Stephanie Varone is something of a regular on Minnesota’s anthem-singing circuit. (Bet you didn’t know there was such a thing.)
The Plymouth-based country/pop/blues-rock musician sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a Kansas City Royals game when she was just 16. Since then, she’s been belting it out for the Vikings, Timberwolves, Lynx, Twins, and Minnesota United as well as both the U.S. and North American Pond Hockey Championships (not a great experience — the cold did a number on her vocal cords).
Varone will sing for the Royals in August and the Red Sox in September, and if you have a boat you can catch her today at Liberty on the Lake with Tim McGraw on Lake Minnetonka. We talked with Varone about where and how she sings our notoriously difficult national anthem and how we can improve our “Star Spangled” vocals.
Q: How did you break into national anthem singing?
A: There was a faith-based night at the Royals stadium and my church asked me to sing it. That’s the only time I’ve lip-synced the song. Ever since then it’s always been live.
Q: You must have had some prior singing experience, right?
A: I had my own little classic rock band in high school and we did a couple of gigs — one at the high school talent show and one at our county fair. I would call up studio owners in downtown Kansas City when I was a teenager and then I would make my tapes and send them off. I got some paying commercial gigs from that.
Q: How do you line up anthem gigs? From auditions? Bookers finding you online? Referrals?
A: All those. For the U.S. women’s national soccer team performance at U.S. Bank Stadium, I was referred by the U of M because I sing for pretty much all their sports teams.
Q: Do sports teams assemble a squad of anthem singers? And do you guys get paid?
A: They don’t always have one individual do every single game, though the Wild has somebody contracted. Usually there are school groups, instrumental groups, veterans, so they have a certain percentage of spots on their roster to put in individual professional vocalists like me. Payment varies gig to gig.
Q: Don’t you get tired of singing the same song all the time?
A: It’s kind of a spiritual thing for me. It means a lot to me and my family and people who have served for our country and died for us.
Q: Do you have a military connection?
A: My grandfather was in World War II. My father was a tunnel rat in Vietnam who received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. I have an older son who is an Air Force veteran and I have a younger son in the Air Force currently.
Q: How do you personalize the song?
A: I like to sing softer in the beginning to gain people’s attention to the words. There are certain places you belt, there are certain places you hold back, and there are certain places you pause a little bit.
I don’t try to go outside the lines, because it’s a perfect song as it is. I add a little bit of my own, but in general I try to sing it the way it’s written with as much emotion as I can.
Q: But many singers have complained that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing.
A: It’s the range. People start too high and then they can’t reach their high notes. When you start, you can’t stop it! It’s also a very difficult tune to keep on pitch.
Q: Have you ever messed up?
A: At my first Timberwolves game, they shined a spotlight on me and I choked on my saliva because I was so nervous. I had to stop for a second and it was so embarrassing.
Q: What can the rest of us do to improve our singing of the national anthem?
A: Hydrate. And also feel the music and really try to think about what you’re singing and the meaning of the words and how you’re emoting each of those words to share a story.
Q: What are some of the more unusual places you’ve performed?
A: I sang the anthem through a megaphone at a golf tournament once. I also sang it standing on top of a lifeguard chair at Lake Minnetonka for a cross-fitness tournament.
Q: What is it like singing to a stadium crowd?
A: There are some ballparks that have me face my back to the audience, toward the jumbotron, and there are some that make me turn toward the audience. The first time I was told to face the audience, at a national level, was Wrigley Field and I loved it. Fenway does the same thing. I think it’s way more personalized. I can look at people’s faces and they can see me.
Q: Do you still get nervous?
A: A little, but I feel mostly excited. When I see people being really quiet and paying attention and putting their hands over their hearts and really feeling it, it just makes my life.