Vol.7 No. 10 The Classical Singer’s Connection October 1994
Mr. Buckingham goes over the fine points of “Sempre Libera” with student Heather Hertling.
Raymond Buckingham is a singer and a voice teacher with a mission – to revive a technique that he states was used by virtually all teachers and singers in years gone by. In recent interview with TNYON, Mr. Buckingham stated his views with conviction. He also proved able to demonstrate his opinions with remarkable vocal feats tossing off a low bass C or high tenor C by way of casual example, or showing different ways to approach a vowel or a phrase throughout his range.
Mr. Buckingham has taught such singers as Neil Shicoff and Julia Migenes, and enjoyed a substantial singing career as a bass in both opera and oratorio. Here is a summary of the things he told us.
Q: We know that you teach something called “compressed” singing. What is it?
Mr. B: In years past, it was the only way to sing. In fact, a 20 year-old Groves Dictionary defines singing as keeping the pressure beneath the vocal cords equal to the pressure above them, with the larynx in a low position and an open throat.
“Don't use the air to move the cords. Use the cords
to move the air"
In a newer Groves, you’ll find the old description has been replaced by one about a column of air passing through the cords. The older description more or less describes the system of compressed singing that was standard in years past. I learned it initially from Dino Borgioli, Renato Stracciari and Giuseppe Martinelli, and discussed techniques with Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tauber and others of the same vocal persuasion. In those days it was considered the only way to sing.
Q. Why, in your opinion, did things change?
Mr. B: It probably started with a scientist named Bernoulli who passed air through the vocal cords of a cadaver that produced a vocal sound and hence, proved in his mind that singing was produced by air activating the vocal cords. The idea was not immediately accepted at the time. But since then, with the advent of electronic amplification which has subscribed in no small part to the demise of compressed singing, teachers have found it simpler to advise students to pass air through the cords as a way to produce sound, and singers have corroborated because it makes their training easier. As a result, voices diminish very quickly and the sounds become mushy and early vocal incapacitation sets in. I have an adage: “Don’t use the air to move the cords. Use the cords to move the air.” Compressed singing is a question of compressing the air with the lungs, keeping the air pressure under the cords, so that the cords can impinge strongly and thinly without the pressure of air in the lungs pressing against them. Your vocal cords can then be used to sing, and not have the needless burden of controlling the breath. My quest is to educate more singers and teachers to understand this idea. Although learning to sing with compressed breath is an arduous conditioning process, it gains the most for the singer in vocal beauty, facility and longevity. Most singers don't want to work that hard when they realize what is physically involved to acquire the remarkable discipline of true breath control.
Q. How is it different from the breathing that other teachers teach?
Mr. B. Most singers learn to expand their chests and breathe diaphragmatically. Although correct, that is but a small contribution to total breath control. The full technique is to learn a method of breathing that trains the neurological system to counterbalance the pressure under the cords, so there is never any pressure on them while singing. AlI the air that is taken in should be compressed into the lower sacks of the lungs (not back up through the vocal cords), since the air is for energy. That oxygen makes the heart pump and gives energy and strength to the area you want to use it in, which is the throat.
You can make the most sound over the widest range by not using any air to activate the cords, but letting the cords activate the still air that is surrounding them. (To demonstrate, Mr. Buckingham exhales completely, then sings a very loud note on his remaining wind.) You see, even if you have no air, you can still make a lot of sound. But you can't make a lot of sound for a long time unless you take in a lot of air and learn to still the breath. And it is such a simple idea: breathe in and hold the air, but not with your vocal cords. The exercises I give are the old ones - glottal strokes, expulsions, the false cord crackle, etc. By the way, all these exercises can be detrimental if they are incorrectly executed, without the proper guidance. They are the same things you' II read about in the old books on singing. You actually see them written into the music of Verdi in, say “Il Trovatore” (Mr. Buckingham demonstrates what he terms a "triple glottal release" on the word "pira" in "Di quella pira”). Teachers I meet say, "Don't do that, you'll ruin your voice." And, l can only answer, "Yes, I know, I’ve been doing it for 8 to 10 hours a day for the last 47 years. And, it's absolutely ruined my voice . . . I can still sing a low C and a high C and everything required in between."
