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Tortoise Tuesday: Practicing Writing with Marchesi’s Vocal Methods

Learning to sing is a bit like learning to write: time-intensive, often discouraging, ultimately rewarding—and based on a foundation of technique that you’ll need before you can move on to the more exciting stuff. Scales come before arias, just as D1s come before dissertations. Where writers have writing seminars and thesis bootcamps, singers have books like Mathilde Marchesi’s Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method. In her introduction, Marchesi, a 19th-century teacher who trained many of her era’s great singers, lays out her foundational principles. These prove to be useful guidance for aspiring musicians, but they’re also applicable to writers—at any stage.  

“In order to obtain a speedy and satisfactory result,” Marchesi writes, “pupils should never be burdened with more than one difficulty at a time, and they should be assisted in overcoming obstacles by having them presented in a natural and progressive order.” Thinking about only one issue at a time might sound impossible when you’re juggling what feels like a dozen lexicon terms in writing sem, but breaking your assignment down into pieces can make a paper feel much more manageable. Instead of trying to get from a prompt to a 12-page paper in one go, it can be helpful to think about one step of the process at a time. What question are you trying to answer in your paper? What sources do you need to find? How will you select useful evidence, and what conclusion can you draw from it?

Taking the writing process one step at a time also makes it easier to identify the place where you’re getting stuck. Just as when you’re learning a new piece and find that you keep stumbling over the same passage, it helps to take a step back and return to the basics. In her Vocal Method, Marchesi notes that she’s included “special Exercises and Vocalises for each particular difficulty,” and a glance at the table of contents confirms this: there are exercises for flexiblity, exercises for singing appoggiaturas, exercises for blending vocal registers. By focusing on one skill at a time, the student builds the technique needed to approach each challenge in the context of a full piece of music. In the same way, when you feel stuck on a particular aspect of your writing, it can help to pull out exercises that isolate one lexicon term. The Magic Thesis Statement is a personal favorite, but there are many more: cartoons to help you take a position in the scholarly conversation, highlighting exercises to reveal the ratio of evidence to analysis, reverse outlines to check that the structure of your draft makes sense. Once you’ve built the technical skills that are fundamental to any piece of writing, you’ll be ready to take on even the most complicated projects. Whether you’re writing your dissertation or singing Brünnhilde, having basic skills to fall back on makes for a more secure—and much less stressful—performance.

–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source: Marchesi, Mathilde. Theoretical and Practical Vocal Method, Op. 31 (via IMSLP).