Star-Spangled Brass

Steven Smartt Embarks on a Full-Blown Musical Journey

Don’t be surprised if you find Steven Smartt playing the national anthem this year in arenas, on fields, at national monuments, or even in your neighbor’s front yard. He’s a man on a mission. (JOHN RUSSELL)


Steven Smartt, BME’71, MME’72—associate dean for academic services in the Graduate School, assistant provost for research, and assistant professor of the practice of education—leads a parallel life. A trumpet player since elementary school, the Nashville native earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Peabody College. He regularly plays with local bands Soul Incision (made up of Vanderbilt staff and faculty), The Exotics, and the Beaker Street Blues Band. He has toured with singer–songwriters Delbert McClinton and Lee Roy Parnell, and has been a volunteer teacher for many years with Nashville’s W.O. Smith Music School. Smartt is retiring this summer but will not be idle. During 2014, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, he aims to play the national anthem 100 times at public events.

Why have you taken on this project?

In September 2013, I received a phone call late one Friday asking if I’d play the national anthem the following Monday morning. Someone had gotten my name from somebody who got my name from somebody else, and they were frantic. It was for a fundraiser for wounded warriors and their families. They’d arranged some months earlier to have the 101st Airborne Band play, but with sequestration cuts, Fort Campbell had to trim the band’s budget. So I was a humble, last-minute sub, but it was very meaningful.

I told a friend about the experience, and he sent me some history about the poem. As soon as I noticed that 2014 marked its 200th anniversary, I decided I wanted to do something. It struck me that the national anthem does make a difference and it’s important. Even in the midst of an event or a game, it’s that little moment when we honor the flag.

Why did you decide to play it 100 times this year? Is it the one tune you’ve been asked to play the most?

I’ve not been asked to play it more than “Louie, Louie” or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” But as a trumpet player, I’ve been asked to play it three or four times a year, and I love playing it at Vanderbilt baseball games. When I was in high school, I would play it at basketball games. It’s just part of my background.

I kicked around the idea of playing it every day of the year, but with a full-time job, that was kind of ambitious. I thought surely I could do 100 and maybe exceed that goal.

What kinds of events have you been playing since officially starting your project in January?

I wanted first to play the anthem at a public elementary school, and there is one a mile from my house. I talked to the principal, who thought at first that I wanted to play it 100 times at her school. I explained that I just wanted to start at her school. I arranged to come the first day of school after the holidays—but three snow days postponed it. So my first performance was actually at an East Nashville Chamber of Commerce meeting. But the school likes to think they were first and, symbolically, they were. I may return to play my 100th there this fall.

Each performance has led to another one or two. After I played at the first school, I heard from others. The East Nashville Chamber of Commerce led to a performance in May during a ribbon cutting for an urban housing project. So far I’ve done 10 in January, 10 in both February and March, and if I can keep up around 10 a month, I’ll exceed my goal by November. I’ve played the anthem at basketball games and other sporting events, for civic organizations, historical organizations, even an indoor swim meet. That made for interesting acoustics. About the only events I haven’t yet lined up are a motorcycle club and a goat roping.

According to the Smithsonian’s site in honor of the anniversary, Francis Scott Key set his words to the tune of a song called “Anacreon in Heaven.”

Let’s face it, it was a drinking song. I love that part of the story. At every one of my national anthem performances, though, I simply give the announcer a text noting that 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

So it’s educational.

Historical awareness is what I call it. I offer them a script that says, “Our performer has set a personal goal in honor of this anniversary to perform it 100 times.” I have many variations—one page of talking points for elementary grades, one page for middle and high school grades, and a one-page script that a civic organization can use or allow me to read. I also have a PowerPoint with which I can give a 10-, 20- or 30-minute talk along with the performance and a sing-along.

I’ve also started noticing American flags in front yards and at businesses, which prompted me to make my first cold call. March 3 is National Anthem Day, which commemorates President Herbert Hoover’s 1931 signing of legislation that made “The Star-Spangled Banner” our official national anthem. I just knocked on a door one street over from my house and said, “Excuse me, I’m here to offer to play the national anthem at your flagpole, now or at another time, and if you’re willing to share the story, I’d like to hear more about why you have this flag displayed.” She looked at my one-pager and said sure. I played it for her, her husband, her daughter-in-law and a few preschoolers. Not a lot of people there, but it fit. She then asked if I could come back July 5, when they’re having a party. So I got two for one right there.

I also played it on a cold January day outside the Smithsonian after I visited its exhibit about “The Star-Spangled Banner.” People on the sidewalk respectfully stood by, and a few snapped photos. And recently I performed at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where it all started in 1814.

What’s the hardest part of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to play? Do you still practice it?

I’m fortunate to have lots of other musical commitments to keep me playing and practicing. I practice for my confidence level, to play it better, and can play it in different keys. I think about where I’m going to pitch it: Should I bring it down to a range that the audience might be more comfortable singing in? The range of the national anthem from lowest to highest note is one and a half octaves. “Happy Birthday” is one octave, and many people stretch to reach that top note. The national anthem is a good 50 percent higher. The other thing that makes it challenging is the interval after the last note of the second stanza [“last gleam-ing”]; you end on the lowest note of the whole piece, and you have to jump an octave and a third to start the middle section [“And the rocket’s red glare”].

How would you characterize your experience so far?

The attraction for me, first and foremost, was the music and the history. Still, I’ve been amazed at the positive response to this project, with so many individuals and organizations demonstrating a strong sense of patriotism. It’s always been a sober and serious matter for me—playing “The Star-Spangled Banner”—even before a game. I’m not a military veteran, but I appreciate our country and our values. I come at it as John Q. Citizen, a guy with a trumpet. It has turned into a personal journey and one that’s taking on a life of its own.

EDITOR’S NOTE: At press time Smartt had performed the national anthem 52 times in 2014.

Steven Smartt was interviewed by Bonnie Arant Ertelt, BS’81, Vanderbilt Magazine’s class notes and arts & culture editor.

Listen as Smartt performs at a school and explains his project:

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