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Tips for Singing The Star-Spangled Banner
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Tips for Singing The Star-Spangled Banner

Categories: OpinionMusicEntertainmentSports

Over the past few decades, it seems like more often than not, soloists - from police officers to professional singers - who attempt to sing our national anthem get more publicity for their failures than for their excellence.  The most blatant and memorable example, so far, is Rosanne Barr's dismal 1990 performance at a San Diego Padres baseball game.  The problem has become so bad, Time.com put together their own Top 10 Worst National-Anthem Renditions.  Time's compilation was published before Steven Tyler's ear-wrenching rendition at the January 22, 2011 AFC Championship game, so the competition is not yet over.

While the media comically entertains the rest of the world with these national disasters, no one has made it clear what needs to be done to stop it.  Part of the problem is that those responsible for booking these talents (or lack of) don't seem to have a clue what it takes to successfully pull off such a seemingly simple, yet focal performance.  As a result, they extend invitations to the unqualified.

The other half of the problem, of course, rests on the shoulders of the so-called singers.  The truth is most singers don't know how to sing.  There are college degrees for singing; it is a true art.  Many people refuse to recognize the fact that they can't sing.  That's what makes TV's American Idol such a huge success.  Carrying a tune does not qualify anyone as a singer any more than running across a Kentucky bluegrass pasture makes someone a Derby-winning race horse.  Even professionals Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera, both with incredible potential, made the most basic and unforgivable of mistakes - they forgot the words.  No excuse.  If you do nothing else as a singer, you should, at the very least, know the lyrics of the song you agree, and often are paid, to lead the entire country in singing.  Amazingly, anthem amnesia seems to be one of the most common failures.

So here are my own top ten tips for singing The Star-Spangled Banner.  Following these tip won't guarantee you'll do well, but it will guarantee that whatever it is you do manage to screw up will be original.

Rule Zero - Choose Your Battles Carefully

Rule Zero is simple: If you're ever invited to sing the national anthem, run away as fast as you can.  Singing the national anthem will not enhance your career.  The invitation is not a compliment; it's either a ploy to use you as a jester to entertain the rabble and the royalty, or it's a decision made by some business administrator with absolutely no musical know-how whatsoever.  So resist the temptation to feel like you've just been nominated for a Grammy.  Instead, decline and let someone else get the boos.  If you follow this single rule, you cannot fail.  If, on the other hand, you're defiant and open to public ridicule, knock yourself out (but please read the following tips first).

The Tips

  1. Write down the words.  No, I don't mean look them up on Google and print them.  I mean listen to the song, and write them down.  With a pen and paper.  If you can't write as fast as the performer is singing, rewind and play it again.  And again and again.  Write down every word, spelled correctly, with punctuation, and proper case.

  2. When you've finished hand-writing the words, read them.  Every single word.  Put them together in a story - the story that prompted Francis Scott Key to write them to begin with.  Study the story so you know it, and know it well.  Study it so you feel it, and so that you will not forget the story.  This will help you remember the lyrics when that moment comes, as your standing in the spotlight singing to 50,000 screaming, drunk fans for the first time.

  3. Practice the song with a pianist who can play it in any key.  (If you don't know what "key" means, go back and re-read "Rule Zero" above.)  Practice it in the key you think you will be most comfortable with, then drop the key several steps down.  The easiest way to pick the correct key is to take the third note of the song and sing that as the lowest pitch you can possibly sing well.  That is the best key to sing it in.  From that note, the song pitch goes up, and up, and up, and up.  By starting in this low key, you'll leave room for the finish.

  4. Once you found the best key, make sure you will have an accompanist who can play it in that key.  If the host wants to provide recorded accompaniment where changing key is not an option, make other arrangements for accompaniment or walk away.  You are setting yourself up for disaster if you start in a key higher than you are capable of singing in, as most singers do.

  5. If you are asked or instructed to sing a capella, resist.  (If you don't know what "a capella" means, go back and re-read "Rule Zero" above.)  If you think you can do it a capella, this is not the time to find out.  Practice is not the time to find out.  Unless you have successful experience singing the national anthem a capella in front of tens of thousands of Americans, it is a recipe for failure.

  6. Don't drag.  In fact, pick up the pace.  Unless you're Whitney Houston (and you're not), no one really wants to hear this song as a fine art performance.  The Star-Spangled Banner is not a funeral dirge; it's about the nation's successful struggle to preserve her freedom and resist oppression.  While it is a tribute to those who fought and died for us, it should be upbeat, uplifting, and motivational.  Sing it at a rapid clip, at least 120 bpm.

    Listen to this "click track" to get an idea of what 120 bpm is.

  7. Breathe, and don't breathe, in the right places.  Among the most annoying things about singers who are not formally trained are their poor breathing habits.  This problem has a negative conscious effect on formally trained musicians, but a negative subconscious effect on the rest of the audience.  When singers breathe in the wrong places, interrupting the flow of the phrase, most people can tell something is awry, but can't quite put their finger on it.  Trained singers cringe.  If you don't know where to breathe, you need to make friends with your friendly neighborhood choral director - the professional one.

