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UCLA vocal coach helps nervous pop stars nail the National Anthem

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Beyonce stirred up a bit of controversy by lip-syncing the National Anthem at Obama's inauguration. The Star-Spangled Banner is notoriously hard to perform, and many pop singers have tried and botched it. Those who want to get it right turn to UCLA vocal coach, Michael Dean.

Beyonce finally addressed the rumors yesterday that she lip-synched the National Anthem during the inauguration, by belting it out at a press conference

The National Anthem is notoriously hard to perform, and many pop singers have tried and botched it. It requires training, stamina, and a lot of practice. Not unlike the demands on the athletes that’ll be playing at this Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Those who want to get it right turn to Michael Dean, a voice coach at UCLA and an expert on singing the Star Spangled Banner. KPCC’s Sanden Totten has this profile.

When Michael Dean sings the anthem, it’s hard not to feel patriotic. 

Dean is sitting casually at the piano in a gray suit and tie, and while he makes the song sound easy, he says it’s not for the faint of heart.

“It get’s a lot of attention every time it’s performed…mostly it gets a lot of attention when it’s performed badly," said Dean.

Dean’s the chair of the music department at UCLA and a seasoned vocal coach, who has trained students to sing the anthem for the school’s commencement for years. Every year – it was a hit. Word spread and soon he was fielding calls from pop stars.

He won’t name names, but Dean says many of them were asked to sing the anthem at a major event, and they were nervous.

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“Pop singers are singing a piece of music that was not written for them. Nobody would get up at a ball game and decide to sing ‘Un Bel Di’ from Madame Butterfly. They would say ‘Well, I can’t do that, it’s a classical piece of music and I am a pop singer,'" said Dean. "That’s what they do with the National Anthem, though. It’s also a classical piece of music. The range of it, the difficulty of the text. It’s classical.”

Dean says modern singers tend to make the same mistakes over and over. For starters, a lot of them mess up the lyrics, like Steven Tyler did last year at an AFC championship game when he fudged the line: “And the rockets red glare – as bomb bursting in air…”

“As bomb bursting in air” isn’t the right line, or proper English for that matter. UCLA’s Michael Dean says the problem is many singers don’t know what they’re singing.

“When I say to somebody ‘What is the twilight’s last gleaming?’ they don’t even know what I am talking about," said Dean. "Some people I have worked with don’t even know what twilight is, other than it’s a movie.”

To start, Dean guides them through the lyrics, line by line. He explains how the poet, Francis Scott Key watched a battle during the War of 1812. It was at Fort McHenry between British and American forces. All through the night, bombs were exploding , and in the morning, Key asks a friend if he can still see the American flag waving above the base.

“Oh say – does that star spangled banner yet wave? If the flag is still there, that must mean our land is still free,” said Dean.

Another common mistake is not starting the song low enough to hit the high notes at the end. Olympic track star Carl Lewis suffered this fate in 1993 when his voice cracked at the "And the rockets red glare" line.

The Star Spangled Banner requires a vocal range of an octave and a half. Dean says to find the right key you have to start by finding the highest note you can sing comfortably. So just singing the notes requires some degree of talent.

“But that’s the way the song was originally written. It was for a professional soloist or a well trained amateur,” said David Hildebrand of the Colonial Music Institute. He says the melody actually comes from an old drinking song dedicated to the Greek poet Anacreon. In the 1800s it was common for poets to write their own lyrics to those same chords. That’s what Francis Scott Key did when he published his take on the song in 1814. Hildebrand says it caught on fast.

“It did become quite popular based on the number of times it was reprinted," said Hildebrand. "I mean the lyrics were published in newspapers, they were published in little song books.”

And even though the tune was beloved, it wasn’t until 1931 that President Hoover declared it our National Anthem. It became a mainstay of government ceremonies and sporting events. Then in 1991 at the 25th Super Bowl in Tampa, Whitney Houston brought the tune to new heights.

Her version was released as a single, and was the first time the anthem made the Billboard Hot 100.

“I think it really established a direction for the piece to be considered by the public to be some kind of pop song,” said Dean. 

As captivating as Houston’s performance was, UCLA’s Dean says it helped popularize singing the song with a vocal style known as melisma, that sliding up and down the scale R&B singers do so well. Dean says melisma is great for pop music, but it distracts from the lyrics of the National Anthem.

“Showing off your voice is not the point really of any great music," said Dean. "You want people going away being moved by the piece and moved by the meaning of the piece, and this piece of course is not a little fluffy piece of music. It is a very deep piece of music.”

For a good example of how to do the song justice, Michael Dean points to baritone Robert Merrill. He sung the song on opening day at Yankee Stadium almost every year from 1969 until his death in 2004.

“He was a classical singer singing a classical piece of music. Two things that were meant to go together,” said Dean.

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