Q&A: Jim Cornelison talks about singing the national anthem


Jim Cornelison will sing the national anthem at the Ohio game Thursday. Cornelison, who sings the national anthem for the Chicago Blackhawks, received his masters degree from Jacobs School of Music.  Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

Jim Cornelison is most famously known for singing the national anthem for the Chicago Blackhawks. Cornelison is an alumnus of the Jacobs School of Music, where he got his master's degree. He will be making his way back to his old stomping grounds Aug. 31 to sing the anthem for the football game against Ohio State. In a 30-minute phone conversation, Cornelison gave not only answers, but also advice. 

Read the Q&A below:   

INDIANA DAILY STUDENT: You got your master's here at the Jacobs School, right? How does it feel to come back and sing for the football game this year? 

CORNELISON: I love it. It’s exciting. It’s a warm feeling. When they reached out to me last year, that was the first time I had come back, and that went really well. Of course, Kyle Schwarber from the Chicago Cubs was there to get the crowd warmed up, so when I stepped up to the mic they were already cheering, so that was nice. Anyway, it feels great. It’s really nice to come back and for them to think of me again for this game, because it’s such a high-profile game. 

IDS: What is your favorite part about singing the national anthem?  

CORNELISON: I would say it’s all the people I meet, and by that I mean I meet a lot of sports figures, coaches, CEOs, military people. 

We have the military people who are on the ice with me about every game at the Blackhawks, and I’ve developed some great friendships out of that. The military first responders, those people respond to me so strongly, and also little kids do. Both my parents are World War II vets, and it’s kind of really brought me back in touch with things like latent patriotism, so, let me give you a couple examples. One is I received an email from a guy who said ‘Dear Jim, thank you so much for what you do. My son is in the Navy, and whenever I come to a Blackhawks game, I feel like 20,000 people are cheering for him.’ And I get to be the center of that.

I have become the center of that, at the Bears opener, or at an IU game, or I hate to say that for an IU publication, but I went every year for Notre Dame’s hockey program. I get the cheering; I’m the center of this goodwill, and this kind of powerful surge of emotion. What I’d like you, and everybody actually, to think about is what that father said: ‘I feel like 20,000 people are cheering for him.’ Think about how much the anthem means to him if his son dies, is killed overseas or how much it means to the son if he comes back without a leg.

I have been involved more and more within the veteran community. I’m involved with the Illinois Patriot Education fund, and I’ll do fundraisers for pretty much every major veterans group you can think of. I see the meaning and the response from these people and the way it kind of reattaches them to a sense purpose and a reassurance or re-invigoration about the meaning of what they are doing with their lives, or the sacrifices they may have had. 

It’s hard to bring this home without telling a story. I was at a Cubs game, I sang the anthem, afterwards I’m walking up through the crowd and people would clap and wave and say, ‘Hey Jim,' ‘awesome’ and ‘great job,’ and you kind of get used to it where you just say, ‘Hey thanks’ or give a thumbs up. 

But this woman comes up to me and she’s like ‘Jim, Jim, oh my God, you are awesome, my family loves you’ and she gives me a big old hug. 

And I’m like ‘Well thank you’ this is a very enthusiastic fan, but then she starts telling me, ‘my son was in the military, I have a military family, and he was over in Iraq and he was on patrol and he was hit in the head with a rocket,’ and she just starts crying and crying and I gave her a hug and said ‘I’m so sorry for your loss, thank you, I appreciate the sacrifice your son has made, let's go over and meet your family.’ 

So we go over and meet her family, and talk. The comfort the anthem can bring to people like this, to this mother who has lost her child – that’s what I like the most about it, how powerful it is, and I feel very fortunate to be a kind of focal point for that goodwill.   

IDS: Can you describe how you got involved with singing the national anthem? Or was that something you always wanted to do?  

CORNELISON: No, I made my living as an opera singer, so singing the national anthem was something that was just fun to do. I was invited to Chicago by the lyric opera in 1995, and it was another IU alum, David Honore, who was doing some anthems for the Blackhawks, and he said ‘Hey, they’re looking for another guy.’ 

So, I went. There were like five of us, we rotated and it was fun. If I was busy with the opera I couldn’t do it, but if I had an opening I would tell them. Then if they had an opening – so maybe I did six out of 50 games a year.

I did that for a number of years, so then around ’08-’09, the owner died, Bill Wirtz, and his son took over, and everything changed. Previously, the team had not been on television, which was a baffling choice to everybody except the guy who owned the team. So, they asked me to be the only national anthem singer, and that’s the same time the team went on television. It’s also the same time that they became a powerhouse in the Western Conference. The second year we won the Stanley Cup, and then everything just exploded from there. 

IDS: Can you describe the feelings and what goes through your head when you take the stage to sing the national anthem?  

CORNELISON: This is a great piece of advice I received way back when I was just singing professionally: it doesn’t matter what I feel, it matters what the audience feels. You’re a professional. It’s your job to make the audience feel something, not for you to feel something. 

