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Music: Anthems: We All Sing Together

By Leslie Herman
ART TIMES Summer 2016

Poster of John F. Kennedy

We are in the thick of a presidential election, a great tug-of-war for our loyalty. Who can we trust; who can we believe in? Who do we distrust; who do we actually despise? Who are we able to ally ourselves with? Who will win our allegiance and, ultimately, our vote? These questions have been our daily bread for months and the principal focus of the national mindset and news media.

There must be an unimaginable level of pressure on the contestants of this arduous event, but it also takes its toll on ordinary citizens. And we must take a break from the incessant blasting of noise and constant barrage of bad news this tempestuous battle has incited. A walk is a sure and simple way to escape. Walking encourages blood flow which, in turn, clears our minds and promotes positivity.

Walking also inspires creativity, which is well-documented by 21st century scientists, but was beautifully captured by earlier great minds: in 1889 the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’. And Henry Thoreau mused, ‘Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow’. Personally, with the deadline for the last print edition of Art Times Journal pending, I’d been waiting for my muse to appear. A dose of fresh air on a gorgeous sunny day, and with the good posture and gentle, deep breathing it imposes, a walk gave me a chance to recharge both my brain and body. And as I passed one of the key landmarks of my childhood, my elementary school, I uncorked not just the tune and the words to my school song, but the strong feelings that this well-respected NYC Board of Education institution, through this song, pressed into me 45 years earlier.

Hail to our school!
Its praises loudly sing.
We work and strive to make it great
And honor to it bring.
Where we will learn to be
Better boys and girls
for all the world to see.

It was impossible not to sing out loud and proud, and the inspiration for an essay about the collective voice flowed.

We learn to live with others big and small;
For we know the chance to learn is free to one and all.
Helping each other,
Learning, as we do.
That’s behind the spirit of the gold and blue.

My singing sent a surge of reverential respect through me, the words still ringing true, confirming that I have remained faithful to those most democratic and humanitarian of pledges. I wondered whether the song had changed over the years, whether it had been replaced by a different message or a more modern tune. A phone call to the school the following Monday morning reinforced the lasting power of the anthem. The song remains the same: a simple song sung over and over; a powerful a way to inspire young minds to work together in harmony to build a productive, purposeful community. And singing continues to be another chart topper for its benefits to our well-being.

Simply put by author Stacy Horn in her article ‘Singing Changes your Brain’ (Time magazine, August 16, 2013): ’When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing…is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.

Horn continues: ‘Science has been hard at work trying to explain why singing has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.…’

‘Another study even attempts to make the case that ‘music evolved as a tool of social living,’ and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself.’

A discussion on National Public Radio (NPR, June 3, 2013) between host Ari Shapiro, Stacy Horn, and Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University, and author of This is Your Brain on Music, further explains the science of group singing: -

Levitin : ’There’s a whole neurochemistry to singing. We now have evidence that when people sing together, it releases oxytocin. This is the neurotransmitter that...

Shapiro : The friendship chemical, or the trusting chemical, or the empathy chemical.

Levitin : Exactly. It's associated with social bonding. So, for example, if you show people speeches of politicians, different politicians, and you give them a dose of oxytocin before they see one particular speech, they're more likely to trust that candidate, want to vote for him, give him money. It just - the oxytocin sets up this real bond and sense of trust and well-being towards the other person. And we get that when we sing.’

Anthems are songs that promote a sense of belonging, a sense of pride, and which inspire loyalty and passion — the dictionary definition: a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause. In an article entitled, ‘What Makes a Great National Anthem’ (The Atlantic, September 15, 2015), Jillian Kumagai interviews Alex Marshall, author of Republic or Death!: Travels in Search of National Anthems (Random House Books) who comments: ‘Singing an anthem is very active. Even if you’re just standing there, standing still for a minute is quite hard. Even the countries which have wordless national anthems, they’re not passive things’.

Oh, say! can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming;
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
Oh, say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Marshall considers that the anthem is its own genre. And clearly the genre of anthem goes way beyond a collective chirp for king and country. The term ‘anthem’ is used by popular music artists around the globe, and a hit anthem is a jackpot in every sense of the word. In another contemporary sense of the word, anthems are also a ‘call to action. Whether it is an anthem for a good cause or a social action campaign, a country, school, summer camp, sports team, or even a commercial brand, not only do anthems evoke strong emotions, the most effective ones reach out and touch you; they inspire you to want to do something.

First Lady Michelle Obama launched a government-led initiative called ‘Let Girls Learn’, to educate girls around the world who do not have access to education. Using music to heighten and extend the reach of her advocacy, the First Lady launched an all-female girl-power anthem, ‘ This is For My Girls’, which is belted out by popular music artists, including Kelly Clarkson.

Listen to ‘This is For My Girls’ on You Tube:-

With a US presidential election campaign comes hot debate, and, shamefully this campaign has provoked violence. Politics divides us. Americans are fighting for what they so greatly prize: their country. Who will lead it; who will protect it; who will nurture it; who will save it?

My country tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died!
Land of the Pilgrim's pride!
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring!

These are intensely challenging times, and they require dimensions of leadership beyond compare. As ever, but perhaps like never before, the country needs great thinkers, influencers, role models. And winning this leadership competition requires tactics and strategies which target every nuanced-inch of the American human being. It is this kind of challenge, at pivotal times such as these, which reflect needs that shout out for an anthem. In a race that has employed every other tool in the box and trick in the book, it’s a wonder that the warring camps haven’t utilized this most powerful musical tool.

I have been privileged and very happy to have been part of the creative team in recent years and I’d like to send my best wishes to the Founders, Publisher Cornelia Seckel and Editor Raymond J. Steiner for their online endeavors and to their future good health and prosperity.

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