Those of us who have sung our National Anthem as soloists in public events have faced quite a challenge! Each person who sings it has to tackle the octave and a sixth musical range, which is just beyond the capabilities of most average singers. And the lyrics, which can seem rather archaic to the modern ear, can be hard to remember. It is, in fact, so difficult to sing that many people over the years have suggested that we change our official anthem to "God Bless America" or "America The Beautiful," both of which are lovely and a heck of a lot easier to sing than the one we have!
I have heard the anthem sung by wonderful solo singers, by choirs and glee clubs, and played by marching bands and symphonies, each with its own particular style. There is the exciting sound of a band playing the anthem with military precision and power. There is the beautiful, uplifting sound of a classically trained singer, navigating the musical difficulties with ease and honoring it with their vocal perfection. There is the sometimes awkward but always smile-provoking sound of a little kid, singing away with great enthusiasm, probably not really understanding the meaning of the words they are singing, but belting them out to the rafters with the confidence only a child can have.
The first organization that asked me to sing the Anthem was the Los Angeles Dodgers around 1977. We had season tickets, and hardly ever missed a game when we weren't on tour. After that, I sang it all over the country in just about every major baseball stadium from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field to Candlestick Park, and since I also knew the Canadian National Anthem, I sang it too when the Blue Jays or the Expos were playing. Later I sang for professional football, hockey and basketball.
Over the years, I have given a lot of thought to the Anthem and what it means. I have always been a singer who cares deeply about lyrics and what the lyricist is trying to say, and I always try to share the emotion and meaning of songs with the audience.
"The Star Spangled Banner" was written by a 35 year old American lawyer named Francis Scott Key. In September of 1814, he watched as British warships bombarded the Americans at Fort McHenry. The terrible barrage went on for 25 hours, and as he watched through the night, he was certain the British would win. As the dawn came, he saw that the American Flag still waved, tattered and torn, over the fort, and he realized that the Americans had thwarted the attack!
When I sing the Anthem, I think of what American spectators must have felt as they watched the battle….their fear, their anxiety, their hope. I sing the first few lines trying to evoke their emotions as they watched. Then as I sing, "And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there!" I let the the joy, the pride and the relief of those spectators give my voice the power to express what they must have felt as they saw our flag STILL FLYING as the sun rose.
Many Anthem singers struggle with the words, memorizing them by rote, and not really thinking of what they mean…and I can understand their dilemma. The lyrics are old-fashioned and archaic, and the range of the Anthem itself is difficult. But if you immerse yourself in what the words MEAN, it becomes much easier and has more meaning for the listener.
As for the musical difficulties, whenever I am about to sing it, even though I have sung it hundred of times over the last three decades, I practice the technical hurdles many times so I am comfortable enough to put them out of my mind and concentrate on the meaning.
Recently I sang it for the opening of our 2014 Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) National Specialty in Bryan, Texas. I had my Aussie girls, Bebop and Lula, entered in the competition (they did well), and was given the honor of kicking off the proceedings with the Anthem. Every time I sing it, it is with pride and love of our great country.
So, until next time…Keep A Song of Joy (and "The Star Spangled Banner") Inside Your Heart!