The executive director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing explains why the national anthem is notoriously difficult to perform.
Editor’s note: This story, originally posted in 2013, has been updated.
This Fourth of July, as you take in a fireworks show in person or on TV, you’ll probably be treated to a version of “The Star Spangled Banner”—a song that has gone down in history as one of the most difficult to sing.
There have been infamous flubs—Christina Aguilera and Roseanne Barr, to name a couple—and inspiring renditions. Whitney Houston’s version before the 1991 Super Bowl is probably one of the most revered and imitated, though not always well.
“We have many bad versions of people trying to sing Whitney Houston’s version,” said Allen Henderson, executive director of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS). “Your favorite singer’s version with all their flourishes—just because it’s great doesn’t mean it’s great for you and your voice.”
Part of the difficulty with “The Star Spangled Banner” is its wide-ranging melody that skips around a lot, Henderson said. “Most popular songs today are not written with that wide of a range.”
There’s also the bit at the end, the last stanza where singers have to hit a particularly high note on “free” in the last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“In most people’s voice, in the traditional key it’s sung, that’s a difficult place even for professional singers to make sound good,” Henderson said.
Add to that the fact that most people often forget the lyrics—originally a poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812—and the song becomes a land mine of potential blunders.
NATS member Robert Edwin believes that a lot of people forget the lyrics because few understand what is actually going on in the song.
“Only a very small number of people have come into my studio with any idea of the ‘who, what, where, when, why, and how’ of the song,” Edwin wrote in the association’s Journal of Singing [pay for download]. “In order to diminish the chances of public failure and subsequent embarrassment for your students when they perform our national anthem, a short history lesson should precede any singing.”
For anyone about to tackle this particular song, Henderson advised finding a comfortable key—use a pitch pipe—and finding a good style and tempo fitting your individual voice. “Don’t exceed your technical capacity with embellishments,” he said.