The Star Spangled Banner is arguably the most controversial song in the repertoire of songs for American music education. While American music educators nearly universally agree that, as the national anthem of the United States, it should be taught to American children, the pitch range, spanning an octave and a fifth, puts it out of range for very young children, and makes it a challenge for older students, and indeed for most adults; the melody exceeds the tessitura of virtually every amateur singer. With this in mind, what, besides historical and patriotic importance, recommends The Star Spangled Banner for inclusion in American music classes, and when should it be taught?
The first point to remember is that repertoire can be listened to and responded to before it can be sung. A person’s “listening vocabulary” for music should always be more advanced than what a person is able to perform or read. As a clarinetist, I have benefitted from hearing virtuosi perform difficult repertoire years before I was able to play it passably. The music was familiar to me by the time I could play it, and I had a working knowledge of stylistic and expressive issues as I began formally studying the piece. Similarly, children can begin listening to and becoming familiar with the Star Spangled Banner years before they are asked to sing it. The lyrics can also be studied apart from the music. Children love hearing about rockets exploding in the night sky, illuminating for only instants at a time the still flying American flag. Through hearing the song and bringing the poetry to life, students will have developed a deep understanding of the anthem as they enter into their first formal attempts at singing the song, under the guidance of a music teacher.
If the singing voice has been well-trained in early childhood, and through the early years of formal schooling, most children will have a singing range sufficient to sing the Star Spangled Banner by the time they reach fourth grade. By then, a child’s singing range is approximately from a – e2. If the song is sung in A major, a fourth grade child will usually have the range to succeed. The song will soon cross from the lower to middle vocal range. The B section will take the child to the upper vocal range. Children who have learned how to use their upper adjustment singing voices will have little trouble with the higher notes. In fact, the real difficulty in singing this song is as much the vowels used as the pitches. The highest notes are on the bright vowel of “glare” and “free.” Many singers tighten and close their throat and oral cavity when singing these vowels. Frequent exercises and warm-ups in the upper adjustment on these vowels preceded by a “y” will help train young singers to open them. Of course, all good singing is also predicated on good breathing and breath management, so singers will need to use practiced technique in this area too.
When teaching the Star Spangled Banner, keep in mind that, contrary to what you may have heard in the popular media, the national anthem is in 3-4 meter, has characteristic dotted eighth and sixteenth note rhythms in the A section and contrasting legato and eighth notes in the B section, and contains no melissmas in the final strain. A national anthem is supposed to represent and honor a nation, not the person singing. Taught well, students can bring both well-trained voices and respectful attitudes to one of the musical treasures of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner.