Saturday, December 31, 2011

When You Wish Upon a Star ~ Song-Struck in 2012!

Barbara Cook, a lifetime of giving her song to the world ~ and we are grateful!

Dear Friends and Readers,

On this last day of the Year 2011 I wish you all peace, fulfillment, and happiness in the year ahead. Some people believe that 2012 is the year the world will end (Mayan Calendar) and others are filled with dread that another year of economic downturn is upon us.

But I say, let 2011 go and embrace 2012 with a song. While I was recovering from a nasty flu virus this week a friend send me an email and said, "Turn on the TV and watch the Kennedy Center Awards and listen to Barbara Cook sing. Her singing will heal you."

I'd never heard of Barbara Cook and this is quite strange, since she was singing when I lived in New York City and loved Broadway musicals. So it's astonishing that I'd never heard her rare and clear soprano soaring above an audience or intimately embracing a cabaret crowd.

Now, that I've heard her, I'll never stop listening! I not so much starstruck ~ as Song-struck. Here are some of my favorite You Tube clips -- and you also might be moved, as I was, by her story. Her recovery. And her nine decades of devotion to the music that opens our hearts.

As a longtime singer myself, I'm so cheered by the fact that her voice is getting better with age -- darker and more resonant, not the sometimes overly bright lights of youth, but the mature and seasoned wisdom of so long living.

Happy New Year and yours in harmony. Keep singing!

Here's a You Tube of the Kennedy Center Honors with clips from her musical history:

And a terrific NPR interview with her "My Life is  Work in Progress"

December 23, 2011 11:29 AM

Music legend Barbara Cook: I get better with age

Kennedy Center honoree Barbara Cook discusses her life and career with CBS' Julie Chen.
Kennedy Center honoree Barbara Cook discusses her life and career with CBS' Julie Chen. (CBS)
(CBS News)
For more than half a century, Barbara Cook has taken the American songbook and made it her own. Now a Kennedy Center honoree for her work on Broadway and artistic contributions, the 84-year-old isn't stopping. She's still singing -- doing what she's done for as long as she can remember.
"I've always sung," Cook told CBS' Julie Chen recently. "I don't even remember not singing. I was born, I breathed, I sang, I think."
Known as one of the greatest vocal interpreters of all time, Cook is constantly improving her craft, getting better with age and experience.
"I think, you know, five years from now, I'll sing better than I do now," Cook said. "I truly do. Because I'll have more courage."
Raised in Atlanta, she started singing at a young age. Music was an escape from hard times.
"My mother and father divorced when I was maybe 6-and-a-half, close to 7 maybe," Cook recalled. "My mother and I then went to live wirh my grandmother in a really, really difficult situation. It was at the depth, or height, or whatever you wanna call it, of the Depression. So, it was very, very hard for, not just us -- for everybody."
At age 21, Cook moved to New York, following her dream of a singing and acting career -- and never looked back. Quickly, that career took off, with Cook finding steady work on the stage. Winning a Tony award for playing Marian the librarian in 1957's "The Music Man" made her a certified Broadway star.
"I didn't feel as if I was the toast of the town," Cook said. "I was very happy to have gotten that award, don't get me wrong."
Was she surprised? Or did she kind of know?
Cook said, "Well, I'll tell you the truth. I had done 'Candide' the year before. And I thought -- I wasn't even nominated that year. I thought I should get it for 'Candide.' Well, I didn't think it was in the bag. But I thought, 'Gee whiz, maybe,' because it was such an incredible departure for me, and still the most difficult thing I've ever done vocally, by far. By far. And I was kind of disappointed when I didn't even get nominated. So then, I wasn't expecting it for 'Music Man,' no."
There was more success, but doubt, depression and alcoholism took their toll.
When asked what happened, Cook said, "I was a drunk. Pure and simple. .. You know, you slip into it. So, you don't know when it happens. You don't know when you cross into that -- you think you have trouble, so you drink. And you think, 'If I could fix the troubles, I wouldn't drink.'"
Cook said she was an alcoholic for about 10 years.
She said, "Just about the only thing I feel bad about in my career is that, during the years when I (was in my) forties and fifties, when I was in my prime, when I should've been doing my best work in theater, I was not employable. I was not employable for selling Kleenex at the drug store. I just -- you know -- I could not function. ... I wasn't working. I couldn't. I couldn't work. No. I was just being a drunk."
Cook finally got sober. She credits her 30-year collaboration with accompanist and musical director Wally Harper for saving her life and career.
"it was a great, great coming together," Cook said. "Two sensibilities coming together. And -- he died in 2004. And it was horrible. Very, very hard. You know, it wasn't just that he played the piano for me. We -- we thought alike musically, do you know? And he was very, very special for a lot of people."
Cook returned recording and the stage, taking her highly acclaimed one-woman show to theaters and cabarets around the world. She also teaches master classes to aspiring performers, hoping they can learn from her life experience.
"What I want is for people to let me in," Cook said. "I want people to put their life experience and how they feel this minute into what's happening right now."
And right now, Cook said she is feeling gratitude.
"I know that I can move people, people who are willing to be moved," Cook said. "And it's a wonderful feeling to know that -- that you can make that connection. It's a great feeling."
And at age 84, Cook is now a Kennedy Center honoree.
Cook said of the honor, "This is not only a validation of my work but, because I have put so much of my life experience into my work, I feel it's a validation of my whole life. So, it means a great deal to me."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays and My Presents to You


Happy Holidays to all of my friends and readers,

Here to celebrate the season are several offerings I hope you enjoy!

First, an audio excerpt from NPR station KUOW in Seattle, "The Hugest, Most Miraculous Christmas Eve Bubble"as produced and told to NPR host Megan Sukys, who herself also has roots in the South. For those of you who are aspiring authors, compare the difference between my "talk story" on NPR and the written account of the same Live Nativity event in my recent memoir.

