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February 07, 2011

On Singing The Anthem Professionally... (tmi3rd)

I deliberately avoided watching Christina Aguilera faceplant on the anthem last night, and after watching the YouTube clip of it, I kind of felt like I had to weigh in.

For the unaware, I spent the last decade singing opera for a living, and I sang the anthem at college sporting events, pro sporting events, and officer promotion ceremonies for the Army. I also hired anthem singers for the two years I played college hockey.

There are ways to sing the anthem, and there are ways not to. Below the fold, we'll talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly... there are many.


I'm going to save the YouTube clips for the end- there are so damn many of them, some good and most bad, that it'd take an hour to load them all up. In any event, here are some personal rules of mine, and perhaps an illustrating clip or two...

1. The crowd is there to watch the damn game, not listen to you sing.

There is little that is more excruciating than a five-minute-rendition of a song that is eight lines long. Especially if you have to sing both anthems (US and Canadian), not only are you wasting everyone's time, you're also making life difficult for the rest of the folks having to produce the event. Just sing the tune as written... if you want to interpolate a note at the end (O'er the land of the free), that's your moment for some vocal gymnastics, but otherwise... sing the goddamn tune and get out of the way.

2. Practice and prepare like a pro.

You don't have to spend hours in the practice room for it, but The Star-Spangled Banner is a very demanding tune, vocally. It has a range of an octave and a fifth, meaning two low notes and two high notes. There are many great opera arias that don't demand that much of a singer.

For my take, I'd rather have a singer ask me if they can sing "God Bless America" if they're not sure they can get through the anthem. If it's a better tune for you, then there's no harm in asking. Which leads me to...

3. Pick a key you can physically sing the piece in.

Anyone remember Carl Lewis at the Atlanta Olympics? That almost belongs more in the the "practice and prepare" part, but for anyone who cares, the anthem was written originally in the key of F, giving you two Fs on top and two B-flats on the bottom. That's right in the wheelhouse of most baritones and altos, and a bit low for most sopranos and tenors. For sopranos and tenors, move it up a step (to the key of G) and it'll be an easier sing.

As for the fireworks...

The short version of one of my favorite anthem stories goes back to when I was the on-call singer for the New Orleans Brass of the ECHL, as well as one of the off-ice officials. We had an outreach program with an inner-city school, and their reliability was somewhat questionable. Speaking of questionable reliability, our owner was one C. Ray Nagin (you may have heard of him).

We were down to five minutes before the drop of the puck, and there was no sign of the little freshman who was supposed to sing. The director of on-ice operations asked me if I could go pinch-hit, and I cheerfully agreed. I walked down to ice level to warm up, and about a minute before it was time, the freshman made his entrance.

My, what an entrance.

His entire outfit was matching Joker Purple... fedora, knee-length jacket (this kid was maybe five feet tall), shirt, pants, vest, and faux crocodile shoes, along with his big shiny grill and medallion. He arrogantly strode past me to pick up the microphone and promptly nearly broke his neck slipping on the ice, but righted himself.

As a sidebar, we were broadcasting the game on WWL-870, our 50Kw station in New Orleans, so about half the country could hear this if they wanted to.

After a bunch of gymnastics on the vowel O, he began "O say can you see/ Bah da dawn urrrrrrrluh light..." and paused... followed by, into the mic, "Ah, shit, you got da lyric?"

The boos that rained down were nothing short of legendary.

So here's a disaster from the Canadian Football League. This was a game between Las Vegas and Saskatchewan in Vegas, when the CFL expanded into the US for a couple of years. The singer, a lounge act from Vegas, got a copy of the lyrics, but nobody bothered to ask him if he knew the melody. The following hilarity ensued...


Again, folks, prepare like a pro...

Finally, you've all heard Whitney Houston's excellent rendition from the Super Bowl... here's one you haven't heard, but that is a textbook case of how to do it right. Eric Greene is a bass-baritone from my line of work, and is singing all over the world. Note that his is sung as written, and he gives you a little ornament at the end... but he 1) sings and gets out of the way, 2) clearly prepared and practiced like a pro, and 3) picked the right key.


There are many anthem disasters... it's a shame that when it's sung well, it's something out of the ordinary.

Update: Since everyone has noted Marvin Gaye's anthems, who am I to refuse?


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posted by Open Blogger at 10:08 PM

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