This question was asked (and answered) recently by ABC News: “Why is the Star Spangled Banner so hard to sing?” I found the article to be interesting on its own, but also thought it identified common problems many moderns have with “old things” in general. With the current love affair modern man has with secularism (meaning, the present only, not noticeably concerned with either the past or the future), it is not too surprising to learn that many pop and rock singers find the National Anthem a difficult song to sing.
Most Americans don’t realize just how technical of a song the Star Spangled Banner really is. At most, they sing it once or twice a year and usually mumble the words. In fact, many don’t even know the words. Of those who do know the words, very few have even given them a moment’s thought.
Michael Dean, director of vocal studies at UCLA, has coached a number of singers of the Anthem, from all genres of music. He says, “Once they start looking at the words, the thing that strikes every person I’ve worked with on this, is how moving the text is. Even the most jaded singers, they usually just start weeping.”
History is indeed a powerful teacher, but when actual history is coupled with elegant art (music in this case), the message becomes unavoidable. Dean trains his singers by first helping them to understand the Anthem as a poem, and then as a song. The vocal demands are extremely technical, but once they become part of the presentation of the Anthem, it takes on a whole new life.
Sadly, few of us have been taught this way. Education in this country used to follow this pattern. One hundred years ago, nearly every American would have been able to tell you what the Star Spangled Banner is actually about, what the words are, who wrote it, why, where, what key it is to be sung in, and how many verses it had (four, in case you’re wondering); today, no American would have this information at the ready (including me). Why is this? Is it simply because “they don’t teach nothing in school these days,” or is it something else? If you really believe “they don’t teach nothing” in the public schools, you would be wrong. They do teach something—a lot of something. The main problem is that what they are teaching is not what young minds need in order to succeed in this world.
In much the same way as pop singers think they are qualified to sing the National Anthem, most of our high school and college graduates think they are prepared for the rigors of “real life.” And it’s usually not until they get out on their own that they realize they aren’t prepared. Just as their elementary math teacher moved them into multiplication before they fully understood addition and then into division before they could grasp the concepts of multiplying, so are we short-changing our children when we don’t teach them from general to specific, from foundation to application. The reason that the National Anthem is so moving as a poem is because it is recounting real events in a real time and place that had a real effect on our national story being told through the eyes of a real eyewitness.
As I said before, history is a powerful teacher, but only when it is allowed to tell its story and is not constrained by the dehumanizing methods of disinterested teachers demanding that students know the dates, locations, and names, rather than the times, places, and reasons of history. The facts of history are important—the story can’t be told without them—but when the facts begin to obscure the story, that is, when the present takes the precedence, the real emotional lesson and impact of the story is lost; it becomes nothing more than words to remember until immediately after the test.
History used to teach us, but now pop culture teaches us. We are not educating, we are indoctrinating. And as long as no one rocks the boat, the indoctrination seems to be working just fine. But even something as seemingly naïve and harmless as the Star Spangled Banner has the potential to rock the boat. We are the heirs of a fantastic historical story, but the question is: Is there anyone left who can sing it?