Friday, May 14, 2010

Culture: Canadians Can't Sing, Either

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Examples of poor performances of the national anthem in the United States, the Star Spangled Banner, are quite common. This is hardly surprising; the melody is derived from a drinking song ("The Anacreontic Song" which was used to determine sobriety--if one could still sing it properly, one was sober) and is notoriously difficult to sing--just about everyone decides they should have started to sing it lower. Get the lyrics right, and few will complain if one misses a note.

Up here in Canada, with a national anthem having a melody that is not exceptionally difficult, a song specifically commissioned as a patriotic song, one would think there wouldn't be any problem singing "O Canada." However, that apparently is not the case. A recent study from the University of Victoria has found that only 67% of high school choral students made it through the song with two or fewer errors, and just 46% made it through without melodic errors. Lest the fact that the song was originally written in French and translated into English be blamed for the lyrical deficiency, the lowest level of proficiency was actually found in Quebec, where the original lyrics were being performed.

The lyrics of "O Canada" are a little strange. The CBC Comedy Factory brilliantly satirized some of these points in a recent podcast (skip to the last three minutes). Do hearts really glow? More significantly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a Conservative, no less) suggested after [those games in Vancouver] that perhaps "thy son's command" might be a sexist lyric, but a public outcry against that idea ended any initiative to change it earlier this year.

I think Jian Ghomeshi may have been onto something with his monologue on CBC Radio One's Q today; the fact that choral students were tested may have actually skewed the results more poorly than they would have been otherwise. Likely, in choirs, most of the focus is on things that are more difficult to sing than "O Canada." Students likely spend more time trying to get the "Star Spangled Banner" right, and aren't normally practicing their own anthem.

Still, this study is a wake-up call for Canadians. It wouldn't hurt for all Canadian students, not just choir students, to sing the national anthem more often and learn it correctly. I figure that I sang the US national anthem less a dozen times in high school, so likely Canadians sing it similarly few times. Find an excuse to do it once a week, and I wouldn't be surprised if proficiency improved significantly.

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