He begins again. Ms. Cook interrupts again: “If you try to move me, you won't.”

On the third try: “I hear no difference. Would you just bloody sing it more, get into the song more?”

Demonstrating, she sings “Smile.” It could break your heart. “Do you see what I'm saying?”

He tries for the fourth time. She holds up her hand. “We put on a fake cloak because we think that's what's needed. What we really want is you. Take off your emotional clothes and be naked. It's scary. But this is where safety lies. The core place. If we can sing, dance, paint from that place, we cannot be wrong. Got that?”

The cherub takes “Smile” from the top. I hear no difference. Ms. Cook stares at him. After the final note, she puts her hands on his shoulders. “That was sweet.” She turns to the audience. “Wasn't that sweet?”

Clarissa Lecce, a pretty girl in a flippy polka-dot dress, sings a song from Ragtime. Oh my God. Her voice is perfection. What could Barbara Cook possibly say?

“You're very talented. You sang that beautifully. Now sing it and let us come to you. Simple, simple, simple.”

Miss Lecce gets it. The song is even better.

Dressed head to toe in black, Barbara Cook moves like a cat. As a student sings “Someone to Watch over Me,” she paces, tilts her head, stops, walks, stops again, turns, tilts. She shifts her weight, holds her chin, cocks her head, gets closer, moves back. Listening, for Barbara Cook, is physical.

“Play 'em like a fish,” she tells one girl. “Keep 'em on the line. 'I want you in bed with me.' C'mon. We're all adults. That's what this song is about.”

Ms. Cook invites a boy in the audience to stand in front of the girl so she can look in his eyes while she sings. “Hold hands,” Ms. Cook says. The song takes off. When it's over, the boy continues to hold the singer's hands. His cheeks are flushed. His chinos bulge with what the writer Gerard Shyne used to call a 10 to 6.

I'm learning so much! Everyone improves! Even students who start in the stratosphere! I can't wait for my private lesson. I'm a singing fool. My mother perched me on the piano when I was 3. I'd sing “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” for company, waving a chiffon scarf. In camp I was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Wait till Ms. Cook hears my voice. I can hold my breath for two laps in an Olympic-size pool.

I make a list of favorite songs; the ones I sing straight are on the left, my impersonations on the right. We meet at noon in a hotel banquet room, the rehearsal pianist, Barbara Cook, her assistant, me.


Next Story