So, do I feel things? Yeah, but I can’t afford to buy into the super emotionally intense environment. You’ve heard the phrase 'choked up,' well, that’s bad for a singer. You hear somebody’s voice just cracking just when they're talking because they’re becoming emotional, you can’t do that when you sing, or else you’re not going to make it through. 

You have to step back and do your job, and it’s not that it's unemotional, but you have to contain the emotion and have to have a certain sense of detachment and awareness. You have to stay focused on your job, then afterwards you get to enjoy the feelings.

IDS: Does that get easier to do with time? Was it difficult to do that at first? 

CORNELISON: It was hard to do at first. It caught me off-guard the first time, and I nearly cracked and crashed and burned on the song. It gets easier because you know it’s going to happen, so you’re prepared for it, and it just takes more, or the really unexpected, to catch you off-guard. It does happen, but I do 200 anthems a year, so it’s unusual for me to get caught off-guard by it.

IDS: Of all the places you’ve had the chance to sing at, what was your favorite?  

CORNELISON: That’s a tough one. The top ones are United Center game 7 against the Red Wings in 2015. We had come back from a 3-1 deficit, came back and won that seven-game series. That was an incredibly intense national anthem, from the crowd’s perspective. 

Another is, and I gotta mention these, alright? The 9/11/11 Bears game, 10 years after 9/11, for the commemoration. I sang the Bears opener, and they had this opening ceremony with a full-size football-field-size flag, and FOX cut to that opening ceremony from every game around the country, or I should say from all over the country – there was one game that they did not, but they cut to that. 

It was tremendous exposure, but it was also just such an honor to be part of that ceremony. The crowd was incredibly patriotic. It was an emotionally intense time, and much more to do with things beyond sports than just sports.

And then, I got to do you one more, Indianapolis 500 was just tremendous. The crowd’s response when they just introduced me shocked me, because I’m in Indianapolis, not in Chicago. But their response just by my introduction was cheering. Then we did the song and they were really into it at the end, and that’s 300,000 people. It was really gratifying to sing something besides the anthem and have people really respond to it in such a positive way. That was super, super cool. 

You tell me how I’m supposed to choose between those kind of things – they’re all so intense, but the agenda for each one is quite different.   

 IDS: Can you tell me what your time at IU was like?  

CORNELISON: Oh, it was a great time. I met my now ex-wife, I met her when I was there. My son was born there. 

I went from doing some minor roles in operas to doing a lot of major roles in the operas. The opera house, the facilities and the teaching I got there was fantastic. The student body was fantastic. I was able to see what it takes to make the jump from a university to the professional world because you see enough people who are able to do it; they leave IU and are able to do it. It was a great experience. Aside from just having a lot of fun, we went to the Final Four that year with Calbert Cheaney, the basketball player, and that was just a riot. 

I could walk over to the HPER and play basketball if I wasn’t in an opera, so I had like a 30-pound fluctuation. If I was in the opera, I was eating and not exercising so much, and if I was out of the opera I exercised like crazy. I’d play basketball all the time and I’d drop 30 pounds and probably eat more. 

Anyway, it was a great time and I really, really loved my time at IU.   

 IDS: What made you choose IU as your school to get your master's in music from?  

CORNELISON: Well, I mean, one, it’s the prestige. But, the most immediate reason was that my voice teacher at Seattle Pacific University was a graduate from Indiana, so that’s what first drew my attention to Indiana.    

IDS: Do you still follow IU sports?  

CORNELISON: I’ve kind of gotten back into following basketball again. But I have a hard time, honestly, I’m at 50 hockey games a year. I do all the colleges within 150 miles of Chicago every year, I do minor league baseball, minor league hockey, corporate events, the Bears opener every year,  NASCAR and I’ve done now Indy. It’s really hard to find time to sit in my living room and watch sports. And there are other things in life besides sports that I kind of have to attend to as well, like a 3-year-old daughter for example. So, it’s very hard. I try to follow it. Twitter has been great, by the way, for staying on top of it.

IDS: Do you have any predictions for the game on Thursday?  

CORNELISON: Well, I can tell you where my heart is. It’s IU all the way. I have no love of Ohio State.   

Before hanging up the phone, Cornelison gave some last minute advice. Of the advice, he recommended reading the book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

 The book says, "If you can understand the why, you can endure the how."

"When you do the anthem, what you realize is it brings people back to the meaning of their suffering and the meaning of their sacrifice, and it helps them endure the how, like the how of losing a son, or the how of losing a leg,” Cornelison said, relating back to the book. “And the suicide rate is so high for people who lose touch of that. It’s our society that can make a difference for these people, and helping them stay in touch with the meaning of their sacrifice and loss."

He also went on to discuss the military and how he is an avid participant in donating and helping out in any way that he can. He recommends everyone else do the same, if it just means saying thank you or buying someone a cup of coffee.

“There’s a lot of pain out there that people aren’t aware of,” Cornelison said. “Our military makes up such a small part of our society, and if there’s anything that I feel like I’m able to do, it’s just to get people to take a minute to stop and think about the pain and sacrifice that’s out there."    

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