Article by Raymond Buckingham in New York Opera Newsletter - 1995

The following article appeared in the New York Opera Newsletter in 1995.


by Raymond Buckingham

“Many people are asleep when it comes to their potential vocal ability. One of the most difficult things is to awaken them to this fact when they are dreaming that they are already awake. The great ones among you are simply awakened and if they start to fail they are merely being lulled back to sleep."         R.B. 

Take a song! One that is well out of your vocal range (perhaps out of everyone's vocal range) and start right in boldly with full force to sing it, no matter what the consequence. If at first this feels a little hard on your throat, makes you red in the face, weak at the knees and unduly perspirant, pay no heed: push on regardless.   Now, should you start to feel a bit hoarse, this is the time to really show courage, breathe deeper, sing louder and push harder. Irate neighbors at the walls with a broom handle, acute pains in the laryngeal area of the neck or a distinct sense that your last moment is not far away should not deter you if you are a truly ambitious singer, but rather should spur you on to final attainment.

This eccentric behavior, as we all know, will ruin any voice production you might have had in short order.  And yet, in other ways, many young vocalists are inadvertently dealing themselves the same disservice without being aware of it.  Although initially it may not be apparent to the unskilled ear, it is equally, if not more dangerous, than the first example.

It is safe to say that it is actually dangerous to your vocal future to go to 80% of the so-called voice teachers today.  I know this may sound like the pot calling the kettle black, since I too am a voice teacher, but I am also a singer, who has sung in most countries of the western world and feel that I am reporting directly from the scene of battle itself, the battle for vocal survival  (in which so many students must fight against many odds, let alone their teachers, whether they are aware of it or not). Though this may sound like a harsh tirade directed at members of an honorable profession, it seems to me that any profession that can perpetrate such an enormous hoax upon promising young talent, may no longer be considered honorable.

It is gratifying to me that there are others aware of the overwhelming number of unqualified teachers reigning over the singing world.  Harold Schonberg once wrote in the New York Times: ''it is no great secret that in our decades, vocal teachers have ruined many promising voices.   You, anybody can hang out a shingle and teach voice, loudly announcing yourself as the only true exponent of the coup de glotte as taught by de Reszke and handed to you personally by his ghost.   Or, we can invent the laryngo-thyro-crice-artheno system of muscular un-tensions, every applicant guaranteed to have the sinuses expanded, the diaphragm unfastened, and two octaves added to the upper and lower registers.   All, of course, provided the system is followed for several years.  At $150.00 the weekly lesson.”  The late Robert Weede said in an interview by Phillis Battelle for the New York Journal-American, that the voices of many of Americas current favorite opera and concert stars . . . '' have been so incorrectly trained that they are doomed to collapse at an early age."   In Weede's opinion, the incorrect training is a result of unqualified people taking over the teaching function, pianists and accompanists along with singers who couldn't make a living by singing.

Why are these people incompetent voice teachers?   What should a student really expect from his teacher and himself?  With such questions in mind and such shattering revelation expounded on the subject, one might very well think in all sincerity: Is a voice teacher really necessary? To answer this, I will first pose another question: Why is an accompanist with fine piano technique, excellent musicality, and a wealth of knowledge of either operatic, musical comedy or popular singing style, an incompetent vocal teacher?  The answer should be obvious: because he is not an expert on the vocal apparatus and voice production.  And yet, the point contained in these questions and their answers (which should be self-evident) is one that somehow requires a new re-emphasis on the contemporary vocal scene.

The voice is unlike any other instrument and the singer must be trained differently than the pianist, violinist or any other instrumentalist.  For the singer is the only instrumentalist required to build his instrument before he can use it, plus be an expert in the constant servicing of it, repairing of it, and keeping it in good working condition.  Figuratively speaking, the singer must not only be an Arthur Rubinstein, but the foreman of the Baldwin factory, an expert piano tuner and a repairman - all rolled into one - and all this on an instrument that requires incessant vigilance, re-tuning and maintaining every day of the year! How many violinists can build a violin?  Or, better yet, how many can play on a half constructed one? 

