Steven Tyler take heart: Why the national anthem bedevils so many
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Steven Tyler, you are not alone. ‘Fiendish’ is how one expert describes the national anthem. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ a song that American schoolchildren learn and sing with regularity, is notoriously difficult -- striking fear in the hearts of even the most-seasoned performers.
The song requires remarkable dramatic range of its performers -- a full octave and a half, explained Brian Zeger, artistic director for vocal arts at the famed Juilliard School in New York City. ‘Even most operatic arias don’t encompass such a range,’ he said, adding that most popular songs require less than an octave’s range.
‘It’s incredibly hard to sing. It has an incredibly wide range. You need an incredibly strong low voice and an incredibly strong high voice as well,’ he said.
It’s something that Tyler, the Aerosmith frontman and ‘American Idol’ judge, has learned the hard way, turning in what some said was a screechy, pitchy version of the song before Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
It marks the second time that Tyler has been taken to task for his ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ duties, and he joins an ever-growing list of celebrities who have found themselves taking heat for their performances.
We asked Zeger to break this ‘fiendish’ song down for us:
First off, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ starts low and quiet (‘Oh, say can you see...’) and builds to full-volumed, full-lunged, skyscraper-high notes (‘O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’). That’s challenging for anyone.
But most troubling, Zeger said, is that the high note in ‘free’ requires the singer to ramp up on an ‘e’ vowel. That’s actually quite rare in music, he said.
And then there’s the unfamiliar language that we’ve all memorized -- but that’s incredibly easy to forget when, say, singing at the Super Bowl. Blame all those O’ers and thro’s. And really, does anyone know what ‘ramparts’ are? (They’re protective walls surrounding a fort -- but we had to look it up.)
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has an unusual history, according to Scout Songs. It started out as a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 titled ‘Defense of Fort McHenry.’ It was turned into a song by adding the somewhat modified tune of John Stafford Smith’s ‘The Anacreontic Song.’ The song was retitled at that time as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and Congress proclaimed it the U.S. national anthem in 1931.
‘It has bedeviled singers ever since,’ Zeger said.
The song’s unusual history is partly to blame for the song’s difficulty, said Zeger, who stressed that he means no disrespect to the artists involved. But usually, a song’s words and music are written together from the start. In this case, the song and the music were forced to become one, creating some vocal challenges where ‘music and words don’t fit very well together,’ he said.
If there’s anything to be thankful for, it’s that we all sing only an abbreviated version of the song. It actually goes on for four stanzas.
-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch