The Importance of History

This week the head of antiquities at Palmyra, Khaled Asaad, was reportedly murdered by Islamic State militants, his headless body displayed among the grand ruins that he had spent half a century caring for. It is thought that he was executed after refusing to reveal the location of antiquities that had been removed from the site for safekeeping.

Let’s also not forget the famous burning of the library of Alexandria. This is one of the great tragedies of the ancient world, where hundreds of scrolls and books were destroyed and much knowledge and information of the ancient world was lost.

Hitler was also no stranger to the destruction of books and ideas, burning many hundreds of books, and even destroying a well known Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which was carrying out very progressive and advanced studies on human sexuality in Berlin.

In all cases, history plays a central role.

But what do each of these stories have in common?

It is the willful destruction of knowledge in order to keep people intellectually, spiritually, and socially constrained. In other words, this destruction of history is an attempt to squelch human freedom.

In the case of ISIS, we have a group of people that want to destroy art and artifacts, not just for this current generation, but for ALL generations to come. Those future generations will never benefit from the insight, knowledge, and discoveries of those previous generations, or be able to collectively connect to human beings far removed from their own time.

Lest you think this is a political diatribe, it is not. Many teachers of voice give short shrift to the writings and research of previous generations of voice teachers. In many cases, much of the previous three and four centuries of historical writings are UNKNOWN to the average teacher of voice. Many of these teachers have graduated with Doctoral degrees in voice, but could not tell you about the works of any writers of voice that did NOT live in the 20th century.

In vocal pedagogy, a lack of historical knowledge of the treatises, texts, and discoveries of previous generations is seen as ‘no big deal.’

Why study those writings when those men and women had no knowledge of science?

Their writings were confused. They were not intelligent people. It was a different time. Those writings don’t make sense. They didn’t know as much about the voice as we do today. They didn’t talk about issues like breathing or resonance, so they had a limited understanding of building voices. 

These are arguments I hear when I discuss the importance of knowledge of historical writing for every teacher of voice.

These are tenuous arguments when you consider that the ‘proof was in the pudding.’ Were they NOT successful, we would have had no ‘golden age’ of singing which lasted a LONG time – from the 17th century into the middle of the 19th. That’s quite a run for simple-minded men and women who ‘knew nothing’ of the science of the voice.

While we may not have DESTROYED the writings of the great masters (thankfully!), by ignoring them, we culturally do destroy their work and legacies. We turn from what they had to say and forget that the teaching of the singing voice is NOT a current or NEW phenomenon. ISIS, the library of Alexandria, the book burnings of Nazi Germany all carried out plans to devalue the past, to devalue collected knowledge and experience in favor of more rigid and dogmatic thinking.  We DEVALUE the past, and consider its lessons negligible.

For a voice teacher to ignore historic writings is criminal and an obfuscation of their duties. Why reinvent the wheel as a teacher? Why NOT gain insight and knowledge from the past?

How could a mathematician not know the work of Pythagorus, Euclid, Archimedes, Leonardo Fibonacci? How could a scientist not know the work of Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Galileo Galilei, Blaise Pascal?

For a voice teacher to willfully reject the great masters and writers on singing as having ‘nothing to say’ is no more different than the willful destruction of monuments and knowledge erected in previous generations. We do right by these men and women to understand their work and incorporate their wisdom and knowledge into our own studios.

As I once read, “Either they CAN’T READ, or they WON’T READ.”

Please help me preserve our historical inheritance by studying something historical on singing. There are many books of varying degrees of value. Start with Tosi, Mancini, Garcia, Lamperti. Don’t resign them to a dustbin. They CAN continue to speak to us today, but we must be willing to LISTEN – a difficult prospect in our fast-moving, distracted age.

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