Dr. Ed Siegel has enjoyed a successful career as a practicing psychiatrist and educator in behavioral science since the 1970s.
Yet, for the last three decades, the Solana Beach resident has been offering his own form of therapy — for free.
Most Thursday evenings, the 78-year-old can be found perched at a piano leading a neighborhood sing-along at Solana Beach’s Fletcher Cove Community Center.
“We may be the only city in the country with a weekly sing-along,” Siegel said in an interview last weekend at his Solana Beach home. “What city has a sing-along that’s been going on 32 years?”
From patriotic flagwavers and holiday favorites to Broadway musical themes, Great American Songbook standards and recently uncorked pop tunes, Siegel can play it as long as he has an audience willing to sing.
He unabashedly believes music is the best medicine, at least spiritually, as sing-along regulars attest.
“We so enjoy this wonderful, free, community activity and go as often as possible,” Patricia van Betten said in an emailed response. “The sing-along is a very positive, cheerful tribute to a great variety of American music under the great direction and terrific piano playing by Ed.”
Lynn Salsberg said she and her husband, after moving to Solana Beach in the early 1990s, took a walk past the community center one night and heard music coming from inside.
“Ed was playing and people were there singing from the books he handed out, and it’s been ongoing for us ever since,” said Salsberg, who later co-wrote the city’s official song, “Solana Beach, Our City Proud,” with Siegel. “It’s been very important, actually, to me. ... It’s always a good night. We always say you had to be there to know how it went.”
On a national level, Siegel received recognition over the years for his campaign to make G major the official key for performances of “The Star Spangled Banner,” rather than Bb major.
Many musical arrangements of the anthem that feature brass and reed instruments are written in Bb because it’s a more comfortable key for the horn players to negotiate.
Yet, that higher range makes it more difficult for the average untrained person to sing comfortably. That obstacle is reduced by recasting the anthem in G, as Siegel is ever eager to demonstrate.
Siegel said he’s familiar with national anthems from around the world and can perform more than 20 of them. But he said none is comparable to “The Star Spangled Banner” in degree of difficulty.
“They’re all singable,” Siegel said. “We may be the only nation in the world whose citizens in general can’t sing their own national anthem.”
Siegel’s quest led to interviews on The Today Show with Katie Couric and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, front page articles in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle and editorials in the Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, among other media pieces.
While the effort has not had the far-reaching acceptance sought by Siegel, he has yet to give up. Recently, he convinced the conductor of the symphony in his hometown Fort Collins to come up with a rendition of the Banner in G to be performed this year at the city’s annual Fourth of July celebration. Siegel was given the role of leading the audience of thousands in singing the anthem, in G, of course.
Unfortunately, Siegel said, the performance was cancelled because of rain and the threat of lightning, but that didn’t stop Siegel from summoning the crowd on hand to sing the anthem without accompaniment.
“I said, ‘We need as many of you as possible to come down here and sing the National Anthem,’” Siegel said. “I said, ‘Come on down. This is not a Billy Graham Crusade. It was great and the people were thrilled, and it got a lot of applause.”
Siegel’s affinity for populist activities like anthems and sing-alongs comes more into focus when he talks about how he first laid hands on a piano and how his musicianship evolved.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but I’ve been playing since I was 4,” he said.
He recalled that while attending pre-school, he retreated from the playground during recess and went inside to a piano, on which he began picking out a melody to a song he’d heard on the radio.
Someone from the school told his parents about their son’s playing and they installed an upright piano in the household.
Soon, Siegel said, he was performing on a radio show and at school and community functions. Though his playing became increasingly sophisticated, he never learned how to read sheet music and spurned the pursuit of a career as a musician.
Yet, that did not stop him from learning how to play the likes of Schubert or Gershwin, and playing pieces in keys he likes regardless of how they are written.
“I didn’t want to learn to read notes,” he said. “It takes away the feeling that’s coming from the heart. ... (Legendary pianist-comedian) Victor Borges became my hero of music because he was able to play piano and not take it too seriously. ... The only thing I haven’t learned to do is fall off the (piano) bench without hurting myself.”
As a child, he said, he was enthralled by the legend of Johnny Appleseed.
“I was thinking someday I would like to spread sharing music like he spread growing apple trees,” he said. “I actually had that as a childhood fantasy.
“I’m blessed with this gift that I can only enjoy when I’m sharing it. ... I’m sharing something that I was born with that I don’t even understand.
“I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m playing the piano any more than I know what I’m doing when I’m moving my lips to talk. I can’t play for my own enjoyment. It’s a unique gift that I only enjoy when giving it to others.”
Those continuing to attend the sing-alongs — whom call themselves the “regs,” Salsberg says, hope its a gift that keeps on giving.
Margaret Schlesinger, Solana Beach’s first mayor and one of its five original City Council members when the town incorporated in 1986 — was an enthusiastic supporter of sing-alongs, Salsberg recalled.
“She sent me a note and said please keep supporting Ed’s sing-along,” Salsberg said. “She referred to it as Ed’s sing-along, which it really is. If there’s no Ed, there’s no sing-along. That’s why we have this opportunity every Thursday unless he’s traveling.”
More information on Dr. Ed Siegel, his career, musical activities and contact information is available at edsiegelmd.com.
Note: The singalongs at Fletcher Cove Community Center, which usually occur at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, are temporarily on hold until the conclusion of the city’s Concerts at the Cove series.