Q. Are there active singers who apply what you advocate?
Mr. B: Domingo is by nature a compressed singer, but not fully developed. Pavarotti has totally developed this concept and the result is self-evident. In my view, there have been many others such as Del Monaco, Corelli, Horne, Sutherland, Tebaldi, etc.
The problem is, nobody believes today that it works. And they're glad not to, because it is so much easier to breathe in and out in a lazy fashion. That's what you hear in many singers today. Few voices are really developed. When one of those really developed voices comes along, people never believe that it was trained. They hear someone sing like a Corelli or a Del Monaco, and they assume, "Well, be has that kind of natural voice.” Or worse yet, they don't like the singing. As far as Corelli was concerned, it was like watching a wonderful stallion working. All that energy and strength! People don't think that kind of singing can be developed. Those same people might say the same about Schwarzenegger's physique. But it can be developed. Have you listened to Neil Shicoff?
Q. You mentioned the nervous system. Very few voice teachers seem to talk about it much, except when there is a wobble or something else wrong. Why bring it up?
Mr. B: To compress, you have to keep the chest feeling as though it is expanding; because the muscles we use to breathe in are the ones we use to still the breath. The muscles we use to breathe out are contractive and put pressure on the cords and tend to close the throat. The nervous system gives you the ability to hold the breath and feel it pulse and give you as much energy as you need to sing. It is the nervous system that controls the breath, just as it controls the cords. It is a nervous thing, a neurological action. You have to develop tremendous strength and skill to facilitate it and use it well. Both of which occur at optimum when they are spontaneous.
Is it really only the muscular strength that lets a baseball player hit a ball out of the park, or is it his nervous system that coordinates all the actions? Singing uses the involuntary muscles and, therefore, is spontaneous. And yet, we must use the intellect to develop and train it. That's the task of the teacher. It’s Pavlov's dogs all over again, a conditioning process.
Q. How do the involuntary muscles come into play?
Mr. B: Compressed singing can only be achieved through the use of the involuntary musculature. Those muscles need to be conditioned because one cannot exercise direct control over them. These involuntary muscles will go on working long after your voluntary muscles are fatigued. In other words, you may become physically tired but never vocally tired. When singing compressed, you do not abrade the cords and should never become hoarse. What causes hoarseness (other than infection) is issuing air through the impinged cords while singing. They swell from the insidious abrasion caused and will not function properly.
Q. When you are singing in the way you advocate, are you using more of the vocal cord surface?
Mr.B: Quite the opposite. Compressed singing uses less of the cord surface, but promotes a strong, thin impingement between the cords. Obviously, if you are going to get a high note, it would behoove you to tighten the aperture with a thin cord impingement, not a thick one. When you press air up under the cords they bow, and more of the cord surface and thickness is used. That is why the voice becomes mushy and tires more easily. Pressing air up through the cords leads to nodes and other problems. All the voice should be geared toward the position that produces the high notes. As a bass I learned that if you want to sing good low notes, you must sing with a thin cord approximation (that which produces the high notes). There is often a misconception about this. If you are a bass, you will make much more sound if you keep the sound light and high-even in the low range. In fact, the better your high notes, the better your low notes, and vice versa. Neither should take away from the other. It is a high, light placement that gives the voice quality and power.
Everything a person does is natural, including singing.
Natural does not necessarily mean easy.
Q. The quote you mentioned from Groves Dictionary mentioned an open throat and a low larynx. Are those things part of your technique?
Mr. B: I advocate what the Italians refer to as “posizione vomitato" which deepens the larynx, brings the front of the throat forward, raises the soft palate and arches the tongue upwards away from the larynx until you separate the cricoid and arytenoid attachments to make the most amount of space. This position is full of involuntary antagonisms and requires concentrated effort and delicate handling. Unfortunately, too many singers have been told that you shouldn't have to work hard to sing, that it's a natural phenomenon. Everything a person does is natural, including singing. Natural does not necessarily mean easy. However, there is one advantage that eventually does make the singing easier. When you have acquired these skills, the distended larynx, when singing, stimulates the thyroid gland. This helps slow, yet strengthen, the heartbeat which makes the task feel easier.
Q. What about vowels?
Mr. B: You don't get the voice from the vowels. You get the vowels from the voice. You do not need to accent the variety of vowel shapes in singing that you do in speech. In singing, you have to keep the vowels in one position.
