On Performing The Star-Spangled Banner

January 8, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Posted in History, Repertoire/Programming | 6 Comments
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Please note: The opinions presented here are those of the author only.
In 2005, the MENC launched The National Anthem Project. Their website has this to say about it:

In response to a 2004 Harris Interactive survey that showed two out of three Americans didn’t know the words to our national anthem, MENC: The National Association for Music Education created the “National Anthem Project: Restoring America’s Voice” campaign in March 2005 to re-teach the anthem while raising awareness of the importance of school music.

I wish I could say that I was surprised by the statistic that two-thirds of Americans don’t know the words. (We’ve all heard some of the anthem-performance-flop controversies of the recent past.) But forgetting the words is only part of the problem.

Here are four of the most common performance problems with the national anthem and how I think they should be “fixed”:

Learn the words

Above all other considerations, learn the words.

There are three other stanzas to this poem that we don’t even use!

A number of performers, both internationally known and locally obscure, have flubbed up the lyrics to this song. It’s just a sorry thing to hear, especially when the solution is so obvious and simple: Write them down.

Go to Wikipedia or google it. Print it up or write it out on your forearm. Yes, people will make fun of you for having a crib sheet for the national anthem, but that negative exposure is nothing compared to what you’ll hear if you mess it up during the performance. Not to mention the fact that recordings of your faulty performance will be forever preserved to remind you of your shortsightedness.

And don’t assume that you know the words, either. For example, it’s “what so proudly we hailed,” not “what so proudly we held.” Watch the pronunciation as well: A perilous fight is a “PEHR-i-luss” fight, not a “PEHR-uh-liss” fight.

Along the same lines, don’t intentionally change the words. Some have tried, like when Steven Tyler sang the anthem at the 2001 Indianapolis 500 and changed the last line from “and the home of the brave” to “and the home of the Indianapolis 500.” People will notice, people will complain, and you won’t get invited back. Don’t do it.

The time signature

Although there is no historical proof to back this up, this is an opinion held by me and many others: It’s in 3/4, people! Putting the national anthem in 4/4 time just doubles the length of every third note, making the performance longer and giving the performer more opportunity to mess up.

I can deal with introductions and more complex ending cadences in other time signatures, but the actual anthem part of the anthem should be in simple 3/4 time.

Meli-i-i-i-isma

I’m not the first to complain about melisma in performances of The Star Spangled Banner, and I won’t (unfortunately) be the last. Melisma is a big problem.

For those of you who aren’t keen on your vocalization terminology, melisma is the singing over multiple notes of a single syllable of a word. There are two types of melisma:

  • The first and more acceptable (as far as the national anthem is concerned) is the melisma that exists to follow the melody. The Star Spangled Banner begins with a short melisma. The first word is “O!” and it is sung over the first two notes. When the melody repeats, the melisma is gone when the words change to “Whose broad” over the same two notes.
  • The second kind of melisma is purely decorative. You hear a lot of this on practically every song on every singing competition show. When performers hit a longer note, instead of just holding the note, they’ll indulge in all sorts of vocal acrobatics. It doesn’t need to be done, and too much of it sounds ridiculous.Some melismatic decoration is acceptable, but it can get to be too much too quickly. (Aretha Franklin is a great example of someone who knows where the balance is.)

Christina Aguilera’s 2011 Super Bowl rendition failed on all of these first three quibbles:

The music should match the words

Like most musicians, I started playing the national anthem in high school. The version we always used began majestically, with booming bass drums and crashing cymbals. And then we would get to the part of the song that begins “And the rockets’ red glare,” and what did the music do? It became softer and smoother and less forceful, in order to make a contrast to the upcoming and more bombastic “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave . . .”
But if you look at the words in relation to the music, it makes no sense to perform it like this.
Francis Scott Key’s poem begins with the lines

O! say, can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

If the anthem opens with a majestic fortissimo, one might expect the words to be more like this:

My alarm clock went off in the dawn’s early light…

The poem begins with a sense of awakening in the early morning, of calm awe at seeing the flag still flying after a night’s bombardments. It’s a single man looking out and turning to a nearby onlooker and saying, “Do you see that? Can you believe it?” The music ought to reflect that.

And then, in the third verse, we hear about rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air. It’s no coincidence that bombastic begins with the word bomb; here, the music should be bombastic, echoing the words that underlie it.
So, altogether, the only arrangements of The Star-Spangled Banner that win my stamp of approval begin softly and continually grow to a triumphal and majestic finish. Like a sunrise.

Conclusion: It’s not about you

Many of these problems would be completely avoided if performers just remembered that the performance is not about them. Performing the national anthem is a privilege. It isn’t the privilege of those Americans in the audience to hear you perform, it is your privilege to perform the national anthem for the Americans in the audience. If you approach the anthem with the idea of putting your own spin on it, you’re doing it wrong. Turning The Star-Spangled Banner into your song makes about as much sense as a President personalizing the White House with a fresh coat of green paint.
It isn’t your anthem. It’s ours. Don’t mess with our stuff.

What do you think? Do you prefer a tradition performance or something suited to highlight the performer?

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck
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6 Comments »

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  1. As a former Army musician, I’ve performed the Anthem probably close to 1000 times. As such, I’m a strong traditionalist as to how it should be presented, so I agree with the sentiments in this blog. When the Anthem is done well and respectfully, I still can get goosebumps when I hear it, and I cringe whenever I hear it thoughtlessly and poorly presented. Just say “no” to ornamental melismas!

  2. The first popular music performance of the anthem heard by mainstream America was by Puerto Rican singer and guitarist Jose Feliciano . He shocked some people in the crowd at Tiger Stadium in Detroit and some Americans when he strummed a slow, bluesy rendition of the national anthem before game five of the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis . This rendition started contemporary “Star-Spangled Banner” controversies. The response from many in Vietnam -era America was generally negative, given that 1968 was a tumultuous year for the United States. Despite the controversy, Feliciano’s performance opened the door for the countless interpretations of the “Star-Spangled Banner” heard today.

  3. If I hear one more pop singer turn the SSB into a 4/4 rock tune, I’ll scream!

  4. I attended a NASCAR event in Charlotte in 2000 and was stunned when the anthem started and nobody sang along. This was Memorial Day, after all. I had to stop singing because, as a Canadian, I began to think that was the norm and didn’t want to offend anyone. So, two-thirds don’t know the words? Now it makes sense.

  5. How refreshing to read your comments on singing the Star Spangled Banner! So many performers seem to treat it as a show piece rather than the National Anthem – one of the symbols of our country. I often find myself cringing in anticipation of unnecessary vocal fireworks in the last line. I have to say I really liked Lady Gaga’s rendition at the 2016 Superbowl. Although she did include a riff or two, for the most part she let the song take center stage: I thought she actually allowed the song to tell its story.


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