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Tips for Singing The Star-Spangled Banner
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Tips for Singing The Star-Spangled Banner

Categories: OpinionMusicEntertainmentSports

Over the past few decades, it seems like more often than not, soloists - from police officers to professional singers - who attempt to sing our national anthem get more publicity for their failures than for their excellence.  The most blatant and memorable example, so far, is Rosanne Barr's dismal 1990 performance at a San Diego Padres baseball game.  The problem has become so bad, Time.com put together their own Top 10 Worst National-Anthem Renditions.  Time's compilation was published before Steven Tyler's ear-wrenching rendition at the January 22, 2011 AFC Championship game, so the competition is not yet over.

While the media comically entertains the rest of the world with these national disasters, no one has made it clear what needs to be done to stop it.  Part of the problem is that those responsible for booking these talents (or lack of) don't seem to have a clue what it takes to successfully pull off such a seemingly simple, yet focal performance.  As a result, they extend invitations to the unqualified.

The other half of the problem, of course, rests on the shoulders of the so-called singers.  The truth is most singers don't know how to sing.  There are college degrees for singing; it is a true art.  Many people refuse to recognize the fact that they can't sing.  That's what makes TV's American Idol such a huge success.  Carrying a tune does not qualify anyone as a singer any more than running across a Kentucky bluegrass pasture makes someone a Derby-winning race horse.  Even professionals Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera, both with incredible potential, made the most basic and unforgivable of mistakes - they forgot the words.  No excuse.  If you do nothing else as a singer, you should, at the very least, know the lyrics of the song you agree, and often are paid, to lead the entire country in singing.  Amazingly, anthem amnesia seems to be one of the most common failures.

So here are my own top ten tips for singing The Star-Spangled Banner.  Following these tip won't guarantee you'll do well, but it will guarantee that whatever it is you do manage to screw up will be original.

Rule Zero - Choose Your Battles Carefully

Rule Zero is simple: If you're ever invited to sing the national anthem, run away as fast as you can.  Singing the national anthem will not enhance your career.  The invitation is not a compliment; it's either a ploy to use you as a jester to entertain the rabble and the royalty, or it's a decision made by some business administrator with absolutely no musical know-how whatsoever.  So resist the temptation to feel like you've just been nominated for a Grammy.  Instead, decline and let someone else get the boos.  If you follow this single rule, you cannot fail.  If, on the other hand, you're defiant and open to public ridicule, knock yourself out (but please read the following tips first).

The Tips

  1. Write down the words.  No, I don't mean look them up on Google and print them.  I mean listen to the song, and write them down.  With a pen and paper.  If you can't write as fast as the performer is singing, rewind and play it again.  And again and again.  Write down every word, spelled correctly, with punctuation, and proper case.

  2. When you've finished hand-writing the words, read them.  Every single word.  Put them together in a story - the story that prompted Francis Scott Key to write them to begin with.  Study the story so you know it, and know it well.  Study it so you feel it, and so that you will not forget the story.  This will help you remember the lyrics when that moment comes, as your standing in the spotlight singing to 50,000 screaming, drunk fans for the first time.

  3. Practice the song with a pianist who can play it in any key.  (If you don't know what "key" means, go back and re-read "Rule Zero" above.)  Practice it in the key you think you will be most comfortable with, then drop the key several steps down.  The easiest way to pick the correct key is to take the third note of the song and sing that as the lowest pitch you can possibly sing well.  That is the best key to sing it in.  From that note, the song pitch goes up, and up, and up, and up.  By starting in this low key, you'll leave room for the finish.

  4. Once you found the best key, make sure you will have an accompanist who can play it in that key.  If the host wants to provide recorded accompaniment where changing key is not an option, make other arrangements for accompaniment or walk away.  You are setting yourself up for disaster if you start in a key higher than you are capable of singing in, as most singers do.

  5. If you are asked or instructed to sing a capella, resist.  (If you don't know what "a capella" means, go back and re-read "Rule Zero" above.)  If you think you can do it a capella, this is not the time to find out.  Practice is not the time to find out.  Unless you have successful experience singing the national anthem a capella in front of tens of thousands of Americans, it is a recipe for failure.

  6. Don't drag.  In fact, pick up the pace.  Unless you're Whitney Houston (and you're not), no one really wants to hear this song as a fine art performance.  The Star-Spangled Banner is not a funeral dirge; it's about the nation's successful struggle to preserve her freedom and resist oppression.  While it is a tribute to those who fought and died for us, it should be upbeat, uplifting, and motivational.  Sing it at a rapid clip, at least 120 bpm.