Q. What about "covering"?
Mr.B: "Covering" is a misnomer. It comes from the Italian "coperto la vocce" which literally means cover the voice, but is a euphemism for "make the sound safe." People confuse head resonance with covering. But the actual act of what is termed as covering can only be accomplished when you are using head resonance throughout the range of the voice. It is actually ultra compression because you compress the breath harder, get the cords thinner, tilt the larynx further and thereby make the high tones resonate evenly and safely. The Bass covers on open vowels on E, a Baritone on F, and a Tenor on F# or G (although variations of this are often required). It's only done to beautify the voice. So you see, nothing is actually covered. This so-called covered position can also be used to diminish lower tones. (Mr. Buckingham softly sings the first few bars of the "Song of the Volga”)
Q. Do women also use this kind of covering on open vowels?
Mr. B: A woman should use the male voice at the range where she cannot be heard singing soprano. When a woman comes down from her soprano voice, if she does it properly, she descends into a covered position of her male voice. It is exciting since she's reached the top of another voice. The true test of a contralto is: she can sing in her female voice with volume below middle C. Whereas a high soprano can seldom be heard on an Eflat above it, unless she uses the male voice. That's why someone like Marilyn Home uses a lot of male voice to get her message across.
Q. What about the passaggio?
Mr. B: It shouldn't exist at all, if everything is technically correct. In the untrained voice there appear to be four parts to the range. There is the very bottom, which is probably not there if you have not trained. Above that is the speaking part, where one is accustomed to using the voice. At the very top is the part you use if you lose your temper or shout very loudIy. And between this and the speaking part, is what is called the passaggio. It's a part of the voice that has not naturally been exercised and is weaker than the parts that have. But you must strengthen it and learn to use it well if you are to be a singer. So to the trained singer, there is but one voice - The Voice.
Q. What about focus and support?
Mr. B: Terminology creates so much confusion because of semantics. Support? Focus? Singing in the mask? Such words create imagery but do not mean anything because they don't necessarily cause you to do the right thing. I think there are three basic abilities singers should have when they sing. They should be able to release ...
“. . . everyone strives to sound the same today. To me the same is not beautiful, it's generic and boring"
as in laughing; they should be able to diminish or swell . . as in cord control and still breath; and they should be able to do a fry or crackle as a test while singing, as in thin cords and compressed breath. (Mr. Buckingham produces a sound like a lowpitched rattle.)
Q. So the essence of your technique is. . .
Mr. B: To take maximum breath, still it, get the throat into the vomitato position and impinge the cords thinly. And, become fluent with this on every vowel of every pitch you have to sing.
Q. What exercises do you use to achieve those goals?
Mr.B: No one seems to use the classic building exercises anymore, such as the fry (crackle), glottal stroke, expulsions, etc. They tend to use only scales, which are as useful to a singer as jumping jacks are to the body builder. My "vocalesthenics” are to the singer what free weights are to the body builder. Their correct use is an absolutely sure way to compress the breath and build vocal facility. But I feel that, in hearing about exercises people become confused about what a teacher does. I'll invent exercises to get students to do what they must do to sing properly. My approach will vary from student to student, according to vocal needs and vocal requirements. Yet, if I explain these exercises to people, they think: ''That's his method." So they confuse the exercises with the technique. A technique is not the same thing as the exercises.
I think many of the old singing maestri would not tell their students why they were having them do certain exercises, simply to create a mystique out of the training. They would find a technical problem in the voice and apply a few exercises that would correct it. One of the problems with voice teaching today is that very few teachers take the time to figure out how to build a voice completely. If you can do that with each student, develop what he or she already has, and add what is missing, then each singer will sound completely different - unique. Then the only similarity they will share will be good singing. Just as people all look completely different but should all share good health. You 'll notice that most everyone strives to sound the same today. To me the same is not beautiful. It's generic and boring.
Q. ls this something a student should consider when selecting a teacher – the ability to assess needs and build the voice with individual attention?
Mr. B: That’s part of it. What is most important is you have to get better. I don't believe in teachers who say you should not expect to see improvement for six months or six years after you begin studying with them. I think that you should experience improvement at the first lesson and a steady and continuing improvement thereafter. I think that if you have gone to a teacher for two or three months and are not noticeably improving, you had better find another teacher right away and not waste any more of your time and money.