  8. When you come to the word "perilous", remember...it is pronounced per-ih-lus, not per-uh-lis.  (Virtually every singer makes this mistake.  Even Whitney.)

  9. Don't overdo the finish.  If you did well throughout the song, the crowd will be cheering at that point, so much so that they won't care about hearing the last few words.  But if you try to make the ending bigger than it really is, remember that you will be recorded from all angles, and you may end up along with Steven Tyler on Time.com's revised list.  Despite Tyler's years of success with Aerosmith, that would not be an accomplishment.

  10. Remember, above all else, that this song is not about you!  It is America's national anthem, not yours.  It is the one outstanding song that represents the spirit of our country's freedom.  To perform it well, your goal must be to transfer that spirit from the music and lyrics to the heart of every witness, and ultimately, to everyone who enjoys freedom in America.


User Comments:
Ananya - Apr 10, 2012 09:34:53 — Hi! I belt the national anthem and I can hit all the notes strongly. All I am worried about is that I don't want to make it plain. But I want to make it a little more fun with voice trills. I will not overdue it.I am singing a Capella. I have training for 8 years so I good with that part. So you th ...more
Steph - Sep 23, 2012 12:59:56 — Thank you for these words of wisdom. I was recently asked to sing the National Anthem for a festival coming up in about a month. My training is extensive but I have never worked on this song before. I plan to rehearse plenty and with a coach before the big day. I have not sung professionally for a ...more
Kianna Rhodes - Sep 28, 2012 12:30:41 — I was asked to sing this at my high schools homecoming. I feel since i am a senior and it is my last year why not try it. I have a good voice and pretty good range. My only concern is that i may freeze when it comes times to sing. How do i get over this? Also i believe i can put alot of the poems or ...more
skystew - Jan 23, 2013 08:52:05 — most sing the word 'banner' wrong too...it's NOT baaaaaaaaner..it's ban-ner
Robert Prince - Jan 25, 2013 03:21:24 — The Star Spangled Banner should always be sung by the audience.
Charissa - Feb 21, 2013 04:06:05 — Hi, I have trouble being a little to breathy on this song[. D]o you have any advice on how to hit the notes harder instead of breathy??
Charissa  - Feb 22, 2013 09:33:00 — That's what my dad says! lol Thank you so much for your help! :)
Tess O. - Apr 14, 2013 11:32:46 — Jonas what is your opinion on this performance? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQHoxykpY70
Tess O. - Apr 18, 2013 09:45:21 — No Johas, I am not a singer. I am her mom. Just curious of you opinion.
Jill Marie weingarten - May 24, 2013 10:00:03 — Hi. I am an Army veteran and singer. I perform the National Anthem SEVERAL times throughout the year and although capable of all of the "vocal gymnastics"...I do NOT feel the need to jazz it up like some of these needy young singers who need attention. These over embellishers only succeed  ...more
Ron G. - Jun 18, 2013 09:11:36 — Oh my goodness. The word "perilous" is one of my biggest pet peeves! Every singer (including many military folks) I have heard mispronounces it. So much so, that when I pronounce it correctly, it sounds wrong to my ear. Weird. No worries with the Anthem. I was a vocalist with The (Official ...more
Abby - Jun 19, 2013 02:20:43 — Jonus-hey Jonus! i was recently invited to sing the national anthem at a football game but its pop warner. Nothing big. I am still scared at one point my voice would crack at a high not! How could i fix that?
Rob O'Brien - Jun 30, 2013 09:25:57 — When I was a kid, 99% of spectators at a ball game, etc. would belt out the National Anthem. It's sad that it's become something for spectators now, not for joiners. I remember seeing someone NOT singing the anthem and asking my father, "Why?" He said it was a political statement, that the ...more
Darrell Martin - Jul 7, 2013 08:02:48 — Hi Jonas,

