The Star-Spangled Banner is one of the most recognizable songs out there — no doubt you’ve heard it dozens of times! It’s also a song that requires a lot of vocal finesse and skill. Here, St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L. shares nine performance videos, what you can learn from them, and tips for singing the national anthem yourself…
The national anthem. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s bold. Inspired by seeing the American flag flying at “dawn’s early light” after witnessing the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key took a popular British tune and changed the words. Over the past 250 years, Americans (famous and not) have sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” at events large and small.
Some of them have been successful at it, and some haven’t. And to tell the truth, it’s one of the toughest songs to sing. It’s wordy in its fast-moving rhythmic patterns, it requires a big range of both pitches and dynamics, and the longest-held note in the song is also the highest note. Let’s take a look at some of the best “Star-Spangled Banner” performances — as well as some not-so-great — and where each singer went wrong and right. Then, we’ll look at ways you can nail it yourself as you learn how to sing the national anthem!
Considered by many to be one of the best “Star-Spangled Banner” performances, Houston’s soaring rendition (performed in 1991) is pretty exciting. She’s impeccably in tune, gives us plenty of her signature vibrato, and she lets the beauty of the words and melody shine through without distractingly excessive runs. Houston also isn’t afraid to use a softer dynamic level to emphasize the meaning of certain phrases; it makes the audience listen harder, too. The legendary singer does have some facial tension that could’ve been alleviated with a little self-massage.
Grammy-award winning opera superstar, Renée Fleming, is using all of her good training and technique here to sing a the national anthem in a free and precise way. Her diction is great, too. But her best decision was to choose a key low enough to be comfortable enough for her to sing a dramatic high note on “O’er the land of the free.”
This lead singer of the Eli Young Band, a popular country band, simply skips two lines of the song, and starts over. The bottom line? Mistakes happen. Performers blank. But what a professional does when they forget the lyrics or another embarrassing mistake is to go on without making it completely obvious. Unfortunately, the singer here is also barely in tune and seems rushed throughout.
Groban uses a broad range of vocal dynamics here to makes an otherwise lackluster rendition sound decent. I’m not sure if he has facial tension, or if he’s trying to convey emotion. Either way, he should just relax and allow spontaneous feelings to happen in the moment, instead of choreographing his face.
She’s known for being the best-selling female singer of all time (well-known for her five-octave vocal range) but you can hear a lot of breathiness and vocal swelling in Carey’s voice here (listen for the tiny moments where her voice suddenly isn’t there). Toward the end of the song, when she sings, “O’er the land of the free,” and goes up into her signature whistle register, it seems out of place, almost as if she did it just to remind everyone that she’s Mariah Carey.
Aquilera is singing a cappella (and as far as I can see, she doesn’t have an ear monitor). This makes it pretty tough for anyone to sing the national anthem in tune, but she does. Her higher notes seem secure and solid, albeit tight.
This 2008 performance of Taylor Swift isn’t exactly fantastic. There’s virtually no power behind the voice and the higher notes are strained. What is fantastic, however, is that Swift doesn’t aim to sound like anyone but herself, and that’s important.
I consider this the gold standard of national anthem performances. Hudson doesn’t start too low, and therefore breathy, as a lot of singers do. Her high notes are powerful and free, without any noticeable tension, throughout the entire song. Her vibrato is pleasant-sounding and at her command. And there’s plenty of sincere drama, but she remains in control.
Don’t. Just don’t.
So, What Have We Learned? Tips for Singing the National Anthem
As you learn how to sing the national anthem, keep these tips in mind:
- Get your physical energy up. Jumping jacks work great!
- Start low in your range, but not so low that you’re breathy.
- Think about what the words mean to you.
- Don’t just yell! Use different dynamics to your advantage.
- Sing a dramatic high note only if you have an emotional or lyrical reason (and it’s super solid!).
- Be yourself and don’t imitate.
[Editor’s Note: For a hilarious account of what it’s really like to sing the Star-Spangled Banner in front of a crowd, we love this post by Chelsea Dyreng!]
I believe that the most important keys to singing the national anthem well are to know your own voice’s capabilities and limits, and sing in your own style; it’s also important to match at least some of the drama behind the song. That means knowing the history behind it and keeping a high energy level up throughout the entire song. But there should be a balance. Don’t let the need for a dramatic performance compromise strong and solid technique. Oh, and make sure that you know the words.
Photo by Nathan Rupert