On the Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner, our much maligned National Anthem, has gotten a bad rap for being “the hardest piece of music to sing.” This myth has been propagated by any number of bad performances by celebrities (including some world class musicians) and the advent of the internet. Never before has it been so easy to find and share bad performances of the Anthem.

Can I tell you a secret? It’s actually really easy to sing.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching and listening as James helps prepare our friend (his Perfect Strangers) band mate Stefanie for her performance at the January 27th LA Kings game. Here are some of the notes he’s given her, along with some of my observations from years of performing (and watching performances of) the Anthem.

Find your first note.
Most performances of the Anthem begin their flame out on the first note because the singer doesn’t have a clue where to begin. If you start too low, you’ll struggle on the lowest note; if you start too high, you’ll go flat or screechy on “red glare” and “free.”

To find that sweet spot, sing the first phrase: “Oh, say can you see.” Remember that “red glare” and “free” are two steps above “see.” If you’re too high on “see” you’re not going to be able to hit “red glare” and “free.” Keep trying out that first line until you’re comfortable with the note you hit on “say” and the note you hit on “see.” Then sing through to “red glare” to make sure those notes are on key. If they are, sing that first phrase over and over until you know your note cold.

Know how (and when) to breathe.
This seems simple; we’ve all seen or heard renditions of the Anthem in which the singer barely makes it to the end. But there’s more to it than that.

It’s important to note that giant, gulping breaths are distracting (and not that effective). Yes, you can take deep breaths, but they shouldn’t sound as if you’re gasping for air after having been underwater for five minutes.

The stanza is made up of a number of clauses and sentences, most of which end with each line. You can use the punctuation of these sentences to help determine where to breathe. I’ve highlighted the text below to show where I like the breaths to go. As you can see from the different colors, Ideally, you’ll be able to make it through each line of the stanza with one breath (notable exceptions: the fifth and eighth lines, you’ll need to breathe after “red glare” and “free”). However, if you need additional breaths, I’ve noted them with and apostrophe set off from the words around it.

O 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 rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night ‘ that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Set your tempo.
Too many performers vary their speed throughout the song. While these dynamics can be used in a powerful way, most of the time it’s because the singer hasn’t appropriately judged their breathing. Grab a metronome (or a friend with solid rhythm) and play around until you find a tempo that feels right for you, then stick with it.

But be careful: performing a song with a slow tempo doesn’t automatically mean it has more power or becomes more solemn. The Star-Spangled Banner isn’t a funeral dirge; it’s an ANTHEM. Most of the time, the tempo should be somewhere between moderato and allegro.

Yes, the song takes place after a battle and during a war, but think about the meaning. Through all the ravages of battle, the American Flag, the symbol of our country, continued to fly. The words are reverent, awe-filled, inspired.

Hands down, my favorite performance of the National Anthem was Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. While it’s not the most technically perfect, and she goes a little off book, the joy and pride in her performance blows me away. Part of the reason her rendition was so memorable and moving was because she smiled throughout the song. Go find her rendition on YouTube, then just listen to her, don’t watch. You can hear the smile in her voice.

Sing the notes on the page, but have fun with dynamics.
So many performers try to make their version distinctive by adding grace notes and flourishes. Most of the time, these unnecessary notes are distracting. The most captivating performances rely instead on proper use of dynamics. Crescendo and decrescendo are the best ways to deliver a stand out rendition. While some phrases of the piece lend themselves to a bold forte, the entire song should have a good blend from piano to fortissimo. Play with varying your volume, where do you want to lend emphasis, what kind of emphasis do you want?

Starting loud and getting louder is boring.

Adding in the same fake runs as everyone else is boring.

Don’t be scared, it’s not nearly as hard as you think it is.
On a standard vocal score, the lowest note is middle C and the highest note is the G above the staff. The total range is just over an octave and a half. The average vocal range for adults who aren’t professional singers is two octaves. You can absolutely sing it.

While the melody of the Anthem isn’t exactly a regular vocal exercise, the majority of the vocal movement follows steps and easy intervals, flowing up and down the scale without a lot of wild jumping.

The biggest interval is between the fourth and fifth lines: “streaming” ends with a middle C, “and” is a high E. But this is one of the spots you’re going to breathe, so as long as you know where to go when you come in for “And the rockets’ red glare” you’ll be fine.

The next biggest interval happens twice: “What so proudly” and “O’er the ramparts” are both G above middle C to high E; this is only 3.5 steps, less of a leap than the opening of Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Sing it a capella.
Unless you have sufficient time to practice with the accompaniment, don’t use any sort of instruments or instrumental track, especially if you’re singing in a place with wonky acoustics.

Practice. Practice. Practice.
The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that you’ve practiced enough. While I haven’t done a comprehensive study of every performance of the Anthem, I can say without use of hyperbole that the majority of the bad versions were done by people who didn’t adequately prepare. The Star-Spangled Banner can be sung in a tight 90 seconds. Sing it while you wash your hands, flip the laundry, wait for your four-year-old to brush his teach.

When you get closer to the performance, start running through it in your head, think about your dynamics, your breathing, your phrasing. Get to the point that you can sing the Anthem in your sleep.

You’ll be amazing. It’s really not as hard as “they” would have you believe. That’s just hype.

Bonus Pet Peeves:
It’s pronounced “pai-ri-lus” not “pair-uh-lis”

It’s pronounced “rah-ket” not “rock-it”

“Banner” has three notes: “ba-ne-er” NOT “ba-a-ne-er”
Never put a breath in the phrase “Whose broad stripes and bright stars.” That should always be sung in one breath.

Star Spangled Banner

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