  7. Breathe, and don't breathe, in the right places.  Among the most annoying things about singers who are not formally trained are their poor breathing habits.  This problem has a negative conscious effect on formally trained musicians, but a negative subconscious effect on the rest of the audience.  When singers breathe in the wrong places, interrupting the flow of the phrase, most people can tell something is awry, but can't quite put their finger on it.  Trained singers cringe.  If you don't know where to breathe, you need to make friends with your friendly neighborhood choral director - the professional one.

  8. When you come to the word "perilous", remember...it is pronounced per-ih-lus, not per-uh-lis.  (Virtually every singer makes this mistake.  Even Whitney.)

  9. Don't overdo the finish.  If you did well throughout the song, the crowd will be cheering at that point, so much so that they won't care about hearing the last few words.  But if you try to make the ending bigger than it really is, remember that you will be recorded from all angles, and you may end up along with Steven Tyler on Time.com's revised list.  Despite Tyler's years of success with Aerosmith, that would not be an accomplishment.

  10. Remember, above all else, that this song is not about you!  It is America's national anthem, not yours.  It is the one outstanding song that represents the spirit of our country's freedom.  To perform it well, your goal must be to transfer that spirit from the music and lyrics to the heart of every witness, and ultimately, to everyone who enjoys freedom in America.


User Comments:

Ananya - Apr 10, 2012 09:34:53 — Hi! I belt the national anthem and I can hit all the notes strongly. All I am worried about is that I don't want to make it plain. But I want to make it a little more fun with voice trills. I will not overdue it.I am singing a Capella. I have training for 8 years so I good with that part. So you th ...more
Jonas - Apr 10, 2012 10:24:25 — The fact that you took the time to write and ask the question tells me you're taking this seriously, as you should.  I have confidence in you, but the national anthem is not the song to have fun with.  Things are much, much different when that spot light hits you.  In my humble opinio ...more
Jonas - Jul 30, 2012 09:53:20 — This might take the gold medal in the worst performances:

http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/07/30/texas-parents-defend-daughter-11-following-reports-blasting-worst-ever-national/?intcmp=features
Steph - Sep 23, 2012 12:59:56 — Thank you for these words of wisdom. I was recently asked to sing the National Anthem for a festival coming up in about a month. My training is extensive but I have never worked on this song before. I plan to rehearse plenty and with a coach before the big day. I have not sung professionally for a ...more
Jonas - Sep 23, 2012 12:17:07 — Hi Steph! Let us know how it goes. If you can, get it on YouTube and send us a link. Thanks for visiting, and best of luck!
Kianna Rhodes - Sep 28, 2012 12:30:41 — I was asked to sing this at my high schools homecoming. I feel since i am a senior and it is my last year why not try it. I have a good voice and pretty good range. My only concern is that i may freeze when it comes times to sing. How do i get over this? Also i believe i can put alot of the poems or ...more
Jonas - Nov 1, 2012 11:12:44 — No, Kianna, I have no more advice.  (I don't see any videos of the performance on your fb page.)  So if you had to do it over, would you?  If you did it again, what would you do differently?
skystew - Jan 23, 2013 08:52:05 — most sing the word 'banner' wrong too...it's NOT baaaaaaaaner..it's ban-ner
Jonas - Jan 24, 2013 08:13:13 — Thanks, skystew! But this is a choral thing. In singing, a consonant at the end of a syllable is always sung at the beginning of the next syllable, rather than at the end of a syllable. So a choral director would have you sing 'baa-ner', rather than 'ban-ner'. The vowels are ALWAYS stretched out ...more
Robert Prince - Jan 25, 2013 03:21:24 — The Star Spangled Banner should always be sung by the audience.
Jonas - Jan 25, 2013 04:47:37 — I agree, Robert.  You'll notice that increasingly, there are more and more who not only refuse to sing, but also refuse to stand.  So for those in the audience who do sing, only tip 8 applies!
Charissa - Feb 21, 2013 04:06:05 — Hi, I have trouble being a little to breathy on this song[. D]o you have any advice on how to hit the notes harder instead of breathy??
Jonas - Feb 21, 2013 04:52:30 — First of all, I'm a critic, not a coach.  And I'm not a singer (but I sometimes play one on the Internet...LOL).  Here's what little I do know (and you've probably heard this before): It's more natural to sing "from the throat" (bad).  But you must sing "from the gut&qu ...more
Charissa - Feb 22, 2013 09:33:00 — That's what my dad says! lol Thank you so much for your help! :)
Jonas - Mar 31, 2013 01:07:57 — If you live near Albany, New York, and you want to ignore Rule Zero, here's a good reason to.

