Artistry: You either have it, or you don't?

It’s a topic and a question that’s rarely addressed. I guess because it’s assumed you either have it or you don’t? We imagine it can’t be taught. Like talent and potential. And yet, as musicians we spend our whole lives attempting to work our way into it. I’m talking about Artistry.

Thinking about artistry this week led me to Barbara Cook, who first became known for her starring roles in the original Broadway productions of “Candide,” “The Music Man” and “She Loves Me.”  Years later she reinvented herself as a cabaret singer, widely considered one of the best.

Stephen Sondheim told The Washington Post in 2002, “No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”

What is it that makes it artistry?

In a CBS 60 minutes interview in 2001 with Mike Wallace, one of Ms. Cook’s biggest fans, actor Anthony Hopkins was asked what made Barbara’s performances remarkable.

Hopkins responded with, “Well, when I saw her in London, it was in a big space, I remember, but she seemed to touch you directly. . . It’s a weird, strange technique, or magic, whatever you want to call it. I think all the great artists have that. They have a personal effect on you. You think that they’re singing to you.”

It’s one thing to be able to do this in an intimate club setting. It’s another to be able to produce this effect in a 2,600 seat theater. That’s exactly what I witnessed at a concert she gave at Symphony Hall in Boston. She had me and I’d guess 92% of the audience with tears in our eyes by the second song.

Oh and did I say, she was 85 at the time! Barbara Cook died in 2017 at age 89 but had toured well into her 80s.

In the interview with Mike Wallace, Ms. Cook had this to say about performing, “What actors need to do is to find a way to show people their despair, their joy, their pain, their exhilaration. All of these deep, deep emotional things—good and bad—so that if you’re able to do that, then there’s a kind of resonance that happens.”

Wallace: “There’s a chemistry that develops between you and the audience.”

Cook: “Yes, something occurs between cores, you know? My core to your core. I don’t know how else to say that.”

But can you teach it?

This also came up in a fabulous master class she presented at the Library for the Performing Arts in New York. Barbara said:

“What I aim to do  . . . is break down all the barriers and try to get right to the core of another human being. Why? Because if as artists, if we can do that, it is a healing experience. We see that someone shares our humanity and then our work becomes important.”

There’s a clue to artistry — a mission-driven artist, clear about her motivation, and what her work is actually FOR.

In that same master class Barbara offered this to one of the talented young singers:

“We [the audience] don’t want your IDEA of who you think you ought to be—we want YOU. Your authentic self.”

Getting naked on stage — another clue to artistry

In her master classes, Ms. Cook asked students to strip away all the trying to prove yourself or showing off that you can sing. She’d ask the singer to sit in a chair center stage and focus on one person in the audience and sing to that person, plainly, directly, without artifice. It was amazing to see what she could accomplish in just 20 minutes of working with a singer.

In a profile in The Washington Post she explained,

“What I try to tell students . . . is what we want is them. It’s so hard to believe that what the world wants is the intrinsic you on the stage.

The same, of course, could be said of Cook. “With her immaculate natural instrument and the ebulliently permeable sense of self she projects in her concerts, she’s the empress of ‘present.'”

More clues: beyond her instrument, there’s the ‘permeable sense of self’ and being fully present and real.

It’s even in how you handle performance anxiety

How did Barbara get herself in that ‘present’ sate? In an interview on Fresh Air, Terry Gross asked:

“When you perform, do you still have stage anxiety?”

COOK: “I do sometimes if it’s a big deal . . . But there’s something I do when that happens that helps me . . . when I’m standing in the wings waiting to go on. I kind of plant my feet and feel a kind of strength coming up from the ground into me.

And then I think about giving back this gift that I have been given. And when I do that, then I get out of ego so much. Then I don’t worry so much about what people think about how I sing or how I look. And I just try to sing more deeply and more personally, and I really enjoy that. I love singing, I do. I get rid of so much stuff by singing. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

And there’s this from her obituary in The Washington Post

“Merging a faith in her talent with faith in herself became a mantra, one she often shared with students during master classes. As Ms. Cook wrote in her book, ‘You don’t need to look like anybody else. You don’t need to sound like anybody else. Have the courage to give us your true self. You are enough. You are always enough. We are always enough.'”

The Barbara Cook recipe for finding your artistic voice

There it is. If we bottled Barbara Cook’s approach to help more musicians find their own artistic voices, the ingredients I detect are:

  • openhearted generosity — as an antidote to ego
  • use of somatic, kinesthetic centering (feet planted, feeling the energy rising)
  • a vulnerability that comes from the love of making music
  • a refusing to hide behind your ego or your technique
  • clarity of motivation — knowing what your music is FOR
  • having the courage to believe that you are enough
  • the commitment to continue to grow and deepen your own abilities to connect with audiences

So what do you think, when it comes to artistry, do you believe you either have it, or you don’t? What do you think Barbara believed?

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