In addition, the singer must build his instrument from invisible parts that act involuntarily, operate spontaneously and are invisible to him.  And, as if this were not enough, he can't even clearly hear his own voice as others hear it.   Is there any wonder that there is an extreme need for expert voice builders, for specialists in the production of a healthy sound from the human larynx, and corresponding parts of the anatomy that make up the vocal apparatus?  It demands an encyclopedic knowledge to carry through the job successfully - hardly in the domain of a vocal coach.  Building a voice cannot be achieved by reading a book, by hearsay, or by osmosis from listening to singers (great or otherwise).  A voice can be built in one way and one way only: by the constant tireless and intimate work of both teacher and pupil. There is no mystery about what should be achieved nor any arbitrary ten-year period required to see the light.  However, there are certain bridges to be crossed one at a time.

The first bridge is selecting an able teacher.  How does the layman judge a teacher’s capabilities?  Frequently, an experienced teacher on meeting a pupil will communicate instantly with the pupil and exercise what the Italians call simpatia.  This of course places the pupil at his ease and establishes faith in the teacher.  This ability of the teacher is indeed helpful in his task of teaching, if he or she knows their craft - but, if not, it may create the insidious and most common of all traps - blind faith or more appropriately deaf faith.   For, should the teacher not have the necessary knowledge, he or she will be worse than ineffective, but will be most effective in mapping a course to vocal destruction or the un- fulfillment of vocal potential.   In other words the student will learn, with all confidence and surety, the wrong way to sing. Strong and wrong is an arduous Gordian knot to unravel even for Alexander the Great or the subsequent teacher that will have to deal with the problems created - should the student be so lucky. I have heard unbelievable accounts of this sort of situation carried to its inevitable negative results.

A head voice teacher of a well known institute was asked by a pupil, after three years of constant study: "Madame, why have I developed this wobble in my jaw, and why can I no longer sing pianissimi as I could when I first came to you?  Madame replied: Why my child, a jaw wobble is quite natural.   After all Helen So-and-So has one.   And as to the pianissimi, we will talk about that later when you are ready." I will grant that there are singers who are great despite their faults, but none who are great because of them.   If this were so, one would merely have to smoke like Caruso, become overweight like Tettrazzini, drink like . . . many famous singers, go to parties, philander, stay up all night before a performance, etc.    Presto!   One would have the greatest singing voice in the world.  Presented this way, it seems absurd and yet Madame X, I’m sorry to say had an abundance of magnetism and a destructive lack of knowledge of constructive and healthy vocal technique.

So the pupil must look first for a display of the teacher’s knowledge and second for a sense of affinity.   The teacher can only display knowledge completely by: first demonstrating with his or her own voice, or by past performance known to the pupil, combined with the ability of his pupil’s voice and observation of the pupils' progress over a period of time. Secondly, by explaining exactly what is being done and how it is to be accomplished and then making you accomplish the same.

At this point I am taking it for granted that no one would study with a teacher who did not possess the personal qualities mentioned above as well as the academic ones. Although, I must confess I have known students so naive as to study with a zither player, if recommended highly enough by a personage prominent in the musical world, even though that personage has no vocal knowledge at all.

It has been the frequent experience of accomplished singers to receive compliments from well meaning fans such as:  "I really enjoyed your singing, you should have your voice trained."  Or, from envious friends: ''If had I had a voice like yours, I wouldn't work for a living either."   And so on.   This is usually a sign that you have attained the art that conceals art.   An enormous amount of work goes into such an achievement and, to get an idea of what the achievement is, I would like to state exactly what a teacher should be able to demonstrate.

Such demonstration should encompass running through florid passages easily at any desired tempo, ability to crescendo and decrescendo to a pianissimo, then crescendo again through two octaves of the range, and also the ability to trill in that same range.   All these should be executed with a clear, vibrant, free-flowing and beautiful sound.   This is, of course, applicable to the whole range of the voice when singing either legato or staccato.  As for vocal ranges, the practicing range of the female voice should be a minimum of three octaves and the male voice two and a half. Accordingly, the performing range of the female voice should be two and a half octaves.  The male? Two.  Even this does not always provide the demands often made by some roles.

