/, Rehearsal Techniques/Your Star-Spangled Banner Arrangement Is Too Difficult!

Your Star-Spangled Banner Arrangement Is Too Difficult!

How do I know?

Well, I don’t REALLY know this, but here is my core belief surrounding our National Anthem Arrangement:

  1. The amount of time it should take our choir to learn the Star-Spangled Banner should be so minimal that it can be performed after one rehearsal.

  2. Every year, new members of our ensemble should be able to pick up their part, practically through osmosis.

  3. If we need to form a make-shift choir for a last-minute community event, the ensemble should sound full and balanced regardless of which students show up.

If your arrangement has passed all three of these parameters, it is probably not too difficult, however I invite you to understand my rationale, as it extends far beyond the Star-Spangled Banner.


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Why does this even matter?

The Star-Spangled Banner is perhaps the most important, and most frequent song most of our choirs will sing. It may be sung at our school pep rally, homecoming, before every sporting event, at assemblies, on 9/11, Veteran’s Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Memorial Day, and many other times throughout the year. The purpose of each National Anthem performance is to honor others. We MUST always have this piece ready-to-go in our repertoire, and it must sound polished, regardless of the circumstances.

Here is the cold-hard truth about our performance: the more traditional our Star-Spangled Banner Arrangement is, the better it will be received by varying audience.

Some of my readers don’t believe me; Eric Whitacre has an awesome Star-Spangled Banner arrangement. I love the Patriotic feel mixed in with the occasional Whitacre-esque chords. I especially love his “Cloudburst pitches that lead to the final cadence, leaving us with an unresolved, murky chord, probably intended to embrace the fact that our National Anthem ends with a question mark.

With the sophistication, creativity, and beauty of his arrangement, does it suit a school pep rally in an open gym or on a football field? How about singing it outdoors at a Memorial Day Parade? Of course, the answer is no. Eric Whitacre’s piece is meant for a select and well-balanced college or professional choir in an indoor performance. Sure, an honors high school ensemble could perform this piece, but it would be a big time commitment; would this commitment really be an investment or would it just take time away from learning other repertoire? Does a complex National Anthem honor our country any more than a tight, simple and well-written Star-Spangled Banner arrangement?


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What a challenging National Anthem can do is take time away from our opportunity to expose students to better repertoire.

Even the “best” arrangements of the Star-Spangled Banner cannot compare to the best quality repertoire in the choral world. There are thousands upon thousands of choral works with more poetic lyrics, a better melody, more creativity, more interesting harmonies, etc, that would be a better use of our singers’ rehearsal time. At the same token, there are very few pieces that could be of higher importance than the National Anthem in our performance repertoire.


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We Are Community Performers  

I have a choral colleague of mine who was once asked by his building principal if his choir could sing holiday songs in the lobby as students entered the school. The choral director was deeply offended and responded by asking the principal if he believed the math teacher should sit in the hallway and have his students perform math equations.

My dear friend is correct in his comparison, if the principal was referring to the purposeful educational repertoire that he had chosen for his students for the Winter Concert, Spring Concert, or Adjudication Festival. But the principal was not asking the high school choir to sing their educational repertoire; he was asking them to sing holiday tunes.

To this director, the prospect of singing a song like “Jingle Bell Rock” was an insult. To me, it would be viewed as an opportunity to make a positive impact within our community…..with minimal effort. If my choir was asked to sing “Jingle Bell Rock”, we would learn the melody in 5 minutes and add a few simple, yet effective harmonies on the fly. Our choir would positively impact the school community with very minimal preparation. For a few days in a row, we would break-up our rehearsal for a few minutes and improvise an arrangement….when in doubt, we would stay on the melody.

The role of community performer is very important, BUT it does not need to take away from our primary focus on purposeful repertoire and high-quality instruction.

This concept brings me back to our National Anthem. Sure, we know that we will be singing this piece throughout the year, and every year; but we also know, that the amount of students at each performance may vary, the size of venue, microphone situation, type of audience, etc., will be different each and every time. If we learn an arrangement that is concise and easily adaptable to varying situations, our performances will be set up for consistent success.


Star-Spangled Banner (SAB –  Unaccompanied)


An Ideal “Star-Spangled Banner” Arrangement

My idea of the perfect arrangement is one that provides the opportunity for all parts to have shape and line, one that can be sung with a limited number of men, and one that can be both heartfelt and patriotic. In my arrangement, the sopranos have the melody with a melodic alto harmony and a men’s part that fills out the chords. If we are missing all of our men, it could be sung beautifully in two parts. I also believe any ideal arrangement should be simple enough to be conducted by our students.

A traditional, and compact arrangement will sound Patriotic, will lock well, will allow for pure emotion, will clearly state the famous melody, and will effectively serve each audience as well as our country. Less is more.