"The [Tri-City] ValleyCats [of Troy, New York] are looking for a talented individual (or group of individuals) to perform the National Anthem at the Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy for ...more
Tess O. - Apr 14, 2013 11:32:46 — Jonas what is your opinion on this performance? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQHoxykpY70
Jonas - Apr 15, 2013 10:50:09 — Thanks for the link, Tess O.  Ms. Rae has some good qualities.  If she were to ask my opinion, I would humbly offer a few suggestions.  But without the request coming from her, I'm hesitant to add any more than that.  What do YOU think of it?  Are you a singer?
Tess O. - Apr 18, 2013 09:45:21 — No Johas, I am not a singer. I am her mom. Just curious of you opinion.
Jonas - Apr 19, 2013 11:55:45 — Okay, Tess O....IMHO, shaky start, particularly with pitch.  After that, pitch was good.  Diction needs the most work.  Tempo also needs attention.  Read rule number eight.  Breathing was pretty good, but one slip-up caught my attention.  Audience response was weak, and ...more
Jonas - May 19, 2013 08:42:28 — Which of my rules did this singer, Alexis Normand, not break?  This, my friends, is the reason for Rule Zero!

http:// ...more
Jill Marie weingarten - May 24, 2013 10:00:03 — Hi. I am an Army veteran and singer. I perform the National Anthem SEVERAL times throughout the year and although capable of all of the "vocal gymnastics"...I do NOT feel the need to jazz it up like some of these needy young singers who need attention. These over embellishers only succeed  ...more
Jonas - May 25, 2013 01:43:54 — "Read..."?  Oh, now you're just asking way too much.
Ron G. - Jun 18, 2013 09:11:36 — Oh my goodness. The word "perilous" is one of my biggest pet peeves! Every singer (including many military folks) I have heard mispronounces it. So much so, that when I pronounce it correctly, it sounds wrong to my ear. Weird. No worries with the Anthem. I was a vocalist with The (Official ...more
Jonas - Jun 18, 2013 10:05:02 — You got it right, Ron G.  Stray all you want on some other song, but not the National Anthem.  Thanks for the comment!
Abby - Jun 19, 2013 02:20:43 — Jonus-hey Jonus! i was recently invited to sing the national anthem at a football game but its pop warner. Nothing big. I am still scared at one point my voice would crack at a high not! How could i fix that?
Jonas - Jun 19, 2013 05:40:20 — Abby, my first suggestion would be decline the invitation (Rule Zero above).  You'll get other opportunities to sing.  This will not be a "big break" for you.  However, knowing you're most likely going to ignore this advice, you can't "fix" the cracking voice quick ...more
Rob O'Brien - Jun 30, 2013 09:25:57 — When I was a kid, 99% of spectators at a ball game, etc. would belt out the National Anthem. It's sad that it's become something for spectators now, not for joiners. I remember seeing someone NOT singing the anthem and asking my father, "Why?" He said it was a political statement, that the ...more
Jonas - Jun 30, 2013 02:01:44 — Good point!  For some, though, it's not that they don't love their country; it's that they don't want to give the impression that they're pleased in any way with the government.

"Dissent may be the highest form of patriotism." --Howard Zinn, historian
Darrell Martin - Jul 7, 2013 08:02:48 — Hi Jonas,

