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Keep it simple, singers say about ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’

The America flag covers the field during the national anthem before Game 3 of the 2014 American League championship series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
The America flag covers the field during the national anthem before Game 3 of the 2014 American League championship series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. AP

Sara Evans’ rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night was neither infamous nor exemplary.

If the spectrum of “best to worst national anthem performances” runs from Whitney Houston’s spine-tingling version before Super Bowl XXV in January 1991 to to Carl Lewis’ disastrous rendition during the NBA Finals in 1993, Evans’ is somewhere in between, but closer to Houston’s.

You could argue she altered it too much and dragged it out a little too long, elongating notes and words, like “ramparts,” which she stretched into a three-second vocal run. Her version clocked in at about 2 minutes and eight seconds; Houston’s (which was pre-recorded), by comparison, was about a minute and 56 seconds.

It takes courage and nerves to sing a song live in front of a stadium filled with nearly 40,000 fans and to a television audience of millions, especially a song as difficult as the national anthem. But those who have performed it say there are ways to ensure that the performance goes smoothly and memorably. Or at least not infamously.

[Andy Grammer’s national anthem wasn’t quite world class]

Sara Morgan, a country music singer from Kansas City, has performed the anthem before Kansas City Royals, Sporting KC and Missouri Mavericks games. She said she follows a list of dos and don’ts. One of her don’ts is something Evans did: Fuss with the melody.

“Do: breathe,” she said. “Breathing in the right places is key to singing the song well. Don’ts: Don’t start in a key that’s too high, don’t try to dress it up; and don’t drag it out.

“The first time I sang it was this past year at the Independence Events Center for a Mavericks game. I asked people beforehand how they liked to hear that song performed and the response every time was — and has been — ‘Traditionally, please, and don’t drag it out.’ The big vocal runs, done well or poorly, seem to turn off spectators.”

Lawrence musician Kirsten Paludan, a singer in several Kansas City bands, has performed the anthem many times at Allen Fieldhouse before KU basketball games. She agreed that it’s best to keep things simple, given the song’s high degree of difficulty.

“It’s probably one of the most challenging songs a singer can perform,” she said. “It has a wide note range from low to very high and requires a lot of breath support and control.

“It is my opinion that this song is best performed simply, staying relatively true to the tune as written. You hear a lot of singers adding notes and vocal acrobatics. It only works if you really know what you’re doing.”

Morgan made it through the song each time without missing a note or flubbing the lyrics. The biggest challenge, she said, was conquering nerves and dealing with the environment.

“The range of the song makes it somewhat difficult ... but pressure is what really makes this song challenging,” she said.

At the Royals game, Morgan used in-ear monitors so she only heard the sound of her voice, not any stadium sounds. At the Sporting KC game, however, she sang without in-ear monitors so she heard her voice coming through the stadium’s sound system about half a second behind her singing: “Trying to keep time when you’re hearing yourself half a second later will make singing any song difficult.”

Paludan never tripped or erred, but she, too, battled nerves most of the time.

“I remember being deathly afraid I would forget the words on many occasions,” she said. “When you’re standing in the middle of Allen Field House in front of 16,000 plus people, nerves can get in the way. There were a couple of times I remembered the words just as I was taking the breath to sing the phrase. Talk about an adrenaline rush.”

But the rewards are worth the stress, Morgan said.

“It’s scary and it’s challenging,” she said, “but there is nothing better than hitting ‘home of the brave,’ hearing the crowd, and knowing you did it.”

Here’s Sara Evans’ rendition.

And, Whitney Houston.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain