And The Rockets Red Glare…
By Mari Hazel, Voice Instructor
With the Fourth of July coming up, it’s beginning to feel a lot like National Anthem season here in Columbia. My Facebook newsfeed and private voice lessons are blowing up with people singing the National Anthem here and there, including Fireflies baseball games. From one singer to another, I can tell you that the “Star-Spangled Banner” is a tough song! I’ve seen some of my students get really frustrated in the lessons because they feel like they don’t sound very good in certain parts of the song. We work on it using healthy vocal technique but for a lot of us, it’s just tough. So, I want to shed some light on why this song is so challenging for singers and why it’s important to give a performance that is tailored to your voice.
To understand musically why this song is vocally challenging, it’s important to remember when it was written. The poem was written during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key, and it was set to an English tune called, “The Anacreontic Song,” written by John Stafford Smith in 1790. Speaking in terms of popular music, at this point in music history Mozart (Classical) was so “last year” and Beethoven (Romantic) was all the rage now. The original key of this tune was in C Major, which would mean that the lowest note would have been Middle C and the highest note would have been a High G, or C4 and G5 on the piano. The style of singing in pop music at this time was OPERA! “Belting” for women was unheard of, and men explored head voice mainly at the top of their range. In present day, singing in chest voice must be carefully navigated, especially when approaching A4-C5 for women and C4-G4 for men.
We all have those unforgettable experiences of watching someone sing our national anthem before The Super Bowl, the last five years being Lady Gaga (pop), Idina Menzel (broadway), Renée Fleming (opera), Alicia Keys (R&B), and Kelly Clarkson (pop). Please insert your personal favorite performance here, but I believe there is an overwhelming response for Whitney Houston at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. To say that she did an incredible job and sang with so much passion is the understatement of the year.
As an American citizen, one of the reasons that her performance was so moving was the fact that it was given in honor of those men and women who were serving in the Persian Gulf War, which ended in February of that year. As a singer, her use of dynamic contrast, flawless technique, and genuine understanding of the text is what put this performance on the map. She wasn’t afraid to sing quietly as she described the flag waving majestically through the perilous battle, which I believe added to the beauty and sincerity of the performance. That also contributed to the power of the high point of the anthem with “And the rockets red glare…” Beautiful.
When we’re working on vocal technique, we get caught up in being powerful, in belting, in being heard; however, some of the most beautiful moments in a song come from a perfectly placed falsetto, or head voice. Whitney was not afraid to do this. There is a quote that I use with my students and in my own performing that was said by Paul Newman when he was on Inside the Actors Studio many years ago. I think it perfectly sums up why it’s important to not be afraid of dynamic contrast in your singing and going between chest voice and head voice in your performance. You will leave your listeners with a more memorable performance.
“You can’t make a point with laughter if you laugh all the time. You can’t make a point with a pause if you pause all the time. If you really want to make a point with a pause, you better be selective with how many time you want to use it. You can’t weep endlessly and make a point by weeping. You can’t make a point by yelling all the time…Three times. That’s all. Figure them out. Put them where you want them.”
Happy Independence Day, everyone!