Writing is for the eye and storytelling is for the ear. They are very different ways of telling a story. For those of you who want to find the Live Nativity story in my memoir, it's on page 50-51. Note how the epiphany is slightly different in the spoken story, more in keeping with the oral tradition.The ear is more impatient than the eye -- and yet sometimes I think the ear is more open, less jaded. For those of you who are writers, try to always read aloud your written work. You'll hear places to edit and add.You'll also hear when it falls flat and when it suddenly takes flight. A fascinating process!

The Hugest, Most Miraculous Christmas Eve Bubble
Seattle–based writer Brenda Peterson grew up in a strict Southern Baptist family in Virginia. Every Christmas Eve, her church would produce a living Nativity, a tableau of the birth of Jesus featuring live animals. One year, the Nativity offered a lesson in mercy that Brenda will always remember. She shares her story of camel–dogs, sausage cookies and the biggest bubble gum bubble she's ever seen.

And here is my new Huffington Post. Yours in harmony,

Sing, Make a Joyful Sound:
 How Singing Helps Us
Posted: 12/23/11 01:05 PM ET

Every holiday season, our Metropolitan Singers perform concerts in retirement centers as part of our Seattle Glee Clubs' community service. It's musical light during these darkest days of the year, live music to accompany those elders who often can't get out and about for other concerts. So we bring music to them.

We always ask the elders to join us in holiday songs. And every year, as I recognize some of the same elders -- who are also the strongest singers -- I marvel at how singing and good health are connected.

This year, as we stand before over 60 elders, we warm up in front of a bright and fanciful Christmas tree. This audience is mostly women, with a few fortunate gentlemen who get lots of attention.

Our inspiring director, John, wittily engages the crowd with introductions to our lively spiritual "Great, Getting' Up Morning."

"Gabriel, Gabriel, blow your trumpet!" we sing, rejoicing in our four-part treble harmonies.
Feet start tapping, silver heads nodding and a gentleman in the front row hums
right along with us.

Our Russian-trained accompanist, Diana, passionately leans into the ringing chords, "In that morn, fare thee well!" and everybody claps happily.

Then we shift into the lilting melodies of two Russian lullabies, "Little Birch Tree" and "Good Night." Diana has taught us the tongue-twisting Russian patiently -- and phonetically. Diana's piano always lifts us up. Before immigrating to the U.S. with her family, Diana taught in a Russian music conservatory for 20 years.

"Music is its own country," Diana always says. "It makes you forget all your pain."

It does seem to have that healing effect on the elders. They sit up straighter; others lean forward into the music like spindly plants to sunlight.

As we move into "Isn't It Romantic," a song from their generation, the elders smile dreamily and close their eyes, remembering. Romance is eternal. And I see a very old couple reach out very shyly and take each other's hands. How many decades have they loved each other?

"Isn't it romantic, only to be young on such a night as this?" we sing.

And suddenly I remember one of the influential elders in my life, Beata, explaining to me, "The tragedy of getting old is that you're not really old. Inside, you're still young."

Beata was 72 and I was 24. I didn't understand her meaning at the time. But now I do. Memory keeps us always young, even as our bodies fail, even as we sometimes forget ourselves.

Singing, like memory, can also help keep us young. Research has indicated that singing may help to enhance memory. "How Singing Improves Your Health" advises, "Singing, particularly in a chorus, seems to benefit the elderly particularly well."

The article cites a three-year study of how singing affects the health of those 55 and older. Seniors who participated in a chorale showed significant health improvements compared to others their age: fewer doctor visits, fewer eyesight problems and falls, improved lung capacity and less asthma, less incidence of depression -- even the need for medication decreased.

The average age of the elder singers studied was 80, and they noticed that singing improved their posture, breathing, mood, and their energy level. Overall, their quality of life was heightened by the simple act of singing, especially in community.

More brain research has shown surprising results in singing as a way of easing Alzheimer's disease. Singing for the Brain is an organization that helps those with dementia, Alzheimer's, and memory problems through singing. "Music has the ability to access words," says Singing for the Brain voice coach Liz McNaughton. "People who have lost their ability to speak can access songs and words from melody."

If singing can help us as we age, what can it do for us at all ages of life? Brian Eno, British composer and producer of Talking Heads and U2, told National Public Radio that "Singing is the key to a long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor."

Amen, brother. And sister! Who wouldn't want to join in communal singing with that recommendation?

As we all, elders and chorale join together at the end of our Seattle concert to sing holiday songs, I feel a surge of physical well-being and gratitude to all the voices raised so strongly.

"Joy to the world," the elders sing with us.

And yes, that's what I feel now. Joy to be joining my voice with others, to still be in this world together, surviving and singing.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 16 books, including the recent memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. Many of the chapter titles in this book were song titles. For more:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Some of my students have asked me for a list of my favorite memoirs. Here are a few memoirs that still live with me and that I refer to in my own storytelling. Enjoy this holiday season!

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings              Maya Angelou

No Hurry to Get Home                                  Emily Hahn

Diary of Anne Frank                                     Anne Frank

Hope Against Hope                                       Nadia Mandelstam

The Good, Good Pig                                       Sy Montgomery

Strange Piece of Paradise                            Terri Jentz

The Tenth Muse: My life in Food                Judith Jones

The Inner Voice: The Making of a
     Singer                                                        Renee Fleming

Truth and Beauty                                         Anne Patchett

Woman Who Watches Over the World      Linda Hogan

My Family and Other Animals                     Gerald Durrell

Of Wolves and Men                                      Barry Lopez

Thinking in Pictures                                     Temple Grandin