Writing to let you know that early on in my bucket-list quest to sing the Nat'l Anthem at a baseball game I found and bookmarked and often referred back this page. This page, plus a few months of lessons, a lot of practice and family encouragement resulted in a successful perfor ...more
Jonas - Jul 13, 2013 12:19:17 — Congratulations, Darrell!  It's great to hear a success story.  I hope you got it recorded somehow (hint).  I'd love to see/hear the performance.  Thanks for sharing!
Darrell Martin - Jul 15, 2013 03:29:55 — Jonas, Here it is. Please know that I know it isn't perfect. It went 5-6 seconds longer than in most practice sessions and I feel that made a difference in terms of pitch/breathing a few times. I'm hoping they call back, would like a 2nd chance knowing I won't pass out cold standing there waiting.  ...more
Brenda-Jo - Jul 15, 2013 08:25:28 — Fabulous Job, Darrell! You even stayed on pitch without any music.... that was superb! Jonas, You pulled through again! Your advice is always helpful.. as Rush Limbaugh would say... "you have talent on loan from God." ...and YOU do! Thanks for keeping your column active. It's alway ...more
Jonas - Jul 15, 2013 09:40:23 — God bless you, Darrell!  I could nitpick the performance, but there's no need to.  You're right - it wasn't perfect, but you did a nice job.  You took on the challenge, and you focused on the song and the meaning, not on yourself.  Thanks again for sharing, and we'll see you at C ...more
Ashley W - Sep 17, 2013 09:30:36 — Hi there! I'm an experienced singer, college degreed, and perform regularly. I have not avoided the national anthem, however this is the first time I've been asked to sing it in a stadium. I'm only concerned with the echo! I doubt that I will get the opportunity to rehearse it and get a feel for ar ...more
Jonas - Oct 6, 2013 02:53:25 — Ashley, I'm so sorry for the delay in my response  I'm guessing your performance is over by now, so my advice is too late.  The good news is that I really don't think I have any good advice anyway.  I hope you didn't try earplugs.  If you did, you will have learned that within se ...more
Jonas - Oct 25, 2013 02:08:28 — I won't say a bad word about JT. I won't do it!
Alex - Dec 9, 2013 03:25:09 — I'm not good at memorizing lyrics of any song, but the melody of the US national anthem is constantly spinning in my head. Great!
Yacina - Jan 3, 2014 10:19:41 — Hi, I'm 13 years old! Oddly, one of my favorite songs besides Justin Bieber or Katy Perry IS the NATIONAL ANTHEM!! I don't exactly know why I love it so much but I do! I sing it a lot and I KNOW the words by HEART! The only part I struggle with is the really high part; And the rockets red glare, The ...more
Jonas - Jan 12, 2014 02:11:10 — Hi Yacina,

I know how you feel about missing the Orange Bowl.  I was once scheduled to perform at the seventh game of the World Series.  Unfortunately, the series ended in game six.  C'est la vie!

I'm not impressed at all with Bradbery.  She had a ve ...more
Amy - Jan 13, 2014 12:57:31 — Any suggestions on how to sing the anthem a cappella in a baseball stadium where there is an echo?
Amy - Jan 13, 2014 01:05:37 — ...my daughter is 11 and I am wondering if an earpiece of some sort would help her to hear herself better, rather than the echo in a stadium setting. Here is a video of her singing in a smaller arena... http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EYwgO4agXDw
Jonas - Jan 13, 2014 03:24:05 — Judging from that video, Hannah has lots of potential.  But I'm not sure I can answer your question.  Hannah, I wouldn't rely on technology to solve the problem, unless you're already used to singing with earphones.  A finger in one ear occasionally, but other than that...focus, focus ...more
benkostal - Jan 27, 2014 09:50:43 — its to long of the song ok lol
Jonas - Jan 27, 2014 04:59:59 — Good reason to follow rule number six, benkostal.
Bob McEachern - Feb 5, 2014 05:54:10 — Sing the National Anthem the way Arturo Sandovel, jazz trumpeter played it at the 2009 Orange Bowl.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6tKXl-xoBs)  No need to go to that excessively high pitch near the end.

 ...more
Jonas - Feb 5, 2014 06:58:50 — Holy...!  I didn't think he was going to make it, but...wow!  Okay, I was distracted by the high notes.  I think he was dragging all the way.  Otherwise, nice performance.  And excellent point, Bob, regarding the pronunciation of rockets.  Thanks for the contribution!
Bob McEachern - Feb 5, 2014 08:44:30 — Thanks, Jonas, for your comment. As to dragging, I think there is a compromise between a fast march, and a stately performance. However, Arturo was much better than those singers who thought the National Anthem was a "torchy love song."
Lou Villano - Mar 8, 2014 01:52:46 — I sing the Anthem a number of times in So. Florida between Spring Training games and the Florida State League. When standing on the field what is the appropriate position to stand when singing? Is it facing the fans or do you face out to the field and where the flag is?
Jonas - Mar 8, 2014 08:05:55 — When singing the National anthem, the singer should always face the microphone.

Okay, I'm kidding...sorta.

