National Anthems have been in the news recently for good reasons (Winter Olympics medal ceremonies) and not so good reasons (see the end of this article). Count me among those who believe that when our National Anthem is performed, it should be done so in a respectful way. Our country has a lot of problems, but our National Anthem speaks to our hope for the best that the American experiment can be. It is a symbol of the freedoms we enjoy, and it is a reminder that the old cliche, “Freedom isn’t free,” is true. My father served in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict (6th Infantry Division) and I am proud of his service for our country. Last year, my wife and I visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore where Francis Scott Key wrote the words to The Star Spangled Banner. Being there was a very powerful experience. Sing it or play it: from where I sit, I want to hear our National Anthem performed in such a way where the tune is recognizable, the words (if sung) are understandable, it is at tempo and a key that is singable by the audience, and it draws attention to the Anthem itself, not to the performer.
During my nearly 30 years as a member of the Boston Symphony/Boston Pops Orchestra, I played the National Anthem more times than I can count, and many of the most memorable performances were at sporting events. I played it at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans in February 2002 (when the New England Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams); this was the first Super Bowl after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Boston Pops Orchestra (Keith Lockhart, conductor) accompanied Mariah Carey; the trombones were Norman Bolter, Ronald Barron and myself (to view this video on Youtube, click HERE):
The Boston Pops brass section, Keith Lockhart, conductor) also played the National Anthem in 2008 at a Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers NBA Finals game (the Celtics won the game and went on to win the NBA Championship); unfortunately no video is available for that performance but here is a photo. James Nova and I played trombone; Gary Ofenloch is playing tuba.
In 2010, the Celtics and Lakers were back in the NBA Finals again and the Boston Pops brass section with members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (James Orent, conductor) played the National Anthem once more; the trombone players are Ronald Barron, Hans Bohn and myself. The Celtics won that game but the Lakers went on to win that NBA Championship. To view this video on Youtube, click HERE:
I also played the National Anthem at many other New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox games. It was always a thrill to stand at center court, or the 50 yard line, or around home plate and do this. Always.
When I began my four year tenure as Professor of Trombone at Arizona State University, I wanted to bring special kinds of musical experiences to my students. Twice, the Arizona State University Desert Bones Trombone Choir performed the National Anthem before Arizona Diamondbacks Major League Baseball games. I searched long and hard to find an arrangement for trombones that I thought met all of the criteria I put forth for a great performance at this kind of venue and event. I was very happy to find one by Robert Elkjer that fit the bill.
To have a chance to play the National Anthem at Chase Field in Phoenix, we needed to record a demo video. This we did in the fall of 2012; it was recorded in a large rehearsal room at ASU. Here is our demo video (to view this video in YouTube, click HERE):
The video was well received by the Diamondbacks, and in 2014, we were invited to perform the National Anthem at an Arizona Diamondbacks/Colorado Rockies game. I was so proud of my students for how they performed, how they presented themselves, and how they were received. This video was produced by the Diamondbacks and was shown on the jumbotron while we were playing (to view this video in YouTube, click HERE):
Later that year, I was honored as one of four finalists in the Arizona State University “Faculty/Staff Most Spirited Sun Devil” contest. This was a great, fun honor, to be the representative of ASU’s Tempe campus in this contest. I certainly had school spirit, and I was honored at halftime of an ASU/Stanford basketball game. Our ASU Desert Bones Trombone Choir was asked to play the National Anthem at that game; here is a sideline camera video taken by my wife. I think what I find so riveting about this particular performance is how respectful and quiet the audience was until the Anthem was over, at which time it burst into spontaneous applause and cheering. It was a great moment (to view this video in YouTube, click HERE):
A year later, in 2015, we were invited back to Chase Field to play the National Anthem at an Arizona Diamondbacks/San Francisco Giants game. It was a thrill to do this the first time. To be asked back to do this a second time was very special for my students and me (to view this video in YouTube, click HERE):
In all of these performances, we tried to bring the best that we could to the table, to honor our country, and express hope in its highest ideals. A recent performance of the National Anthem has been in the news in recent days for all the wrong reasons. A pop singer named Stacy Ann Ferguson, who goes by the name “Fergie,” sang the National Anthem at the recent NBA All Star game. She has come under fire for her performance. Hers was a particularly awful, self-aggrandizing performance that has come in for heavy criticism in the media. Was it the “worst performance” ever of the National Anthem? I haven’t heard enough to judge, but you can hear it for yourself. I’m all for tasteful artistic license, but as you view her video below, follow along with the music below, a transcription of her performance that was sent to me by a friend (it seems to be making the rounds in the Internet; I don’t know who did the transcription). Watch the words (or lack of words). Listen to the pitch. Note that she sings the Anthem in 4/4 meter rather than 3/4. The list goes on. . .
Uh, no. Memo to “Fergie”: this song isn’t about YOU. It isn’t about how cool you think you are. It isn’t about making a statement. The words have MEANING; they are not just vocal syllables that you can slide over, making them incomprehensible. You gave the world a clinic on how NOT to sing The Star Spangled Banner.
“Fergie’s” performance of the National Anthem stands in contrast to the respectful performances by so many people who, despite the many flaws in our country, recognize that the National Anthem is a powerful symbol of what is good, and right in our land, and the hope we have to make it even better. How we sing or play it matters. I’m glad to have been a part of many memorable performances of The Star Spangled Banner, and thereby do my part – as have so many others – to aspire to its ideals. The Star Spangled Banner. Long may it wave.