Scelsi – Manto

About 10 years ago, I learned a piece by Giacinto Scelsi called Manto. The performance note for the third movement is “for singing violist (necessarily female).” Having taken voice lessons throughout high school and college in addition to my viola studies, I was convinced the piece had been written for ME! Well, not really. But it did seem pretty perfect.

After performing all three movements a few times, I started programming the third movement of Manto on its own. Audiences were really into the piece, I loved it, and I really connected with this idea of singing and playing simultaneously. I wondered how many of my composer friends and colleagues would be interested in the challenge of writing for a “one-woman duo.” Not being the most coordinated person in the world (at my best, I can stand up somewhat straight without falling over; at my worst, I tumble off 10-foot stages and shatter various bones), I am still not sure that this idea was my most brilliant one as far as something that’s naturally easy for me, but I have ended up with some amazing pieces. More are on the way!

Because this technique of singing and playing simultaneously was not nearly as simple as I’d hoped it would be, I had to train my body to do it. Taking my cue from an old Cleveland Quartet method of playing scales together in thirds (ending up with stacked seventh chords, which result sounds AWESOME), I practiced scales with myself in thirds, fourths, fifths, octaves, quarter tones, etc. In the privacy of my own home. Alone. I’m sorry to my cat.

But guess what? The heinous-sounding scales got better! And easier! You’re welcome, Cat! And I realized that this technique was not only helping my singing violist intonation – it was helping my violist violist intonation! What a great side effect, right? I started practicing Bach the same way: after doing basic harmonic analysis, I’d sing the root of a chord throughout a measure while I played the written notes slowly and tuned to my voice. It was so much better than using a tuner, because the pitch was a physical part of me rather than an external machine. (I feel the same way about metronomes, though I use my metronome a lot – I need to make sure I’m feeling the pulse instead of just hearing it and using it as a crutch.)

Try it for a couple weeks. Don’t worry about the quality of your voice, as long as you feel confident that you can sing in tune. I usually do two octave scales between C and F because my range ain’t what it used to be, but even an octave in any comfortable key will help. You can also displace octaves, of course, which is an added mental exercise. Let me know what you think!


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