Teaching Moment: On the Passing of Barbara Cook
Photo credit:  Playbill.com

Photo credit: Playbill.com

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 do 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, healthy 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.

Highlights: The World Goes 'Round @ EHC

Enjoyed a final bow at Emory & Henry College this past weekend behind the keys as music director alongside longtime friend and collaborator Stearns Matthews, our guest director. The beautiful scenic design was by a senior design major Will Spencer and the lighting design by the brilliant Kevin Dudley. Was beaming with pride at our students tackling the deceivingly challenging score.

The World Goes 'Round @ EHC

In the thick of music rehearsals for Kander & Ebb's The World Goes 'Round, a show I've long wanted to work on. Making it even sweeter is a visit, as guest director, from my longtime friend and collaborator Stearns Matthews. Kander & Ebb's words and music, inspired students, old friends... no complaints here. Enjoy a sneak peek at our music rehearsals below. The production opens at the end of February in the Black Box Theatre at the McGlothlin Center for the Arts.

The Rocky Horror Show: In Rehearsals

Enjoy a trailer with some footage of my brilliant students in rehearsal for our upcoming production of The Rocky Horror Show. It's been pretty incredible getting to work on the piece again and I invite all of my colleagues and friends to come check it out on the mains stage of our new McGlothlin Center for the Arts in two weeks!

The Rocky Horror Show @ EHC

We're just about a month out from starting rehearsals for The Rocky Horror Show at Emory & Henry. To say I'm thrilled to be directing and music directing the production would be an understatement. Not to mention, my first collaboration with our newly appointed (rock star) scenic and lighting designer Kevin Dudley. The production features guest narrators nightly and a special midnight performance!

Wilson, Rocky, Kander & Ebb, Oh My...

Looking ahead at another academic year and working on some brilliant projects with my students and colleagues. In the fall, I'm thrilled to be directing some of the genius that is August Wilson in a scene from Fences as a part of our "American Classics" evening featuring some of America's greatest playwrights. Follow that up with directing and music directing The Rocky Horror Show (more on that later!). And, music directing - alongside my friend and brilliant artist Stearns Matthews - Kander & Ebb's The World Goes 'Round this spring. There's also this little one-man show about the life and songs of Lorenz Hart (but again, more on that later).

Somewhere in there I'll be presenting at the Virginia Theatre Association's annual conference again. Two workshops on belting and auditioning for college theatre programs!

SETC & A New Book In The Works

I'll be heading off to Greensboro, North Carolina next week to the Southeastern Theatre Conference's annual convention. I'll be presenting two of my workshops, More Than Words: Contemporary Commercial Singing for the Musical Theatre and Use What You Got: Authentic Confidence in Performance which tackles the unique demands and anxieties of performance for the singing actor. I'll also sit on a panel with colleagues from Emory & Henry and Florida Southern College to discuss with educators how to successfully prepare high school students for college auditions.

I'm extremely excited to announce that I'm developing and authoring a new book that takes an in depth look at the next generation writing for the musical theater. More details will be released soon but I can say that I've got an incredible and dynamic roster of composers and lyricists on board who will offer up an intimate glimpse into their process, inspirations and assumptions about the future of the art form. Keep an eye out for official announcements in the coming months.

Some bootlegs. Coming Home @ EHC.

I recently had the great honor and pleasure of performing alongside my music department colleagues at Emory & Henry College in our new digs, the McGlothlin Center for the Arts. It was a thrill, to say the least.

The performance, entitled Coming Home, featured the brilliant Dr. Lisa Withers, Dr. Matt Frederick, Dr. Allyss Haecker and yours truly. A friend was kind enough to capture some bootleg recordings which I'm happy to share here. 

It was particularly moving getting to be behind the keys again, singing and playing (a place I feel truly at home). Much love and many thanks to the brilliant Bob Ballengee for his accompanying me on percussion.

They are bootlegs after all, so don't mind the quality, just (hopefully) enjoy.