Stand up straight and sing anthem properly

Music teachers: Everyone - you, too - must join in

August 11, 2004|By Sarah Breitenbach | Sarah Breitenbach,SUN STAFF

It happened in the summer of 1990 when Roseanne Barr grabbed her crotch and spit. And then again three years ago when Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler changed the words in honor of the Indianapolis 500.

And even before Jimi Hendrix's electric guitar rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock, performers like Jose Feliciano were regularly reinterpreting the song whose lyrics were inspired by the 1814 Battle of Baltimore.

Now, at least one group has had enough of such Star-Spangled shenanigans. American music teachers say it's time this country gets back to singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" the right way: respectfully, with the proper lyrics and, maybe most importantly, in unison.

So the Music Educators National Conference, a Reston, Va.-based organization of more than 100,000 members, is undertaking a three-year effort it's calling the National Anthem Project.

The effort is set to launch officially next spring, but the music educators will get the ball rolling next month at the Sept. 10 Orioles-Yankees game, when 100 schoolchildren will lead the Camden Yards crowd in a traditional rendition of the anthem.

David Circle, a Stillwell, Kan., music educator who heads the conference, says the program is designed to reach all Americans and improve performances of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which his group feels has lost its luster, and its sense of importance to citizens.

The group wants to see America move away from the often over-stylized versions performed at sporting events, and develop more crowd participation. And to get the anthem's lyrics, penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814, right.

He points to a recent survey that showed an alarming 61 percent of adult Americans could not complete the second line of the anthem when prompted.

"We, being music teachers, have been concerned that too often, particularly at sporting events ... they [performers] tend to individualize it and stylistically interpret it to the point that they might as well be singing a popular song or a rock song," he said.

To spread the word about its efforts, the organization aims to establish ties with other groups.

For instance, it is connecting its project to the restoration of the Star-Spangled Banner flag at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which is set to be complete in 2007.

The group also hopes to partner with groups including the Girl Scouts, the American Sportscasters Association, the Walt Disney Co. and the American Legion, among others. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has agreed to serve as the project's national executive chairman; first lady Laura Bush is honorary chairwoman.

Circle's group is unapologetically standing on ceremony. It points out that just as there are rules and regulations for displaying the American flag, there are stipulations on how the anthem is to be sung - including when it is to be performed and the introduction of the person designated to lead the song.

Usually, that leader more often than not is the sole performer of the song. And that's what the educators hope to change.

"It was meant to be sung by everybody, rather than being a piece of music that is just done for entertainment purposes," Circle said. "It is something that should be done appropriately, respectfully."

Earl Hurrey, assistant executive director for project development and programs at the group's Reston headquarters, says increasing music education is one key to reaching its goal.

"Kids are getting one half-hour of music education a week," he says, "when they used to get a half-hour a day."

Barbara W. Baker, a choir teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, says people might feel intimidated by the complexity of the song, noting that it requires a wide range and voice control to be sung properly. Many people add extra notes or syllables to make it through the demanding vocal piece.

Baker says she hears the national anthem from her students about 100 times a year, as many audition to perform at school functions. She says many children only know the song from the versions they are used to seeing performed, adding trills and extra notes.

"About half the children know the words to the first verse," she says. "Nobody knows the words to the second verse.

"I do tend to try to make sure that everybody in the classes that I teach learns `The Star-Spangled Banner' at some point," she says. "They can do any version as long as they sing the correct words."

The National Anthem Project was originally scheduled to kick off next month at Fort McHenry as part of the 190th anniversary of Defender's Day.

But due to the large number of groups becoming involved, the launch has been postponed until March, which happens to be Music in Our Schools Month.

Hurrey calls the effort a "feel-good program," highlighting the power a large group singing the anthem could produce.

"The next time you hear the anthem, don't just stand there, join in," he says. "Just imagine if 80,000 people were singing at the top of their lungs."

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