Press Coverage


One Way to Reach Anthem High Note:
Just Make It Lower

Lowering 'Banner' key would help, psychiatrist says

Neal Matthews
New York Times
Jun. 5, 2004 12:00 AM

SOLANA BEACH, Calif. - Anyone who has attended a baseball game knows how hard it is to sing the Star-Spangled Banner in key. One lonely voice is trying to change that.

Ed Siegel, a psychiatrist who cannot read sheet music but can play a thousand songs on the piano, wants to lower the key of the national anthem from B flat to G major. That simple change, he argues, would make the anthem accessible to even the tonally challenged. The words, of course, are another matter entirely.

"I've found that by playing the Star-Spangled Banner in the key of G major vs. B flat, everyone is able to sing it," said Siegel, 64, who lives in Solana Beach and started a Thursday night community singalong in 1986. For 10 years, he has been trying to get the anthem lowered three keys. So far, no one in authority is buying.

"I've failed nationally," he said, "so now I'm thinking locally, to get the ball rolling."

Siegel has asked the Solana Beach City Council to support lowering the key for the anthem.

His petition decrees "that whenever audiences are asked to sing our national anthem, it be played and sung in the key of G major."

Siegel has gotten the Del Mar Rotary Club, where he is a member, to endorse the petition.

"We sing at every meeting, and the Star-Spangled Banner is a heck of a lot easier to sing in G," said Ken Paulovich, club president. "It's lower; you don't have to fight those high notes. The way people massacre the national anthem at ball games, maybe this will make it easier for them to sing."

Actually, ball game crowds do more silent standing than massacring. "The anthem is meant to be sung communally, but not many people take active part in singing it," said Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education. "I don't think the tonality police will descend on somebody playing it at a lower key. Sometimes, truth be told, stadium organists take it down a note without telling anybody."

Blakeslee's organization is set to unveil a campaign to revive interest in singing the Star-Spangled Banner. The day chosen is Sept. 14, the same date that in 1814 Francis Scott Key wrote the poem, which was later set to the tune of a popular drinking song. The campaign, for which Laura Bush is honorary chairwoman, is to culminate in a national singalong in 2006, when the Smithsonian unveils the flag that inspired Key, all 30 by 42 feet of it, which currently is undergoing restoration.

President Woodrow Wilson decreed in 1916 that the Star-Spangled Banner be played at military events, and it became the national anthem by act of Congress in 1931. In 1942, the War Department adopted a code governing the anthem's presentation, and B flat was designated in the official arrangement published by the Armed Forces School of Music.

Siegel's quest to make the song more accessible has seemed destined for success many times, but then "a cold blanket is thrown over my enthusiasm for a while," he said.

Siegel's efforts have met with varying levels of enthusiasm. Before the San Diego Padres moved this year into their new stadium, he called the staffer in charge of lining up national anthem singers.

"She stiff-armed me," he recalled. "She said she preferred to bring in outside singers and wasn't in favor of having the audience sing it."

"As a psychiatrist," he added, "I was trying to figure out why in the world I would be rejected when I'm simply asking to have it sung in the key of G" so that tens of thousands of people "could experience the thrill of being able to sing it together."