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'Oh say can you' ... sing? Here's what it's like to perform the national anthem at sporting events

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) during the first half of the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel
Associated Press
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) during the first half of the AFC Championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Before the Chiefs face the 49ers this Sunday at the Super Bowl, hands will be placed over hearts as Reba McEntire sings the national anthem. Learn more about the history of this musical tradition from some Kansas City musicians who have taken to the field to perform themselves.

This story was first published in Classical KC's "Take Note" newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox the first Wednesday of every month.

Sport and song are sometimes presented as being at odds with one another, but in truth they have been entwined for over a century.

One of the cherished traditions binding them together is the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which was first performed at baseball games in the late 19th century and, after it was officially designated the national anthem in 1931, became standard at most sporting events during World War II.

It’s been performed by musicians of all styles and this year’s high profile performer for Super Bowl LVIII between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers is country music star Reba McEntire.

But there are sporting events throughout the year, at all levels, and each and every professional game — as well as college, high school, little league, and club — includes a rendition of “The Star Bangled Banner.”

The tradition has expanded in recent years to include “God Bless America” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which will be performed at Super Bowl LVIII by Post Malone and Andra Day, respectively.

Vanessa Thomas performs “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Sporting KC match.
Photo courtesy of Vanessa Thomas.
Vanessa Thomas performs “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Sporting KC match.

Vocalist Vanessa Thomas, based in Lawrence, Kansas, has sung the national anthem many times throughout her decades-long career. At 14, she sang for 2,500 people at her hometown fireworks celebration in Clay Center, Kansas. She has also performed at University of Kansas basketball games and a nationally televised performance with Sporting KC.

“It’s always a performance where you have an awareness that the audience has an expectation…meeting a certain standard for this song, but more than that it’s a highly-anticipated moment,” says Thomas.

“People usually fall silent the very first few seconds I begin, and they seem to gain momentum throughout until I reach the ending, and it’s often a roar as soon as I hit my last high note.”

Many individual singers, as well as musical organizations, have performed at high profile events. International opera star Joyce DiDonato, who grew up in Prairie Village, Kansas, performed before the 2014 World Series Game 7 between the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants. The Kansas City Symphony performed the anthem at Game 6.

The Kansas City Symphony also performed the anthem before the opening game for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015, with a crowd of 70,000, fireworks and a fly over from the United States Air Force.

Additionally, the Kansas City Symphony opens their own concert series each year with the national anthem.

The award winning soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson has performed “The Star Spangled Banner” many times: first in high school, then before Lady Bears games at Missouri State University, and UMKC basketball games. At a Royals home game, Anderson sang with the Grammy Award-winning Kansa City Chorale, where she ended the song at the top of her range, impressing the players.

“As we were leaving the field, [then Royals first baseman] Eric Hosmer said, ‘That was really high!’,” recalls Anderson. “I giggled like a schoolgirl.”

Other groups have also performed at area sporting events, like the Kansas City Celtic rock band The Elders, the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, the Kansas City Horn Club, and the Kansas City Boys and Girls Choir, which sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at last year’s season opener for the Chiefs.

You, too, can apply to perform the national anthem for organizations like the Chiefs, Royals, Sporting KC, and the Monarchs. Each has different procedures and methods for determining anthem performers, but typically, auditions must be 90 seconds or less.

(If you are more into ensemble singing, check out fan group Kansas City Cauldron’s page for songs and chants during Sporting KC events.)

The professional singers have some advice for the rest of us:

“No matter what happens, it is always exhilarating and nerve-wracking, especially if you’re not a sporty person,” says Anderson.

“If singing a capella [without backup instruments], try to remember the highest and lowest notes you have to sing,” she says, “so that you don’t migrate keys in the middle of your performance.”

The national anthem famously has a range of over an octave and a half, which is a challenge for many amateur singers. Start too high, and you’ll rue it in the second part of the song.

And it’s important to honor the original melody, says Thomas, regardless of whether you perform it in a pop, jazz, classical, or gospel style.

It’s an honor to perform the national anthem, standing on the field with the teams and military personnel, especially in front of tens of thousands of fans, who all know the words and often sing along with the performers.

“It’s something I’ve come to love sharing with an audience,” says Thomas.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.