Finding Your Voice
“I feel as if I can't keep up with the piano. Like I'm not matching the notes.”
“You are missing a few,” Ms. Cook says in a kind way. If King Kong tried to sing, she would critique him with respect.
“Could I try it without the piano? If I can sing at my own pace, I know I'll sing it with more feeling.”
“Tell you what,” Ms. Cook says. “Speak the lines. Speak the words.”
"It's not the pale moon that excites me,"I say, as if Barbara Cook and I were having coffee.
She interrupts. “It has to be backed up emotionally. You talk about somebody having sweet conversation: 'Oh my God! Your conversation knocks me out!' Okay? You use those words, those feelings.”
“I'm worried I'll get hammy,” I say.
“The only way it could get hammy is if you're on the outside doing it. But if it's really coming from a real place in you, there's no way it can be hammy. We all have these feelings. You're saying, I'm human, too. I'm like you. We're not alone. Hmm? And it heals. It's important. It's not a little thing.”
I ask Barbara Cook if she'll sing my father's favorite song: “Younger Than Springtime.” I want to know why it made him cry.
She sings: "And when your youth / And joy invade my arms / And fill my heart as now they do / Then younger than springtime, am I...."
My eyes well up. The song is a short story. A story about the power of love to triumph over time. I've sung this song all my life. I'm hearing the words for the first time. I'm seeing the words in the context of my father's bountiful love. I'm learning something that will make my life smarter. All that, from one song, sung directly to me, by Barbara Cook. Is this what authenticity can do?
“Did you ever feel in your life you were inauthentic?” I ask.
“You bet. I still do sometimes. And I say, 'Barbara, what the hell are you doing?' Because I get awed like everybody else, particularly around people who are famous. And I catch myself doing something ridiculous and I—'Jesus! Calm down, you know, come on.'”
We spend two hours singing together. I don't want this lesson to end. Ms. Cook tries on my shoes. I promise to send her a pair in orange to match the faux Bottega Veneta bag she got online from Korea. My plane is leaving in 45 minutes, but I'm only 15 minutes from the airport. There's a song from Carousel that I love. I saw the revival at Lincoln Center a few years ago. What can someone intimate with disillusion do with a song about innocence?
“Would you consider singing a little something from Carousel before I go? Would you sing 'When I Marry Mr. Snow?'” Barbara Cook says yes. The years fall away. She is a bride-to-be, pert, full of hope, ready for love. Barbara Cook is almost 80. It's baffling how she does this. It's magic.
A month later, at an informal gathering at a friend's house, the tenor Robert White is singing by the piano. Robert White has sung for five presidents and is taking requests. I ask for “Younger Than Springtime.” Midway through, he extends his palm toward me and curls his fingers. I look into his eyes. I sing from a place I've never sung. We finish our duet. Everyone applauds. Robert White blows me a kiss.
Barbara Cook's albums include No One Is Alone (DRG).