There’s always been a lot of chatter about the singing of the “The Star Spangled Banner” at public events. With the Superbowl coming up this Sunday, the chatter has intensified.

Whitney Houston’s soaring rendition at the Superbowl in 1991 has been revered by many, while other singers have been widely criticized for off-key performances, forgotten lyrics, way too many riffs and over-singing. There’s even a Saturday Night Live skit in which Maya Rudolph parodies some of these performances.

I think The National Anthem is in good hands this Sunday with opera great Renee Fleming at the microphone, but what’s the story with these other performances?

While many of the botched performances can be attributed to lack of skill on the part of the singer the truth is a lot of the singers who’ve been criticized are really excellent singers. So what’s gone wrong?

There are the obvious problems of forgotten lyrics and poor key selection (leading to “pitchiness” and strain), however, those issues aside, in many cases I think the problem has been that the singers have focused too much on HOW and not enough on WHY.

For example: HOW can I make this song my own, or HOW can I make it more interesting/compelling – Rather than WHY am I singing this song? WHY do I want to make that musical choice there?

Anytime you interpret a song, you have many choices. You can change the melody or the rhythm of the words, you can add embellishments and riffs, you can add dynamics, change the overall tempo and so much more. But the choices you make really need to have a purpose. That’s your WHY.

WHY do I want to add an embellishment there? WHY do I like that melodic change there? Do these changes/additions help me to better communicate the song or are they just for show?

“The Star Spangled Banner” has deep, emotional meaning for people. While I’m of the opinion that we as singers have the right to interpret the songs we sing so as to communicate their meaning more fully, I am also of the mind that some songs are best left as they are. Some songs really don’t need to be changed or altered. In my opinion “The Star Spangled Banner” is one of them. It’s has a beautiful melody, deeply meaningful lyrics, and soars, just as it is.

So how can you make this song your own while staying true to the original? By asking yourself a few questions (these will help you find your WHY):

1)    What is the message of the song?

2)    What does this song mean to ME?

3)    What emotional reaction do I want my listeners to have?

4)    Where do I feel the dynamic “peaks and valleys” should be? And WHY?

5)    If you do choose to add embellishments, WHY? What purpose does the embellishment serve? Does it allow you to better communicate the message of the song or is it just added fluff?

All the fancy vocal acrobatics in the world aren’t nearly as compelling and meaningful as complete and full intention. When you know your WHY, you can fully INTEND your message with the song and reach your audience in a compelling and meaningful way.

Which version (or versions) of the Star Spangled Banner are your favorites?