1814 – Star Spangled Banner, by Tom, under CC BY 2.0
In honor of the 200th birthday of the US National Anthem, I’m including Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” as the next song in our Hard Songs To Sing collection. Of all the songs I’ve written about, this is up there with the hardest! There are many equally valid ways to sing this song, from using pop-styled licks to classical head voice. There’s no way we could cover all the ways to sing this monster song, so we’ll stick with two: a more contemporary approach and a more classical approach. I’ve included a video of Whitney Houston’s famous version as an example of the contemporary approach and Renee Fleming’s very different (but still beautiful) version as an example of the classical approach.
Why Is This Song Hard?
Simply put, its range is significant—over an octave and a half. When my students first start working on it, they ask me to make the beginning higher, but when I do, the high notes at the end become too high! To make matters worse, the high “money notes” in the song aren’t exactly easy words to sing. Glare, air, and there are particularly rough because of the harsh “r” sounds at the end of each word. The biggest note in the song is sung on the word free, and a vowel as closed off as the “EE” sound doesn’t lend itself to belting very easily for many people.
The most important piece of advice I can give you when learning this song, particularly if you plan to sing it in a belted contemporary style, is to figure out the lowest note you can possibly hit effectively and make it the lowest note in the song. The lower the note, the less extreme the high notes will be!
Another important modification that you should use no matter what style you’re singing the song in (unless you’re going for Irish punk) is to soften the “r” sound in glare, air, and there.
Modify toward the “a” (as in cat) sound. Emphasize the “a” sound in red, glare and air as much as possible. The “a” vowel is a relatively easy one to do a healthy belt on.
Modify toward the “EE” sound. Emphasize the “EE” in red, glare, and air, so the words are closer to “rid,” “gleere,” and “eere.” This modification will kick the words into more of a heady, light sound while keeping the brightness.
For the word free, keep the sound open and light. Try doing sirens on an “EE” sound or sighing down from the top of your range to experience the openness and lightness.
1. NA NA NA!
If you read this column regularly, it won’t be surprising to you that I’m going to use “NA NA NA” on an arpeggio as the exercise of choice for working on belting. Try belting as high as possible on the exercise without straining. If you can’t make it through the high notes on a belt, this doesn’t mean you can’t make it contemporary sounding. You just have to use enough twang and breath support to make sure the sound doesn’t shift too dramatically from belt mix to head voice. Make the NA NA’s as bratty-sounding as possible, and try to keep the sound consistent from low to high.
2. NA NA NA Sustained
When NA NA becomes easy for you, switch to sustaining the top “NA.” Work on keeping the sound bright and energetic, but comfortable and relaxed.
3. Licks Licks Licks!
Many contemporary singers opt to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with pop licks, a la Whitney Houston. You’ll need to work on your vocal agility. The best way to do this, aside from just long-term breath control work is to take apart the pop licks you want to learn and practice them over and over again. Let’s say you want to sing air with a double note bend. Practice the double note bend over and over again, oscillating between C and Bb, if you’re singing in the key of F or D and C if you’re singing in the key of G.
1. “EE” Arpeggio
Arpeggiate on a relaxed, open “EE” sound: C4-E4-G4-C5-G4-E4-C4, etc. Make sure that you keep the sound light, and don’t pull too much weight up to the top notes. If this is challenging for you, try starting at the top of your range and working your way down.
2. “EE” Arpeggio Sustained
Keep the same arpeggio, but sustain the top note. Try for an even, shimmering vibrato when you hit the top note.
Have any other questions or comments about this song? We’d love to hear from you!