all the time, "You picked it... I didn't tell you to do this thing!" And so, I put my big boy pants on and own up to the fact that just because the internet is there, these students seemingly have more than I ever had in college, and information and insight is more readily available than in any time in human history (I used to have to walk to the music library and flip through cast recordings of shows I didn't know, enjoying them on what now seem like long lost relics of the past CD's and stereo systems), doesn't mean my young friends know where to look and what to do with it. Just as vital as my ability to imbue them with technique, artistry and heart is my effectiveness in steering them in the best direction I can toward what is truly great; the creators and creations to aspire to. If, after four years, I can get them to remember that things existed before Dear Evan Hansen and Hamilton, I consider it a professional success. Time for another studio demand, "If you don't know who/what I'm talking about when I'm talking about it... write it down and look it up later, it's important."
This brings me to the subject at hand, Barbara Cook. It's tricky business talking "truly great" with students when it comes to performance because so much of what we look at when we see singers and actors (especially icons) on stage is driven by subjective thought. The good news is, I've spent almost two decades now teaching, and I'm pretty confident in my ability to make a case to a student, colleague or otherwise that's driven by objective, irrefutable evidence. This skill set often annoys my students, but in moments like this, I refer them then to something my Father always said growing up and it seems to work, "I may not always be right but I'm never wrong." (A riff on an old Samuel Goldwyn quote). It was announced today that Ms. Cook, at 89 years of age, passed away. To prove my point, I was never a huge fan of Ms. Cook's. She just "didn't dot it for me." That aside, I always reference her to my students as it relates to technique, athleticism and artistry in performance; the vital role good training can play on a voice. Furthermore, how their ability to be conscious practitioners of singing is career making, and/or potentially breaking.
For my money, Barbara Cook sits on a short list of performers in the American musical theatre who enjoyed as long, fruitful and successful a career as one can hope to have; a career adored and respected by the folks who count. It has nothing to do with the fact that I was, or wasn't, a fan. She had her personal struggles, and resulting periods of silence - literally and figuratively - as a result (I refer to my third point just above). But her craftsmanship and her artistry always served her. It was clear through her many interviews, performances and memoir she understood deeply the value of technique and truth telling. That it's not one or the other. That good, heathy singing doesn't have to be at odds with truth in story telling.
It's always after the greats leave us we reflect on their "greatness." But, those of us who knew her work knew Cook was great all along. Always the teacher, it strikes me, today with her passing I've got another opportunity to say to my students, "Look. You need to know her work." And, do my job of filtering through the noise to say, this is where to look and this is what to do with it. And, so here it is. With her passing, I'm certainly reminded of the unending gifts she gave to us in performance and in her life. Rest in peace, Barbara Cook and thank you.