As the patriotic Independence Day passed, I began wondering about our National Anthem. Do we show our patriotism through singing the “Star Spangled Banner” or has it become merely a show of vocal talent? As a voice teacher, students ask me to work on the song frequently so that they can sing at their high school football or basketball game, sing at a ball park, or local softball game. The difficult 1 ½ octave range song is a hurdle for some, the words are another hurdle for most.
In teaching the song, of which we mostly know the melody, I stress authenticity of the melody with not too much embellishment. In other words, sing the song how it was written without too many added notes. I also focus on what the words MEAN. This not only helps the student remember the words, but the meaning and intent of the piece. It is about our nation’s independence, not a flash of how many notes you can sing.
When looking at the words of our “Star Spangled Banner”, as with all pieces, one should look at the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. (Star Spangled Banner- A Tutorial by R. Edwin, Journal of Singing, Sept/Oct 2011). First I include a little history lesson:
The “Star Spangled Banner” was written by Sir Frances Scott Key during the War of 1812. He sailed out on a ship to rescue a civilian prisoner of war who was being held by the British. He witnesses the attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore. He is pleased to see the American Flag flying high the next morning and began to write “The Defence of Fort McHenry”, now known as the “Star Spangled Banner”. In 1931, it was declared the National Anthem.
The poetry of the song is in Old English and difficult to decipher, so I review the history of the song with the student:
1. Which War was it written during? War of 1812
2. Where and when was the battle? Baltimore Harbor (1814)
3. Who won? We did
Then we take a look at the lyrics:
“Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light”
Question: What time of day is it? Dawn
Question: What is he trying to see? Flag flying in the fort
“What so proudly we hail, by the twilights last gleaming.”
Question: When did you see the flag? Last night at twilight
"Who's broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight"
Question: What does the flag look like? Bright stripes and bright stars
Question and answer through the whole song. Why is this analysis necessary? It helps the student to understand and remember the words to our nation’s anthem. Also, when they comprehend what they are singing, singers add so much more emotion and meaning to a performance. This is something we should keep in mind for ALL of our songs, especially one that is the example of the pride of our nation!
“What key should I sing it in?” is often the resounding question. Sing it in a key which the high note is still comfortable even if it means sacrificing a little clarity on the low notes. A female belter should sing in F (high note is a C) or F#. A-flat is generally a good key for the average voice. The starting note of the piece is the fifth of the key, so play around with what works for the student, remembering to make sure they comfortably reach that high note.
Above all, make sure that you are singing the National Anthem with our nation’s pride in your mind. It will not only to enhance your performance, but drive home the meaning of the piece- we are PROUD to be an American watching the flag fly freely.