The National Anthem and I have a long, bittersweet history. I have performed this song for firesides, basketball games, gymnastic meets, scouting events, baseball games, rodeos and horse races. I have sung before audiences of ten and ten thousand. In the 20 years that the Star Spangled Banner and I have been sharing the stage we have had our moments of great glory and complete humiliation.
If you are ever asked to sing this song in public, by yourself, I would warn you that the experience is not for the faint of heart. Here are some tips from an old anthem veteran:
2 weeks before you are scheduled to sing– Review all the lyrics as often as possible. Remember, this could be your MGM (moment of great magnificence), or it could be your MTMYSAYWTTYOSSW (moment that makes you so ashamed you want to throw yourself out a second story window). Get to know the words intimately. Think of them when you go to sleep at night. Think of them in the morning. Walk around the grocery store whispering the anthem under your breath, just to make sure you can sing the words in any situation and any circumstance. Get those words so cemented in your mind that if someone asks you “Do you know what the time is?” you say, “the twilight’s last gleaming.”
1 week before—Find a place where you can sing at full throttle. Ideally where no one else can hear you. Closets are good. Bathrooms are even better. Most people know the Star Spangled Banner was originally a poem by Francis Scott Key while he was watching the Burning of Washington in 1814. (I say most people. I knew one woman who publicly credited Orson Scott Card for writing the National Anthem.) But did you know there are actually four verses to the National Anthem? We only sing the first and, ironically, it ends with a question mark. Which, when you are in the midst of preparing to perform the song, seems appropriate since one never knows what will happen during an a capella performance. Singing a capella is like rock climbing without ropes. No matter how skilled or how experienced you are there is still the possibility that you will fall to your death.
1 day before– You will probably wake up with a nagging feeling that something you fear is following you around. Oh yes. It is the National Anthem. Keep singing the lyrics over and over, and make sure you get the “gleaming” before the “streaming” and not the other way around. Of course the most important notes are the first three: Oh-oh, say. Those are important because if you do not get the right pitch from the beginning you will not be singing a high E and the end, but something much worse, like a high M, and you might have to resort to some awful “trick” to cover up like pretend like you are crying. Which I have done before and is not very convincing.
5 hours before—Around this time you will become hypersensitive about your throat. You will probably clear your throat obsessively and swallow at least 35 times per minute. This is normal. Never in your life will you be so worried or aware of the amount of mucus in the back of your throat. Drink water, but not cold water. Gargle if you have to. Nothing can sabotage your performance!
1 hour before– You will probably start feeling shaky. Don’t be surprised if you get a headache, break out in hives, or have sudden episodes of bonelessness. Just practice singing it again a couple times, just to be sure. It is a challenging song and too much practicing is not good for your voice, so don’t overdo it, but you can keep reviewing those first three notes: oh-oh say. oh-oh say. oh-oh-say. Like I said, those first three notes will determine whether or not you can inspire patriotism in hundreds of beating hearts or if you will have to grab your keys and make a quick exit.
30 minutes before–You arrive at the event. Usually by this point my throat is dry and my eyebrow is twitching like goldfish that has been flipped out on the counter. If that happens to you, just remember that the National Anthem is always the first thing on the program so soon you can get back to being normal again. You might look down and notice the words to the anthem are printed on the program. Now everyone, you realize, even the people who don’t know the anthem, will be able to follow along and will know exactly which words you mix up. Or forget. Like that one time that I performed at a horse race when I was seventeen. I couldn’t remember “whose broad stripes and bright stars” so I sang the only words that came to my mind: the rocket’s red glare. The only problem was it wasn’t time to sing “the rockets red glare.” But by then my mind had gone blank and I couldn’t remember any other line, so I sang “the rocket’s red glare” three more times until finally I got to the right place in the song and belted out AND THE ROCKETS RED GLARE! THE BOMBS BURSTING IN AIR! And I have never been so grateful for bombs before. So perhaps there is an Orson Scott Card version after all.
15 minutes before–Make sure you take note of you appearance before you walk up to the stage. Are you showing anything you shouldn’t? I only mention this because one time I sang in jeans for a rodeo and had my fly down the entire time.
10 minutes before–The event begins and the emcee is welcoming everyone. You are getting hot flashes, cold flashes and weird luke-warm flashes all at once. Your trembling hands have twisted, crushed, and mangled the program and now it is on the floor in about six hundred pieces. But all of that is okay, because singing the National Anthem is one of the hardest songs for amateur singers to pull off, and produces the same biological chemicals that course through the veins of a cowboy straddling the back of a bull before the gate opens. I have no scientific evidence to support this, of course, except that I can see the whites of your eyes, the beads of sweat on your forehead and your face has drained itself of all pigment. Don’t worry, you are going to be grrrreat!
