Psychiatrist Lobbies For Anthem Key Change To Turn America Into 'Home Of The Brave'

Jul 4, 2018

It’s hard to imagine a Fourth of July celebration without certain things — cookouts, fireworks, the American flag and the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But for many, Francis Scott Key’s iconic song can sound a little sour.

It doesn’t seem to matter who you are, even professional singers struggle with America’s national anthem. Over the years, country artist Dierks Bentley, Black Eyed Peas frontwoman Fergie and former Olympic track star Carl Lewis have all been publicly lambasted for botching the song.

Dr. Ed Siegel is cringing with the rest of us when people mess up the song, but he doesn’t think they deserve all the blame. You can also thank the song's wide range.

Dr. Ed Siegel plays the piano
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

“It’s very low and then it’s very high,” said Siegel, a psychiatrist by trade and musician by hobby.

While the lyrics were written by poet Francis Scott Key, the music came from John Stafford Smith’s popular British drinking song "To Anacreon in Heaven."

“You wouldn’t believe how long it took to become the national anthem,” Siegel said.

Francis Scott Key wrote it in 1814. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson designated it as the military’s anthem. But it took many petitioners — including the Boy Scouts of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution — before Wilson signed an executive order in 1924 making it the country's national anthem. Then in 1931 Congress passed an act confirming that order and President Herbert Hoover signed it into law.

Siegel understands long waits. For more than 20 years, he’s been on a mission to make the anthem easier to sing.

Ed Siegel is lobbying to lower the key of the national anthem.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

With some minor tweaks, the song could be much less intimidating, he said.

“I have been conducting a sing-along for 31 years in Solana Beach, California, and I’m able to adjust the key to any song so that everyone can sing it,” Siegel said. “Without even thinking, I found the key that I was playing (the anthem) in allowed everyone to hit the 'high' notes.”

Typically, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed in B flat major. The trick is to perform it in G major, he said.

Seeing members of the sing-along get excited about hitting those usually out-of-reach high notes — particularly that “O'er the land of the free” part — gave Siegel an idea: Why doesn’t everyone just sing it in that key?

He brought a resolution to the Solana Beach City Council that when the anthem was performed at city events, it be played in G major.

It passed unanimously, Siegel said.

Dr. Ed Siegel on the Today Show with Katie Couric from Dr. Ed Siegel on Vimeo.

The movement gained a lot of media attention, netting interviews with NBC's Katie Couric and NPR's Scott Simon, along with a story on the front page of the New York Times. But that was more than a decade ago. Since then, he’s been unable to convince people on a national level to make the change, although he hasn't given up.

“Because I saw that President Trump wasn’t able to sing it,” Siegel said. “I’m hoping that he will find it as something that even he can sing.”

Now Siegel has enlisted the aid of his hometown orchestra, the Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra, along with local composer Ethan Boxley.

Fort Collins Symphony conductor Wes Kenney will lead the orchestra in the premiere of 'Fanfare for the National Anthem.'
Credit Courtesy of Fort Collins Symphony

The Northwestern University music composition student was commissioned to write “Fanfare for the National Anthem.” The piece, featuring the anthem in the lower key, will premiere at the City of Fort Collins’ Fourth of July celebration at City Park.

“I really thought, well, here’s my chance to harmonize this timeless, patriotic classic in a way that can really stir people’s emotions,” Boxley said.

The goal was to do that in a way that keeps the song’s swelling emotion, he said, but that also makes it possible for people to get swept up in the music and sing, rather than worry about hitting all the right notes.

“Sometimes in composing it feels like you’re trying to communicate the flood of emotion that you feel so that other people will hear your music and feel that, too,” he said.

That’s the goal for Siegel: to get crowds at baseball or football games singing the national anthem again instead of cringing.

“I mean, can you imagine?” he said. “I am sick and tired of hearing people play with our national anthem... It’s meant for us to experience together. It’s not meant for someone to show off their vocal chops and it’s become that, and it’s really sad.”

It’s also not limited to just this song.

“I think our country has developed a PTSD about singing because growing up here in Fort Collins, we sang all the time,” he said. “We sang at the theaters -- follow the bouncing ball -- we sang around the campfires at City Park, everyone sang, everyone. All these things have gone by the way. When I ask people to sing, you’d think I was asking them to take their clothes off or something.”

That, Siegel said, can be damaging.

“Because music is so close to our emotions," he said. "Every child is encouraged to sing -- you know, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ or ‘Old MacDonald’ -- but then at some point, they start realizing they’re doing it to entertain other people. They become self-conscious and they close down.”

When you sing songs that inspire pride and patriotism — like the “Star-Spangled Banner” — it encourages a sense of community and belonging, he said.

Even if you can’t sing like Beyoncé.

The Fort Collins Symphony Orchestra will perform “Fanfare for the National Anthem” July 4, 2018 at the City of Fort Collins’ Fourth of July celebration at City Park and on July 7, 2018 at Fox Acres in Red Feather Lakes.