The Challenges of Performing the National Anthem

Monday, June 27, 2016
Story and Video by Julie Schoonmaker

With summertime in full swing and the Fourth of July approaching, Duke music professor Susan Dunn can’t help but think of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“For professional singers, getting to sing the national anthem is a home run because it’s very impressive,” said Dunn, who is a former professional opera singer.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in Baltimore in 1814 as a poem after seeing the American forces repel the British attack on Fort McHenry. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act making it America’s national anthem.

Over the past 85 years, countless renditions have been performed; some beautiful while other medleys leave little to be desired. Nearly every singer tries to put a personal touch on the performance, which makes it unusual: French singers, by and large, don't think of playing around with "La Marseillaise."

Dunn said the national anthem is a difficult song for amateur singers to perform. “I think one of the main problems with it is that the (vocal range) of the tune is so large,” said Dunn.

Since most singers get asked to perform the national anthem a lot, they need to learn it early on in their career. One of the biggest mistakes Dunn has observed is a singer failing to breathe in the correct places to make sense of the national anthem’s poetry.

“My pet peeve about it is that the breathing in this is very difficult. So I would begin by teaching a young singer where the correct breaths are,” Dunn said.

Another big challenge of singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” is remembering the words, especially when performing it at a large venue in front of thousands of people.

“You get nervous and you think of all these people who are listening to you. And something you know perfectly backwards and forwards suddenly goes out of your head. In the back of your mind, it’s always, ‘Am I going to say the streaming and gleaming in the right place?’”

With some musicians singing their own personal version of the national anthem, Dunn observes it’s not as easy for the audience to sing along in communal settings like baseball games.

“You’ll see people moving their lips, but you can tell they’re not really singing. And I think part of that is that people are really reluctant to join in because they’re not really sure what the artist is going to do. And so they don’t want to be hung out on a high note that’s uncomfortable for them to begin with.”