5 minutes before–Then the color guard marches out. They are just boys. Boys who will never remember you . . . unless you mess up. Then they will remember you forever, and on the playground the next day, they will impersonate you with astonishing accuracy using the same sound effects usually reserved for barnyard animals. That is the trouble with singing in public. No matter how many good parts you have in your performance it is only the mistake that people notice. That is why it must be flawless. You cannot fail. Oh-oh-say. Oh-oh-say. Keep repeating it.
3 minutes before–The announcer now says “please rise for The Pledge of Allegiance.” Are you okay? You look green. But don’t think green. Think red, white and blue! Here, breathe into this paper bag. And save the bag, just in case you need to put it over your head if you forget the words. Remember, Oh-oh-say, oh-oh-say, oh-oh-say. . . .
1 minute before–The colors have been posted and the flag is in its proper place, looking regal and majestic. Meanwhile you have laryngitis, bronchitis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever all at once, plus the tingling sensation of an invisible noose tightening around your neck. Your stomach is lurching, your knees are trembling, and your heart is racing. Just don’t forget to have fun!
30 seconds before–PLEASE REMAIN STANDING FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM, says the emcee, and you start looking around for a fire alarm to pull. But instead you need talk to yourself. Take a couple deep breaths. Tell yourself you are awesome. You are a champ. But don’t pump yourself up too much because, after all, pride cometh before the fall.
Your dainty high heels thunder like barbells as you walk to the microphone. Ka-boom, Ka-boom Ka-boom. Try, at least, look like you are a queen, even though inside you feel like slime. Hold the mic in your hand like a wine glass, not a like you are gripping a helicopter skid that has you dangling over a canyon. Repeat in your mind: Oh-oh-say. Oh-oh-say. Do you have the right pitch? Are you sure? Are you positive? Well, it is too late now, so if you don’t, just look like you have the right pitch.
10 seconds before–But now you are center stage and there are three hundred pairs of eyes looking at you, making you feel as exposed as a freshly peeled banana, and the audience is hungry. There is no turning back now.
This reminds me of last summer when I sang this song before a crowd of 10,000. Yes, I said that right, 10,000. I won’t tell you where because I am also going to let you in on the secret: it was prerecorded. All I had to do was walk out there and lip sync. Perhaps the program director had heard the “Rockets Red Glare” story and decided to take preventative measures. The day before the performance I was taken to a small radio station and ushered into a recording studio. I belted out the anthem several times, and they took the best take. The next evening before the performance I was spared the pre-performance jitters and nausea knowing that this time there was no way I could mess up the words. I went out there and pretended like I was singing my heart out. It was luxurious.
But today is not prerecorded. It is all you. A capella. What is the exact translation of a capella, you ask? It means “loss of dignity, friends, and self-respect if you fail” in Italian, I think. But don’t think about that. Smile graciously and look over your audience. Make it look easy. Force yourself to do this thing you fear.
2 seconds–There is one more thing I forgot to tell you.
The song is a battle in itself. You are in a war against your fears. Will you succumb? Will you retreat? Or will you stand firm before the firing cannons? Will your flag still be flying at the end? Remember that being able to sing is not for you, but it is for others. Performing is a gift. Broaden your smile. Use your eyes and your face and your posture to let the audience know that you are not afraid. You are about to set off some fireworks.
And now begin:
Oh-oh say can you seeee. (Good. You got the most difficult line down. Good start, check. Good pitch, check. Now what was the next word? Oh yes–)
By the dawn’s early light.
What so proudly we hailed,
At the twilight’s last gleaming. (You passed the second great hurtle. I said “first gleaming” once at a minor league baseball game when I was twenty-three. That will never happen again.)
Whose broad strips and bright stars
Thru the per-o-lous fight (I know it is actually per-i-lous, but no one sings it that way.)
O’er the ramparts we watched
Were so gallantly streaming. (Thank heavens, you made it through the gleaming vrs. streaming part. The rest is easy, as long as you breathe.)
And the rockets’ red glare! (My favorite part.)
The bombs bursting in air!
Gave proof through the night (now comes the most important line, the line that makes this song what it is)
That our flag WAS STILL THERE!
Oh say does that star spangled baaa—nnneeer ye-et wa-aave (Almost done. Now the entire audience is bracing themselves for the next line. Will you make it? Will you burn and die?)
O’er the land of the FREEEEEEEEEE! (Hold this out as long as humanly possible)
and the hooooommme–
And, like our beautiful flag, you are still standing: battered, exhausted and–miraculously–victorious. Now thank the Lord you were able to have this experience to sing one of the greatest songs ever written.