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The Home of the Brave: Performing the National Anthem

The National Anthem is harder to sing than one might imagine. And what must it be like to sing it alone in front of a crowd of people?

Everyone stand up, hats off – The National Anthem! We hear it at sporting events, graduations, demolition derbies, roller derbies, beauty pageants, everywhere these days. Many if not most Americans can at least hum along with the tune, but can you imagine standing in front of a crowd of thousands with a microphone performing it? I certainly can’t.

The tune itself is rather tricky, as it covers the range of an octave and a half. It was written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith, and it lived for years as a popular British drinking song. Which I guess makes sense… alcohol might be just the thing to give you a boost up to the high note on “and the rocket’s red glare.”

Amanda Biggs: SINGS “…and the home of the brave.”

Annie Corrigan: The crowd at the farmer’s market goes wild! Thank you, it was beautiful.

Biggs: It’s okay, I picked a half-step too high.

Corrigan: You had the high notes.

Biggs: They were in my head voice LAUGHS.

And even the professionals worry about the high notes! That’s why selecting a comfortable key is of utmost importance – provided you’re singing a cappella.

I caught up with Colonel Carr at the Salute Memorial Day concert in Columbus, Indiana. He had the misfortune of singing the National Anthem with an orchestra, which meant he was at the mercy of the key written on the score. “Tonight the key was a little higher than I normally sing it in, but I practiced it a couple times,” he mentioned. “It helps when the crowd sings along!”

Then there are the words, which were taken from a poem by Francis Scott Key…

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming

Colonel Carr said he has never forgotten the words, same with Biggs. I’m not so sure I believe that. But I did find someone who was upfront about his nerves singing the National Anthem. Christopher Johnson is a classical trained baritone who is accustomed to singing on an opera stage, but he still gets nervous singing the National Anthem. “Everybody knows it! Everybody remembers the National Anthem, and you’re the one who is supposed to bring everyone together. And if you don’t do that, then you’re even worse off than you started.”

Most of the time, the National Anthem is forgettable – start the baseball game already! But, sometimes it sticks with you, and most of the time it’s because something has gone terribly TERRIBLY wrong. Think, Roseanne Barr at a baseball game in 1990, and my personal favorite by Olympic runner, Carl Lewis in 1993 at a basketball game in Chicago. For performers, of course, you hope to not have too many stories like those! Colonel Carr said that every time he sings it is memorable because he’s only sung it publically three times, twice in Columbus at the Salute concert, “and then I did it one other time publically at a Pacer game right after I returned from a deployment to Bosnia.” He went on to describe how they gave him a warm-up room before the game, and then it hit him what he was about to do, and he thought, “What part of this sounded like a good idea!”

And then sometimes, you can tap into something deeper and get an emotional connection with the music. This happened to Amanda Biggs one afternoon at a roller derby bout in Bloomington. “I was having an emotionally trying day, and I was debating whether or not to sing.” But she decided to use that emotion in her rendition of the National Anthem. “If I ever sang the National Anthem and blew the roof off, that had to be the day.”

You can hear the National Anthem, well, probably just about anywhere this summer! Sing along, if you dare!

Listen to WFIU’s Annie Corrigan’s interview with Annie Biggs as she takes on the Big Apple in search of her dreams.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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