Arts + Culture

O say can you sing?

Opera singer and vocal studies chair Michael Dean helps pop stars tune up to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”

Michael Dean

Opera singer and vocal studies chair Michael Dean.

If only Luke Bryan had consulted UCLA vocal studies chair Michael Dean before the country music star humiliated himself in front of millions of baseball fans at the All-Star game in July by singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the lyrics scrawled on his hand. And surely, Dean could have helped R&B legend Anita Baker reach the high notes she missed during her performance of the song at the 2010 NBA finals.

If only dozens of infamous flubbers of the song had come to Dean, a nationally respected voice teacher and sought-after coach who is especially skilled at preparing pop stars to perform the national anthem at public events. 

Most of us have tossed off the song hundreds of times since we first learned it by rote in elementary school, but how well any of us can sing it is another matter altogether. Written in 1814, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is actually a complex piece of classical music rife with challenges, said Dean, an assistant professor who also chairs the music department at the Herb Albert School of Music. It demands a one-and-a-half-octave vocal range, and its 19th-century lyrics trip singers up with archaic words like “ramparts.”

“I get pop singers who have been engaged to sing this piece contacting me all the time,” said Dean, who makes a point of keeping their famous names private. “What they’ve discovered is that ‘I am a non-classical singer who has now been asked to sing a classical piece of music.’ This strikes fear into their hearts.”

In a classical piece of music, Dean explained, “the voice is taken to its extremes, from low to extremely high. That’s what makes it so exciting. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has a very strong range, and it stays up in the high range for a long time.”


One singer who nailed the anthem in all its classical splendor was famed baritone Robert Merrill, who sang it at Yankee Stadium on opening day of the baseball season in 1969 and just about every year thereafter until his death in 2004.

In contrast to an operatic span, “pop music has a range of about four notes, and pop singers tend to get up to the high notes only by screaming,” said Dean. “That’s the style. That’s what people have made millions of dollars doing.”

Even more unfortunately, pop singers slated to sing the national anthem usually have to perform it a capella, from out in the middle of a baseball field or basketball court with no accompanying music to guide them.

This can be treacherous, Dean noted, because pop singers generally “don’t have any real sense of pitch or key. They’re used to having an earphone playing music for them” onstage or during recordings. “If they’re going to hit the high note” — at the end of ‘land of the free’ — they have to start in the correct key.

“If they start in a key that’s too high, they don’t know it until they’re already in. They just crash and burn vocally,” said Dean, citing the tortuous example of Olympic track star Carl Lewis, who was invited to sing the anthem at an NBA game. Lewis started on the wrong note, changed keys midway in an unsuccessful attempt to fix it, and ended up screaming the high notes and drawing a blast of boos from the audience.

So what can Dean — whose rich bass-baritone voice has resounded over the past two decades in operas and symphonic performances around the globe, most recently in the Los Angeles Opera’s ”Romeo and Juliet” — do to assist songsters best known for their music videos?

“People will come to me with ‘Show me how to hit the high notes so I don’t hurt myself.’ I can do that, but it’s a little bit like emergency surgery instead of giving somebody a new plan of health,” said Dean. 

To really ace the anthem, the UCLA vocal coach said, requires classical voice training to improve one’s vocal flexibility …. “which usually is a long, long process. They’d be really well advised to start vocal lessons a year in advance if they really want it to go well. But, I am able to help people in a few sessions to at least make it easier.”


For some, vocal work is not enough. “People cannot for the life of them remember the words when they get up to perform this piece,” Dean said. “American Idol” winner Scotty McCreery started the piece “Oh Jose, can you see” at the first game of the World Series last year, while Christina Aguilera botched numerous lines during her performance at last year’s Super Bowl.

That’s when it becomes obvious, Dean said, that the singers don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics. The giveaway is when people sing the piece “with the biggest smile on their face that you’ve ever seen,” despite the fact that “the national anthem is not a happy song.”

Others start out with a more serious demeanor, he said. “They seem to be thinking, ‘If I just stand here and look emotional, I’m going to appear very American' … or something.’”


To connect with the national anthem’s meaning, Dean patiently walks singers through the song’s narrative of a British bombardment of an American fort during the War of 1812, from the beginning — when soldiers sought shelter in the ramparts while bombs exploded around them — to the important question at its end: ”O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

“The nice thing about professional singers is that you don’t have to convince them about the importance of communicating,” said Dean. “Even a pop star singing love songs all day is trying to communicate,” albeit not in 19th-century English but more along the lines of, as Dean put it, “‘Baby, baby, I love you, why don’t you love me, I’m going to die,’ end of the song.”

Pop singers are also eager to be taken more seriously by the musical world. “They know they’re thought of as ‘bubblegum,’” and they often show up in Dean’s voice studio feeling defensive and intimidated. “This is their chance to show how great they are. I try to impress this upon them: ‘Look, you have a chance to be an artist here.’”

While his pop star students probably aren’t going to be singing at the Metropolitan Opera anytime soon, Dean finds satisfaction in sending them off to Dodgers Stadium or Madison Square Garden with well-honed renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“My hope is that this experience enriches them a little bit. Maybe they go back to their producers and the people who write songs for them and say, ‘Can we do something a little more interesting? Something with a little more artistic integrity?’ And maybe they’re told, ‘No, no, we’re making millions off this bubblegum stuff, that’s the way it is.’

“But these are still people who now have more of an artistic idea about themselves. I find that they’re very encouraged that they can be better than they thought they were.”

You don’t, of course, have to be a pop star to blow the national anthem. This rendition, made by a member of the Chattanooga, Tennessee police force during a ceremony honoring officers who had been killed in the line of duty, is cited on YouTube as one of the worst ever.

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