Having come this far, perhaps the student will study with a teacher who has so proven him/herself.   What must he or she now expect?   Well, first, no matter how slight, there must be immediate and constant improvement within a maximum of three months, providing he or she has studied on a regular basis and practiced as instructed.   Within this period, the voice should start to become quite open, the range secured, and the vocal category definitely defined. Within two years from this time a complete working technique should be effected as specified in the demonstration by the teacher or his pupils.   If these accomplishments are not achieved in this time there is something radically wrong with the pupil or the teacher. However, if they are achieved, beware!   This does not mean final attainment.   It only means the ability to operate under the vigilant ear and continued guidance of the teacher, or the amount of time spent practicing.  (Many a great talent has gone the way of all flesh at this point in their training through believing they owned their technique  - they don't - the teacher usually owns it for many years to come.   And the road back from such a fall requires training from scratch, which is most difficult due to the tremendous psychological blocks set upon the ego from such failure.)  After this period, the pupil must continue to study finer point after finer point, ironing out every problem that occurs during various engagements and in increasing repertoire.  It must continue this way for another 5-7 years before the singer can safely own his technique, and even then he will find times that the teacher can help him better than he can help himself.

At this time the student may want to teach some singers:  I recommend it.   This will not only broaden his experiences in a way nothing else can, but it will also fulfill the creative desire that nearly every singer possesses.   For, as the singer becomes more experienced in his art and performances, he also becomes less creative and more interpretive.   His best roles have become known and he is asked to repeat them more and more often. Therefore, he is asked less often to create new ones.  His voice is secure and so it becomes a matter of just using it and maintaining it, not developing it.  So, in answer to the old controversy, is a singer creative or interpretive?  He is, of course, both.

There are further phenomena to avoid that are not apparent from the previous paragraphs. Although it is true that singing is very much both physical and mental, the student must avoid any method of training that enlists the aid for muscular development outside the body or extra parts of the body itself not directly involved in the singing such as pushing pianos with the  diaphragmatic  muscles,  pulling the  tongue with the  hand, pressing the tongue against an instrument to improve strength, and separating the cricoid and aretynoid cartilages with the aid of the teacher's  fingers.   All these muscles and parts do play a part in the singing function and should be strengthened:  but, if this is achieved by constantly applying artificial crutches, the singing in result will most likely sound artificial and pedantic. It may possibly become strong, but always strident and unbalanced.   For such a delicate and sensitive art as singing, the muscles involved (mostly involuntary muscles) must be developed by their own strength applied against their own strength (dynamic and isotonic tension).  In this way, none of the original intuitive feel for the line and musicality is disturbed; it is grown.

Singing in its completed form is the most difficult musical art and yet, probably not more than 5% of today's professional singers study as much or more than they perform, but they should.   In most cases it seems to be considered sufficient to study once a week and sing 6-12 performances in the same time period.   A conductor, dancer, a pianist or any other instrumentalist puts in from 4-8 hours of study a day and frequently performs as little as 2-3 times a month.  Although a singer physically is not able to study 8 hours a day, he should at least study as much as he performs, if not more, depending on his stamina.

Because of the many other demands made upon a singer during a public performance, it is inevitable that some vocal technique is abused; therefore there is need to study to repair and more study to progress, if that is the singer's aim.  Performing or talking are taxing and endanger the singer's vocal well being, much as boxing does for, you might say, the boxer.  Talking is emotional and disregards healthy technique and public performing usually puts more stress on the vocal apparatus than it is naturally constructed for, so take heed.

In conclusion: as you search for your voice, ask questions, ponder, explore and never ever let anyone discourage you in your search for your vocal ideal. One true measure of whether you are receiving healthy vocal training is your ability to progressively master more and more difficult vocal skills.  If this is not happening, beware, for you are being put to sleep when you are perfectly capable of being awakened.


A Reader's Response to this Article

Raymond Buckingham:  When I submitted this article to the New York   Opera Newsletter, Barry Lenson Editor-in-Chief, brought to my attention the kind and also constructive letter from Ms. Donna Walters which he published in the January  issue of  N.Y.O.N.   I realized that this article in part dealt with some of her questions, but not all.  So, if I may be so bold I would like to comment further on some of her questions that were not dealt with.

Q.  ls it an accident that the beginning of the decline of good singing seemed to coincide with the notion that people need to attend college to become singers?

