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Singing the national anthem is anything but easy

Performers at big events like the Super Bowl are often critiqued, but the song is challenging to sing

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music opera singers sing "The Star Spangled Banner" with famed national anthem vocalist Wayne Messmer.

EVANSTON, Ill. - For more than 30 years, Wayne Messmer has been wowing crowds with his signature rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Northwestern University and in most of the major athletic arenas in Chicago.

But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier.

Messmer and Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music opera singers Frank Laucerica and Kaileigh Riess discuss on camera the challenges of singing the national anthem, even for the most practiced of pros. They count the ways things can go terribly wrong, and the video includes excerpts of the very best and worst performances of one of America’s most cherished and challenging songs.  

To name a few of the obstacles:

  • Managing the song’s large range: The national anthem covers an octave-and-a-half range, which is “far beyond the average person’s non-trained singing voice,” said Messmer, who has sung the national anthem almost 5,000 times at Chicago Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and Wolves games.  
  • Selecting the right key: “It’s very easy to start with what you think is the right key and then realize halfway through, when it gets to the higher part, that you can’t do that,” said Frank Laucerica, a tenor opera student at the Bienen School. “And then you end up having to change the key, and that’s unfortunate for everybody.”

Some singers choose to start the song in an almost uncomfortably low range just to ensure they can powerfully end the song in a more comfortable “chest voice,” said Kayleigh Riess, a soprano opera student at the Bienen School.

  • Acclimating to the performance venue and the event’s circumstances: Soldier Field forces singers to work around a one-second delay in the sound system that “comes back at you and smashes you right in the face,” Messmer said. He compared this to Wrigley Field, which has no delay. But when he sang the national anthem before Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, he was dealing with a different set of challenges: nerves. 

“As I walked by home plate, I saw … the ‘World Series’ logo on it,” Messmer said, explaining that the stakes were much higher for an event of this magnitude. “All of a sudden I’m like, ‘This is not a Tuesday in late April against Cincinnati.’”

  • Overcoming those nerves: The honor of being asked to perform our nation’s hallmark song helps singers get their nerves in check, Riess said. 

“If you’re really nervous before you sing but then you think about the bigger picture and what an honor it is to be asked to sing, it helps put everything in perspective,” she said.

  • Remembering the lyrics: “Singing the national anthem for proud Americans is not something you want to mess up,” Laucerica said.

But practice makes perfect. Similar to their operatic training, by the time a singer is performing for an audience, it’s imperative he or she is going off “muscle memory.”

“If you’re still thinking about pitches and rhythms and words, you’re going to mess up,” Riess said.

Country singer Luke Bryan will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Sunday’s Super Bowl game.

Watch the full video for more performance tips and to hear the vocalists’ renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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