Bill Harris is going out on a high note, placing second in the statewide Star-Spangled Sing-Off competition as he wraps up his career as a music teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools.
As he retires from teaching elementary school students music in Montgomery County Public Schools, Harris will do more work as a Washington, D.C., tour guide, something he’s done on the side for years.
Entrants in the competition, which is run by the Maryland State Arts Council, submitted solo a cappella renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Harris, 60, of Germantown, said he entered on a whim. He was at a friend’s recording studio, working on some CDs of student performances, when he decided to step into the studio to belt out the national anthem. It’s a song that has always been important to Harris.
“I’m always a firm believer in teaching ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to my students,” he said.
He teaches them the history of the song — how Francis Scott Key, a lawyer, wrote the poem in Baltimore during the War of 1812, originally named “The Defense of Fort McHenry.”
“That’s something I always convey to my students: It’s not just one verse and the last words are not ‘Play ball!’” Harris said, referring to the tradition of opening baseball games with the national anthem.
For the competition, the public — about 2,600 people — voted on eight finalists. The entrants had been narrowed down by Maryland State Arts Council staff and a panel of judges.
The top three competition finalists, including Harris, will sing during the Star Spangled Spectacular, a celebration in Baltimore of the bicentennial of Key writing the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814 during the War of 1812.
Harris said he began his singing career with another ode to America. At age 9, he performed his first solo, “America, the Beautiful,” before the congregation of John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church in Washington, D.C.
Growing up, he was exposed to the sounds of Washington, D.C., and New York City. His mother was from New York, and his family in Washington, D.C., was tied into the black music scene, he said.
“At home, my parents played just about every kind of music on the radio or record player,” Harris said.
As a technician in his teens working at The Howard Theatre, Harris’ dad would set up microphones for jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
Harris continued singing in the church choir and later attended Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., where he earned a degree in music education, specializing in vocals.
In 1974, Harris got his first job at Holiday Park Elementary School in Wheaton. He has taught at a handful of Montgomery County elementary schools since, finishing up the year at Poolesville Elementary and Diamond Elementary in Gaithersburg.
Now, Washington, D.C., tourists will have Harris on their hands. Joe Ramunni, a friend who Harris met at a tour guide class, said, “Bill is one of those people who has this internal energy.”
Once Harris and Ramunni were leading a tour together. When they arrived at the flag pole at the small Francis Scott Key Park in Georgetown, Harris surprised the group by launching into the national anthem, Ramunni said.
“When he won the competition, I said, ‘OK, he’s been winding up for this for two years,’” Ramunni said.