There is an etiquette for the national anthem, but there are no "rules".  In America, we are all free to face any direction, chew gum, eat, talk on  ...more
Senzel - May 26, 2014 11:13:56 — I am very worried about tomorrow because I have auditions for The National Anthem for anyone that wants to sing it at everyone's graduation. Everyone at school knows who I am, but I don't know if the teachers, who are judging, would like the way I sing it, even though all my classmates do. What do y ...more
Jonas - May 27, 2014 01:03:37 — 1. 90% of what you worry about never happens, so statistically, worrying is very effective.  You're starting off good.
2. Choose your battles carefully.  You should know your competition, and how you rate compared to them.  Can you beat them?  If you have any doubts, maybe ...more
Amy D - May 28, 2014 11:06:41 — Love your tips! Like one of your other readers I have had singing the National Anthem on my bucket list for most of my life. I'm 49 and finally getting the opportunity to cross it off that list at a baseball game in Sanford, Florida. So, unfortunately, Rule 0 must be broken, hahah. But I'm glad  ...more
Jonas - May 29, 2014 12:28:47 — Thanks, Amy D!  I do wish you the best of luck.  I have a feeling you'll do very well.  I look forward to that video.
Amy D - Jun 11, 2014 11:18:47 — I did it! Not the most unboring of renditions, but at least I got the job done and didn't mess up. Critique? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIDJ7cQDrT4&feature=youtu.be
Jonas - Jun 12, 2014 11:58:06 — Yes, you did it, Amy D!  Overall, nice job.  Pretty good pitch, although you tend to slide in to some notes.  Good breathing, but I did catch one unnecessary breath.  You got "perilous" right!  But you said it - not "unboring".  It was on the side of ...more
Amy D - Jun 15, 2014 10:06:17 — Thanks, Jonas. What is your favorite rendition?
Jonas - Jun 16, 2014 01:41:45 — Best Solo Vocal Recording

The Star Spangled Banner (vocal)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZKeLFEBVYI

This singer, billed only as "Done Again", is obviously formally trained.&nb ...more
Jonas - Jun 16, 2014 01:57:06 — Oh, I forgot...as far as popular versions, Whitney raised the bar to a level that no one else has been able to reach, despite the fact that the song, including her vocals, was pre-recorded.  I have no doubt that she also sang it live, but whether her mic was open or not remains a question.  ...more
Abbi - Jul 14, 2014 06:00:34 — Hi, I am singing the star spangeled banner at a football game for my high school. I'm worried that my voice will crack, as it does randomly. Do you have any advice for me? Thanks!
Jonas - Jul 14, 2014 06:46:48 — Yes.  Don't do it.
Erin - Jul 16, 2014 01:53:27 — I read your article and wanted to share my daughters video links with you. This is her first time singing at any event. She aings the Canadian anthem too because we live in Buffalo and this was a hockey game. I apologize for the poor videography!! http://youtu.be/ZOtrONOlT04 This next one is ...more
Jonas - Jul 16, 2014 12:07:55 — Very good. Good dynamics, especially in the first video (hockey). Broke rules 6, 7, and 8 in both videos, and rule 3 in the second video (baseball). Looks a little nervous, but not distracting. Her voice really projects. Still, it's a little weak, probably because of her young age. Could be develope ...more
Aditi - Jul 17, 2014 08:32:55 — Hi! I am 13 years old and have been asked to sing the national anthem at a softball tournament. I live in a pretty small town, so I am not expecting too many people to be there. I know what key I should sing in, and I will be able to hit the high notes. It is acapella and I have never sang the natio ...more
Jonas - Jul 18, 2014 02:34:25 — Yes. Read my article 'Tips for Singing The Star-Spangled Banner.'
Erin - Aug 3, 2014 12:12:18 — Thank you for taking the time to listen & write your review!! Anna loved reading, 'I could see her sing on Broadway someday'. That is her ultimate goal & intends to study musical theater in college.
Phi - Sep 11, 2014 02:22:32 — This is my daughter. She's 15 and I think she sings good. I would appreciate your opinion and any feedback. Thank you! https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=5C2F5B98C0BF2D32!748&authkey=!AJH3e12ADmnqDuc&ithint=file%2cm4a
Jonas - Sep 11, 2014 11:51:18 — Hi, Phi!  So you should know that I don't offer praises here.  I'm a neurotic perfectionist, so I focus on what needs to be improved, not what impresses me.  So here we go...

The first thing I noticed is that the song is dragging.  Everyone does this because that's h ...more

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HEALTH My Favorite Exercises - Here's a list of some of my favorite exercises: jumping to conclusions, reaching for the stars, climbing the walls, jogging my memory, running amok, bouncing off the walls, lifting spirits, jumping the gun, bouncing around ideas, carrying things too ... more (Updated Mar 31, 2014)

Miller Time: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ANIMALS Miller Time: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 - Comedian on the missing airliner, pot vs. tobacco, and a Portland 'attack' cat... more (Updated Mar 22, 2014)

Ladyhawke - 'Blue Eyes' (Official Video) MUSIC Ladyhawke - 'Blue Eyes' (Official Video) - You may recognize part of this awesome drivin' song from Verizon's 'More' campaign.... more (Updated Mar 6, 2014)

 

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