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The Complex Star-Spangled Banner Arrangement is Symptomatic of a Larger Issue

My choir sings God Bless America, mainly in unison with a few harmonies near the end. We also have several rounds in our standard repertoire along with many holiday pieces (for Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa) in well-written and concise 4-part arrangements. We also have a dozen pieces of standard repertoire that we perform year after year, where we invite our alumni to come back and join us.

All of the pieces I mentioned are easy to learn, sound great, are easy to balance, and are hard to forget. They take up very little rehearsal time and have great impact on our community.


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Back to the program

If we keep the primary focus of patriotic, holiday, and traditional music to appeal to our community, we can spend the bulk of our rehearsal time focusing on our educational goals. These goals can include developing aural training skills, sight-singing skills, building vocal technique, and learning fantastic choral repertoire. The “fantastic” repertoire I’m alluding to is whatever we, the director, believe our students will benefit the most from. The new repertoire we expose our students to each year should be chosen mainly with the purpose of expanding their emotional, intellectual, and musical capacity.

We must always remember the impact we can have on our community when our primary goal, in those circumstances, is to emotionally connect and to serve them.

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Star-Spangled Banner)!

By | 2018-12-04T07:21:34+00:00 October 17th, 2017|Cultivating Choir Culture, Rehearsal Techniques|

About the Author:

Adam Paltrowitz is a master educator, composer, conductor, and clinician. During his 20-year tenure as the Director of Choral Activities at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School in New York, his groups have toured throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. He also has pioneered a philosophy that every student is a soloist. Adam's choral program has also gained great acclaim for the cultivation of eight student-run a-cappella ensembles; some of these ensembles have performed on national and local television programs. His compositions and arrangements have been performed by choirs around the world. Adam earned his B.S. in music education from New York University, M.A. in vocal pedagogy from Columbia University - Teacher's College, and Ed.M. choral conducting from Columbia University - Teacher's College. ​Adam resides in Manhattan with his wife, Blair Goldberg, a professional Broadway actress, and their daughter, Lyla.

5 Comments

  1. Bart Brush October 18, 2017 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Amen! There’s a famous arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which is–to me–the prime example of a simple, powerful song destroyed by excess. But–our system of choral education, performance, adjudication, and employment rewards (demands?) this!

    • Admin October 21, 2017 at 8:27 am - Reply

      Agreed! I don’t give into the system when we focus on community. Songs for the community are not for anyone but the community. Our main performances (Winter, Spring, adjudication, etc) are NOT for the community. Those are ones where we need to focus on educational and musical growth, but we can still sprinkle in some simple community crowd-pleasers, along with educational music. Those are my thoughts!

  2. Michael Seredick October 22, 2017 at 6:44 am - Reply

    Commenting as a retired director, I find this topic amusing. Why you would need to waste rehearsal time on an “arrangement” beyond what is commonly found in any hymnal? Considering the current NFL kneeling/standing issues, I’m also troubled by pop-singer personalities who stylize the Anthem and dis-invite community participation. Using a choral “arrangement” also discourages participation. Teach the students a common hymnal harmonization, ask the assembly to rise and participate.

    I taught the National Anthem using solfege as part of my sight-reading program. We didn’t add text until the students were able to sing their solfege parts perfectly in tune. No piano was used during the learning process, only a pitch pipe. I insisted on long phrases and breath support. Clear diction was expected. Surprisingly, we often heard people joining us with harmony at community gatherings.

    Best wishes to younger directors as you choose your repertoire. Keep in mind, there are ways to avoid expensive arrangements and wasted rehearsal time. Choose wisely.

  3. Kimberly Guilford October 23, 2017 at 11:41 am - Reply

    Thank you! My choir sings the Hymnal version 4 part in HS and 3 part in MS moving boys where they can “sing”. I personally sing it without stylized notes because the first time I sang a Veteran came up to me and thanked me for singing it the way it was written…I was in HS and I have sang and taught it that way ever since.
    It is one of the first songs we learn and introduce to new members in our choir. We have sang it at many professional and college sport events. One of the first years we sang at a State event a choir student had an usher say (as we were walking off the court) “Oh you sing that in a traditional plain way.” Because they were my student they were offended by the comment, she even said to me “what’s so wrong with it being sung as it is written?”
    We also sing a 3 part version of God Bless America.
    I love the idea of using it for solfege….stealing that idea.
    Thanks

  4. Hank Fellows September 17, 2018 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    My anthem, “The Spirit of America,” written shortly after 9/11, has been performed in hundreds of schools across America. It’s easy to teach and easy to sing. Check out my website http://www.AmericasSongwriter.com, or email me at hank@hankfellows.com for the free SATB arrangement. Best wishes, Hank Fellows

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