Broadway Legend Barbara Cook Shares Her Experiences With Young Vocalists
From the looks of the line stretching around the Broad Stage at Santa Monica College's Performing Arts Center, you might have thought Pavarotti had risen from the grave for one last performance.
This was not the case. On Friday Sept. 19 the legendary Broadway performer Barbara Cook held an exclusive master class called "Touching the Emotional Well" for five very lucky young singers. Cook is a world-class songstress who won a Tony Award for best performance by a featured actress 50 years ago in her appearance in "The Music Man."
The way the audience was dressed it looked like a very formal event, but Cook took the stage in casual garb. During SMC student Geoffrey Going's critique, she asked him to remove his blazer for his song "Who Can I Turn To" by Anthony Newley and he responded to Cook, making a reference to the song, saying "I was going to run for president."
The class was a light-hearted affair with periodic jokes from Cook, which received huge laughs from the crowd. Aside from the jokes, Cook was serious when it came to grading the vocalists' performances.
The five sopranos, tenors and baritones, all took to their songs with high energy and enthusiasm but Cook emphasized them to be more intimate with their songs. "Singing should be as close to a conversation as possible. Think of the lyrics as dialogue," Cook explained. "Just speak."
The young singers seemed very keen on impressing the audience. To counteract this, Cook had them sit down in a chair and face away from the audience. "This is a dialogue with yourself," said Cook.
Most of the singers used the excuse that their up-tempo qualities were the fundamentals they have been taught their whole singing lives. "Erase everything that has been burned into your head over the past 10 years," Cook said to Peabody Southwell, a recent UCLA graduate. "My instructor is right over there," Southwell said while pointing into the front row.
Once Southwell brought her performance down a couple levels ,Cook became very pleased as did Southwell. "I could really feel myself letting go," said Southwell. "I give my students permission to do what they want to do. To just be," Cook said.
Cook emphasized all five singers to simply speak to the audience. "You don't have to grab us by the throat. If it's authentic we will come to you," said Cook.
16-year-old Benjamin Howard of Hamilton High School ,who could have passed for actor Michael Cera's twin brother, received the most criticisms from Cook. He chose "Pretty Woman" by Stephen Sondheim as one of his songs. Cook encouraged Howard to choose a song that he can truly understand. "How do you feel about pretty women?" Cook asked. "Do you like to see a pretty girl walk down the street? What do they do for you? What happens?"
After Cook's inquiries, Howard's face was as red as a tomato and he was unable to give Cook a clear answer which proved her point.
A similar problem arose when 16-year-old Jane Kivnik of Santa Monica High School chose the song "What'll I Do" by Irving Berlin. "You're not old enough to sing this," said Cook. ""What'll I Do" is so rich in emotion. I don't know if you have enough life experience to sing this song."
"When I chose this song I was thinking of my mother and what I would do without her, minus the kissing," Kivnik explained.
"You're not thinking about the words at all. You're worried more about singing and notes than what you're singing about," Cook explained to Angel Blue, another UCLA graduate. Cook asked all of her pupil's to "fulfill what the song is asking [them] to do."
Kathleen Kernohan a former student of Cook's and the oldest of the performers was the last to step onto the stage. Kernohan was nervous while on-stage with Cook.
"This is hard for two reasons. Number one, because I have been practicing this song all day. Number two, because you're my idol," said Kernohan. She began her song, but then Cook cut her off because she was "rushing through her song like a freight train." Cook's comment caused Kernohan to break into tears. "I wanted to sing good for you and I screwed it up," a sniffling, teary-eyed Kernohan said.
What happened next was a very touching moment. "I used to guard myself from crying during a song, but I realized if I kept doing that I would keep all sorts of other wonderful things from happening," said Cook. "Just sing through it."
Kernohan continued to sing "If Love Were All" by Noel Coward with tears still running down her cheek.
All of the participants appeared honored to have had Cook as a tutor, even for such a brief time. "It was amazing. She's a legend, and she's very down to Earth," said Going who revealed he is a part of the up-coming "American Reflections" tour based out of SMC which will be traveling to China this October.
The afternoon ended with Cook taking a few questions from the audience. A time-old question was asked by a young girl, "what advice can you offer an aspiring performer?"
Cook's response really answered two questions. The other question being, how she can still get up in the morning, at nearly 81 years old, and perform in front of sold-out audiences across America. "Singing can't be something you like to do, it has to be something you must do. Then you will find your way."