How do I know?
Well, I don’t REALLY know this, but here is my core belief surrounding our National Anthem Arrangement:
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.
Every year, new members of our ensemble should be able to pick up their part, practically through osmosis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.