For the national anthem, the Ravens go for a pro

Just before the Ravens face the Houston Texans Sunday, they will hear a familiar voice — other than John Harbaugh's, that is.

It will be the smooth, vibrant baritone of Mishael Miller, who has sung the national anthem for Ravens home games since the first one in 1996.

"It has definitely been a blessing," Miller, 41, said. "I meet people weekly who recognize me. I never thought it would have been the anthem that people would know me for, or that I would become a staple in this area as a result of singing it."

With an octave-and-a-half range, "The Star-Spangled Banner" has defeated many an amateur and professional singer. The Philadelphia-born Miller, who earned a degree in music at Morgan State University, brings solid vocal training to the assignment.

He also offers dependability. He has missed only a couple of games in 15 years, once due to a missed plane when he was overseas. Even when he has stepped aside on rare occasions for guest performers, such as country singer Martina McBride, he has been ready to help out if needed.

Miller also offers a reliably stirring, tasteful version of the anthem, game after game, which also helps explain his longevity with the Ravens.

The idea of retaining a regular soloist came with the team when it relocated from Cleveland.

"We never had a problem with the gentleman who sang for us there, so we thought having a consistent anthem singer would be wise here, too," said former Ravens president and CEO David Modell. "We found Mishael. He did a great job and he has rocked on ever since. So why change?"

That's fine with Miller, whose reputation for serving up a classy "Star-Spangled Banner" has earned him invitations to deliver it at other local sports events, including an Orioles game, and for gatherings of public officials.

"But I want people to know that I do sing more than the National Anthem," Miller said.

For one thing, he sings gospel music, a longtime passion that he gets to demonstrate weekly as assistant pastor at the Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church.

"He is a great help," said the senior pastor, the Rev. Lester Agyei McCorn. "And we love his [Ravens work]. It's a blessing. It's great that the rest of the nation gets to experience what we experience every Sunday. It works out fine, especially now that we have a 10 a.m. service. He has plenty of time to get to the stadium."

On his way out the door, Miller is apt to hear encouraging words from the congregation.

"They cheer me on," he said. "They'll say, 'Reverend, go knock 'em dead, 'cause we need a win.'"

Miller's musical talent emerged at an early age. When he was in third grade, a teacher encouraged him to take a test that resulted in his transfer to a school that had an extensive music program. From there, Miller moved on to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in the mid-1980s (his classmates included the original members of Boyz II Men).

After hearing a performance by the famed Morgan State University Choir, Miller decided to attend that school. He arrived in 1989 to begin his studies and never left Baltimore.

Although he studied opera and classical song at Morgan, the baritone was not drawn to the art form. Gospel music was a more powerful magnet, along with the gospel itself.

"I have always been involved in the church," Miller said. "I was playing church in my living room as a kid. I would make a pulpit and an altar. Ministry is at the root of all that I do. It seems like I don't know anything else. And I've been preaching since I was 18. I was involved in youth ministry for my church in Philadelphia."

After graduating with a music degree from Morgan State in 1995, Miller was torn between continuing his training in music and entering a seminary.

"I auditioned twice for the Peabody Institute and got accepted twice, but I couldn't afford it," he said.

Miller served instead as a public school teacher for several years, while also working toward a master's degree from the Howard University School of Divinity, which he earned in 2006.

It was his connection to Morgan State that helped him land the Ravens job. The director of the school's marching band, which played the first game at Memorial Stadium in 1996, recommended Miller as the anthem singer.

At the audition were Modell and Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of public relations and community relations for the team.

"David and I looked at each other and said, 'This is the guy,'" Byrne said.

Miller admits that he used "to freak out" sometimes standing in front of more than 60,000 at Memorial Stadium and, later, at M&T Bank Stadium, with room for another 10,000 or spectators.

"All attention is on you," he said. "And 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is not the easiest piece to sing. People mess up the words all the time. I remember times when I would be thinking 'I'm going to forget the words.' But I think I've mastered it. I get into such a rhythm."

That rhythm could be thrown off by the way amplified sound echoes in a stadium, causing an overlapping of notes. "If you have a series of singers doing the anthem, no one has a chance to get used to it," Modell said.

Miller recalled that the echo issue was more prominent at Memorial.

"But I learned to focus and forge ahead with the performance," he said. "At M&T Bank Stadium, I really have not had a problem with the slight echo. Honestly, I don't think about it."

There was one thing that did give Miller pause — the 'O' thing.

"I was startled by the audience interjecting the 'O' when I first head it," Miller said of the Baltimore tradition. "Today, I look forward to the fans' participation. And when they do the 'O,' it helps me to take in air to complete the anthem. I feed off of the fans. It is a different excitement at every game."

The question of interpretation confronts any anthem singer. It's an issue that catches national attention after an egregious performance, such as Roseanne Barr's notoriously tortured attempt in 1990.

Last week, an Indiana state senator proposed a bill that would impose a $25 fine on anyone who failed to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a respectful manner at public schools and universities.

A couple of states already have statutes on the books aimed at limiting the taking of liberties with the anthem's words or music. Some state budgets could be balanced if fines were levied on how many extra notes were given to single syllables of the text by some ardent singers.

Miller's approach would not likely run afoul of any law. Although touches of his gospel roots can be heard in his phrasing, the baritone is not apt to take major melodic detours.

"In the earlier days," he said, "some people would say I was not free enough. It was a very plain rendition. One of the Modells asked me to 'loosen it up.' I have been doing that, especially if I have just left a church service and the energy is really high. The new ownership wanted me to scale back and be able to offer a rendition that the average attendee could sing along to and enjoy."

There are other factors involved with an anthem singer. Timing, for example, is a major concern, and this becomes easier when the same soloist is involved.

"Everything is timed to the second in a pre-game rundown," Byrne said. "The anthem has to be done prior to kickoff on national television. You're fined if the anthem is still on at 1 p.m."

If there is any delay getting everyone in place for the anthem, Miller will be told "to do the 55-second version, and he can do that properly," Byrne added. "If we have the time, he can do the minute-and-a-half version. He's very coach-able. There are so many pluses with Mishael. But beyond anything else, he can really sing."

Surprisingly, Miller has not met Ravens players over the years, but he follows the team's fortunes faithfully. And he plans to buy a new purple tie for his performance on Sunday.

"There will be some extra pressure around this game," Miller said. "But it won't be anything I can't overcome. I don't want to psych myself out. I want to be able to deliver an anthem that will feel worthy of the fans and the team."