Wednesday, February 09, 2011


"Sing it straight. See the meaning of the words and get the heck out of the way. The song is not about me... it is a tribute to all who served and to those who died in service to their country."

Singing the Anthem
I am not a big football fan, and I missed the Superbowl© so I didn't see the apparently awful Black Eyed Peas halftime show and Christina Aguilera mangling the US National Anthem. As for the Black Eyed Peas, I cannot imagine what people expected out of this corporate package band, they have always been awful. Christina Aguilera actually has sung some stuff I liked, such as the cover she did of 40s torch songs, but let's be honest, most modern performers are autotuned and slickly produced in the studio but aren't able to perform live.

Singing the national anthem is a sports tradition in many countries, and for a long time it was a predictable, simple affair. Then, things changed. Whitney Houston sang the anthem and decided to "make it hers" with gospel singing style and everyone thought they should do the same thing. To her credit, Ms Houston did a pretty good job of it, but she started something terrible. Its not that she was the first to do this (Marvin Gaye did it in the 70s), its that she was the most visible and successful at it in recent memory and she influenced thousands of singers.

Now, instead of getting an anthem, you get someone's attempt to sing something special. And that's the problem: its an anthem, not some pop song you torture to "fit your style." At Ace of Spades HQ, tmi3rd posted something interesting on singing for a sports event. As it turns out, he was a professional singer and has operatic training. Tmi3rd has some advice for singers:
1. The crowd is there to watch the damn game, not listen to you sing.

There is little that is more excruciating than a five-minute-rendition of a song that is eight lines long.

2. Practice and prepare like a pro.

You don't have to spend hours in the practice room for it, but The Star-Spangled Banner is a very demanding tune, vocally. It has a range of an octave and a fifth, meaning two low notes and two high notes. There are many great opera arias that don't demand that much of a singer.

3. Pick a key you can physically sing the piece in.

Anyone remember Carl Lewis at the Atlanta Olympics? That almost belongs more in the the "practice and prepare" part, but for anyone who cares, the anthem was written originally in the key of F, giving you two Fs on top and two B-flats on the bottom. That's right in the wheelhouse of most baritones and altos, and a bit low for most sopranos and tenors. For sopranos and tenors, move it up a step (to the key of G) and it'll be an easier sing.
Read the whole post, he has a lot more notes, including a rundown of various versions and some humorous anecdotes. Whitney broke one of those rules: she didn't sing it simple and move on, she had to "make the song hers" and gussy it up. Sing the song as its written, keep it simple, and get it over with. Just singing this song well in front of 40,000 people without accompaniment or words is an amazing feat to begin with.

The problem here is that anthems are different from other songs, as I've written about before. You can't sing them like anything else, they have significant meaning and symbolic importance. Don't make a rap version or a spoken word version or a country version just sing the damn song. Less is more. As Tmi3rd points out very properly, you're in the way of what people are really there for. Unless you're an adorable little kid nobody really wants to hear you sing, they want the anthem there for tradition's sake, then on to the game.

By the way, the Star Spangled Banner is set to a "bar song" which is particularly difficult to sing. Some have noted how strange it is that a drinking song could be so challenging, but they misunderstand the term. Bar songs are not songs you sing at a bar, they're in a specific type of music called "bar form." There's a lot of confusion about this term, as some hymns are written in this form as well which leads some to giggle about them.

Here's what the Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music says about Bar Form:
A term used frequently in modern studies for an old, very important musical form, schematically designated A A B. The name is derived from the medieval German term Bar, a poem consisting of three or more Gest├Ątze (i.e. stanzas), each of which is divided into two Stollen (corresponding to musical section A) and an Abgesang (section B).
So it has nothing to do with bars, although the tune that the US National Anthem is set to was a song often sung while drinking called To Anacreon in Heaven, a sort of ballad about booze and ladies.

Here is the full Star Spangled Banner, written by Frances Scott Keyes as he watched the British unsuccessfully try to reduce Fort McHenry during the war of 1812 (one of their few losses in that war).
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?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Thankfully no one is expected to sing all that.

1 comment:

Tina said...

Christina Aguilera is a pro and it was shocking to hear her forget the words. ABC says this isn't the first time she's failed to sing the National Anthem properly. So yes, she needs to sing the song every time she gets in her car all the way to her destination. ;-)

The small (but alive) church we attend usually sings ALL the verses to hymns - and they are all the time honored traditional ones in the old songbook.

It's good to sing the extra verses sometimes, because that give us new insights into the verses we always sing.

Maybe if those who are going to open a ball game would practice by singing all the verses, they'd come into the stadium with more humility - and understand why Congress chose The Star Spangled Banner over America the Beautiful.
Hearing all the words shows this anthem is not a paean to tranquility but a declaration of strength.