A.  It is not so much the notion that singers needed to attend college to learn to sing but first that there was a demise in the kind of vocal academies where the likes of Challiapin and Caruso attended.  In those academies students were limited in number, spent all their days together working in groups even in one to one sessions studying voice training, acting techniques, deportment, etc.  Secondly, as these schools diminished due to lack of sponsorship, the colleges were forced to follow accreditation standards and spent more time on unnecessary book learning (hearsay at best) and far to little time on practical application.  Gone was the old standard of 1 or more hours a day studying vocal technique with 2 more hours a day practicing what students had been instructed to practice.  No longer were students given the invaluable experience of taking lessons in front of a group and observing other students' lessons as part of their training.  And so the decline of great training began.

Q. If colleges are turning out hundreds or even, thousands of singers each year, where are they?

A.  Colleges do not turn out thousands of singers each year.  They are turning out generic academicians who after graduation have the unhappy and belated task of learning to sing well enough to have a professional and international career.  A degree in voice won't get you the singing contract only your singing will get you the singing contract. However, if the aim is to have a degree so as to get a job teaching voice, we are back to square one with a teacher who has the "degree" but no practical experience, no ability to achieve success, resorts to academic accomplishments and returns to pass his hearsay to others with no knowledge of what the professional singing world is like.... there is no truth without experience.

Q. Where are the young dramatic voices? 

A.  My answers to the previous two questions pretty much answer this one. You know, I was once asked to lecture on this entire subject at the Metropolitan Opera Association. You can well imagine the response from the attending academicians. Although they were furious with my point of view, they could not deny the enormous success my students were having in the national and international arena. They were so angry that they didn't even have the grace to applaud.

Q. What do voice degrees mean? Would Caruso be qualified enough to teach in our Universities? He had no doctorate.

A.  Hypocrites had no doctorate.   A voice degree means that if you fail at your singing career, you have a document that guarantees you may return to academia and receive a reasonable salary for misleading a lot of other young singers as you yourself were.  As far as Caruso is concerned, he could probably get a job teaching in a University solely based on his fame and therefore drawing power to prospective students.  Based on what I have read about Caruso, he would probably have been a fantastic teacher since he developed his voice from zero through much experimentation and acknowledgment of its physical properties.   However, a famous singer does not always a good teacher make.  Many  "famous" singers with no teaching degree are receiving high salaries at prestigious universities and they are not producing singers with international voices.   Unfortunately, what is deemed important is their drawing power rather than their teaching skills.  You really can't teach great singing unless you yourself have been an accomplished great singer.  But, because you are a great singer, this does not necessitate that you can impart it to others.   Teaching is a particular talent.

Q. Why has the fach system become more and more narrow? Could it be in order to justify inadequacy? Why did and how could the old time singers be so versatile in their repertories and sing professionally for forty or fifty years?

A. The fach system in too many instances became a shield for the inadequacy of ill trained and underdeveloped singers.   Fach is in reality a vocal choice based on the vocal tessitura of a singer in relation to the tessitura of the composition to be performed.   A soprano is a soprano, she may go higher than some or lower than others, but the discriminating artistic director or the conductor can decide that for themselves.   In a Montiverdi opera  (“Pluto in the Underworld”), I played the bass role of Pluto.  The role required that I sing very low and far higher than the tenor and the baritone.  It was not a case of range, it was a case of fach.

Q. Do students today study old, scratchy recordings for clues? What about the early television broadcasts where singers stood up and poured out the sound? Are we too electronically sophisticated to learn from these things?

A. Listening to old or modern recordings of singers cannot do any harm as long as the style and idiosyncrasies of that singer are not emulated.  (A teacher can help the pupil in this kind of discrimination.)  All in all an aspiring singer should hear as many voices as they can, good or not so good.   How else can he or she discern just how well they are doing - or not doing.  It is true however, that modern technology can enhance the capability of a voice without it being a fact so far as the theater is concerned.   Bjorling had one of the smallest voices, but very beautiful and quite audible in the theater. However, Del Monaco on the other hand, had an enormous voice in the theater and had pretty much the same volume as Bjorling on a recording.  Conclusion:  small voices benefit from modern technology because large sonorous voices in the theater, when recorded, are deprived of the true dimensions of their most thrilling sounds.    A quantity of quality is always acceptable. 

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