Singing the national anthem, and what goes through a singer’s mind.

Singing the national anthem, and what goes through a singer’s mind. June 9, 2016

As most of you know, I spent the last weekend in DC at the Reason Rally.  It was loads of fun.  If I had to guess, at peak there were between 12,000 and 15,000 people in attendance.  It was hard to gauge because I think people treated it differently than Reason Rally.  In 2012 people made it a point to plant themselves there all day.  Mingling with the crowd here I got the feeling they treated it more like a conference: showing up for their favorite speakers and then just sight-seeing the rest of the time.  Plus, it was muggy as shit.  I know plenty of people who realized they were getting sunburned even in the shade and high-tailed it.  I know plenty more who toughed it out and can still hardly move this week.  That’s commitment to the cause.

What makes me super sad is seeing so many people proudly boasting that they tanked the Reason Rally by not showing up (and encouraging people in their circles to do the same) while, at the same time, chastising people they don’t like for ruining the event (that they appear so proud to have supposedly ruined themselves).  It’s strange.  I think the Reason Rally was a great thing, even though attendance was lower than in 2012.  The cause of this is up for debate, but what’s absolutely certain is that plenty of people will be blaming the people they already didn’t like for other reasons (hell, they already are).  I think it does show how growing segments of the atheist movement are becoming increasingly incapable of sharing space with people who disagree with them on a few things, and that depresses me mightily.

Anyway, on a happier note, Lyz Liddell and I sang the national anthem at Reason Rally 2016.  Lyz took over the Reason Rally after the previous Executive Director was removed and really turned it around.  She deserves all the credit in the world.  It was a huge honor for me to get to appear and a blast to have Lyz beside me.  Lyz has a Masters degree in bassoon performance and is easily a better musician than I, even if singing is my shtick.  I used to vocal coach her when I lived in Ohio and still do coach her over Skype every now and again.  Getting to perform with her brought me a great deal of emotional fuzzies.  🙂

My goal, honestly, was just to hopefully not be completely overshadowed by the 2012 performance when Greg Graffin (the lead singer of Bad Religion) sang the anthem:

Anyway, here’s our performance via a cell phone video a friend took:


I have a great deal of respect for Graffin, but I think I at least hung with him, and that dude’s a legend (while I have an education, in terms of the music world I’m really a nobody).  I’d be lying if I said that fact didn’t make me pretty proud.

So, for those curious about voice and what goes into making a decent sound, this next part’s for you.

First, The Star-Spangled Banner is not, not, not an easy song to sing.  When asked for tips on how to sing it I, and plenty of other voice teachers, respond with “don’t.”  Seriously, if you google “how to sing the national anthem” one of the first pages that comes up is Jonas Maxwell’s take on it.  Here’s his Rule Zero:

Rule Zero is simple: If you’re ever invited to sing the national anthem, run away as fast as you can. Singing the national anthem will not enhance your career. The invitation is not a compliment; it’s either a ploy to use you as a jester to entertain the rabble and the royalty, or it’s a decision made by some business administrator with absolutely no musical know-how whatsoever. So resist the temptation to feel like you’ve just been nominated for a Grammy. Instead, decline and let someone else get the boos. If you follow this single rule, you cannot fail. If, on the other hand, you’re defiant and open to public ridicule, knock yourself out (but please read the following tips first).

Unfortunately, I’m horrible at following my own advice.  Just know that plenty of professionals have bombed this song, not because the singers are bad, but because the song has an octave and a half range and requires decent power at the top.  Michael Bolton, Christina Aguilera, and plenty more have been conquered by this beast of a tune.

Second, singing occurs in the head.  It’s not just about opening your mouth and hoping you were born with an amazing sound.  Singing is an art — it requires knowledge, practice, and discipline.  It’s focusing on a million different things while trying to block out the distractions (your insecurities, the temptation to listen to yourself, etc.) in order to make your body (not just your mouth and throat) do the right things.  The best singers are the ones who maintain focus even under tsunamis of things trying to break that focus.  Which brings me to my primary distraction…

I was pants-shitting nervous.  Holy balls, I was nervous.  I closed my eyes for half the song just so I couldn’t see the audience.  I was petrified I was going to forget the words.  I was shaking all morning.  For real, here’s a picture I took on the bus over to the rally:


I knew I hadn’t really sung professionally in years and was worried I was too rusty to sing it well and I didn’t want the people who trust me enough to invite me to regret their decision.  What’s more, I had several people come up to me beforehand and say something to the tune of “I’m a veteran and this song means the world to me.  I just can’t stand it when people don’t sing this song as well as it deserves, but I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

Thanks.  Thanks for that.

To compound all of this, Lyz and I wanted to sing the song in the key of Bb, but we had to hold our pitch throughout our entrance.  We wound up in the key of B, which is just a tad bit higher, but managed it ok (for difficult songs you don’t get a lot of leeway in terms of your key).

Even after a decent run at the song and plenty of accolades, here’s what I think when listening to mine and Lyz’s performance:

  • On “twilight’s last gleaming” I lost my steady airflow.
  • On “through the perilous fight” I scooped.
  • My enunciation at times was pure garbage.  The rockets’ reglair?  What the hell is that even?
  • On “o’er the ramparts we watched” I went wide with my mouth and let my tongue come back.
  • On “and the rockets’ red glare” I let my head tilt back, that’s a no-no.  It means I’m afraid of the note.
  • On “and the home of the brave” I let the sound hit my throat on the word “home”.  Essentially I let my throat close briefly.

But that’s the life of being a singer.  It’s like I tell my students: part of maturing as a performer is becoming ok with sub-perfect performances, since perfect performances never happen and you’re bound to have some bad ones from time to time.  You have to realize that most people will never hear the mistakes you hear, and “plenty good enough” doesn’t mean being flawless.  The inability to tolerate imperfections is a double-edged sword — it gives you the edge and drive to improve, to compete with and “beat” other singers, but it also deprives you of much of the joy of singing.  There’s a fine line to walk there, one I haven’t always walked well (on either side).

It was also nice to treat music professionally again, for the first time in years, to push myself to sing as well as I could.  I ran scales all week.  I got a copy of the music and marked where I wanted to breathe.  Friday night while everybody was drinking and partying I drank water, didn’t talk much, and went to bed early.  Singing in the shower is great, but there’s a different joy to be found in putting in the time and effort to doing something to the very best of my ability.

Whether or not I could still hang with the pros is up for debate, but ultimately I’m happy with how we did.  I had a really good time, and I got to sing with an old friend.  Success or failure, I enjoyed it, and in the end I think that’s all that really matters.  🙂

Here are some other pics from the rally, thanks for listening to me brain dump about singing.

The family at the Kansas City airport getting ready to depart at early-ass thirty in the morning on Friday.
Arriving in DC and taking the metro, which required deciphering hieroglyphics to get a card. Thankfully, Michaelyn is smart.
Dicking around with Dave Silverman at the sound check.
In the crowd. Dave dressed up as Waldo, but then it got hot and the hat and glasses came off.
Photo-bombing the shit out of Silverman.
With my old friend, Jessica. We met back in college when we both blogged on friggin’ Xanga. 😛
Some guy with a blog wanted a picture with me.
At the postal museum with Keith Lowell Jenson.
Going postal.
Grabbing an uber with Larry Decker, ED of the Secular Coalition for America and a totally nice guy. Seriously, one of my favorite people I met this last weekend.
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