Writing to let you know that early on in my bucket-list quest to sing the Nat'l Anthem at a baseball game I found and bookmarked and often referred back this page. This page, plus a few months of lessons, a lot of practice and family encouragement resulted in a successful perfor ...more
Darrell Martin - Jul 15, 2013 03:29:55 — Jonas, Here it is. Please know that I know it isn't perfect. It went 5-6 seconds longer than in most practice sessions and I feel that made a difference in terms of pitch/breathing a few times. I'm hoping they call back, would like a 2nd chance knowing I won't pass out cold standing there waiting.  ...more
Brenda-Jo - Jul 15, 2013 08:25:28 — Fabulous Job, Darrell! You even stayed on pitch without any music.... that was superb! Jonas, You pulled through again! Your advice is always helpful.. as Rush Limbaugh would say... "you have talent on loan from God." ...and YOU do! Thanks for keeping your column active. It's alway ...more
Ashley W - Sep 17, 2013 09:30:36 — Hi there! I'm an experienced singer, college degreed, and perform regularly. I have not avoided the national anthem, however this is the first time I've been asked to sing it in a stadium. I'm only concerned with the echo! I doubt that I will get the opportunity to rehearse it and get a feel for ar ...more
Alex - Dec 9, 2013 03:25:09 — I'm not good at memorizing lyrics of any song, but the melody of the US national anthem is constantly spinning in my head. Great!
Yacina - Jan 3, 2014 10:19:41 — Hi, I'm 13 years old! Oddly, one of my favorite songs besides Justin Bieber or Katy Perry IS the NATIONAL ANTHEM!! I don't exactly know why I love it so much but I do! I sing it a lot and I KNOW the words by HEART! The only part I struggle with is the really high part; And the rockets red glare, The ...more
Amy - Jan 13, 2014 12:57:31 — Any suggestions on how to sing the anthem a cappella in a baseball stadium where there is an echo?
Amy - Jan 13, 2014 01:05:37 — ...my daughter is 11 and I am wondering if an earpiece of some sort would help her to hear herself better, rather than the echo in a stadium setting. Here is a video of her singing in a smaller arena... http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=EYwgO4agXDw
benkostal - Jan 27, 2014 09:50:43 — its to long of the song ok lol
Bob McEachern - Feb 5, 2014 05:54:10 — Sing the National Anthem the way Arturo Sandovel, jazz trumpeter played it at the 2009 Orange Bowl.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6tKXl-xoBs)  No need to go to that excessively high pitch near the end.

 ...more
Bob McEachern - Feb 5, 2014 08:44:30 — Thanks, Jonas, for your comment. As to dragging, I think there is a compromise between a fast march, and a stately performance. However, Arturo was much better than those singers who thought the National Anthem was a "torchy love song."
Lou Villano - Mar 8, 2014 01:52:46 — I sing the Anthem a number of times in So. Florida between Spring Training games and the Florida State League. When standing on the field what is the appropriate position to stand when singing? Is it facing the fans or do you face out to the field and where the flag is?
Senzel - May 26, 2014 11:13:56 — I am very worried about tomorrow because I have auditions for The National Anthem for anyone that wants to sing it at everyone's graduation. Everyone at school knows who I am, but I don't know if the teachers, who are judging, would like the way I sing it, even though all my classmates do. What do y ...more
Amy D - May 28, 2014 11:06:41 — Love your tips! Like one of your other readers I have had singing the National Anthem on my bucket list for most of my life. I'm 49 and finally getting the opportunity to cross it off that list at a baseball game in Sanford, Florida. So, unfortunately, Rule 0 must be broken, hahah. But I'm glad  ...more
Amy D - Jun 11, 2014 11:18:47 — I did it! Not the most unboring of renditions, but at least I got the job done and didn't mess up. Critique? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIDJ7cQDrT4&feature=youtu.be
Amy D - Jun 15, 2014 10:06:17 — Thanks, Jonas. What is your favorite rendition?
Abbi  - Jul 14, 2014 06:00:34 — Hi, I am singing the star spangeled banner at a football game for my high school. I'm worried that my voice will crack, as it does randomly. Do you have any advice for me? Thanks!
Erin - Jul 16, 2014 01:53:27 — I read your article and wanted to share my daughters video links with you. This is her first time singing at any event. She aings the Canadian anthem too because we live in Buffalo and this was a hockey game. I apologize for the poor videography!! http://youtu.be/ZOtrONOlT04 This next one is ...more
Aditi - Jul 17, 2014 08:32:55 — Hi! I am 13 years old and have been asked to sing the national anthem at a softball tournament. I live in a pretty small town, so I am not expecting too many people to be there. I know what key I should sing in, and I will be able to hit the high notes. It is acapella and I have never sang the natio ...more
Erin  - Aug 3, 2014 12:12:18 — Thank you for taking the time to listen & write your review!! Anna loved reading, 'I could see her sing on Broadway someday'. That is her ultimate goal & intends to study musical theater in college.
Phi - Sep 11, 2014 02:22:32 — This is my daughter. She's 15 and I think she sings good. I would appreciate your opinion and any feedback. Thank you! https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=5C2F5B98C0BF2D32!748&authkey=!AJH3e12ADmnqDuc&ithint=file%2cm4a
jamie - Dec 8, 2014 02:08:50 — that is so sad the song is dododododo sad
MBC - Dec 11, 2014 06:23:16 — I loved your rules. Even though I'm probably not as much a stickler as you, I've become very frustrated listening to people mutilate the National Anthem. I feel Rule 10 is the most important rule. Regardless of your fame or salary point--the National Anthem deserve respect and should not be viewe ...more
suthapklomrod - Jan 16, 2015 09:50:36 — Everyone could learn how to sing better even if they won't be able to sell millions of records and get some Grammy awards. When you train how to sing, it will be less complicated for you to learn your own voice. Don't forget that in singing, technicality and creativity are parts of it. Vocal classes ...more
Kristen - Feb 2, 2015 06:38:22 — I am going to speed it up the tempo a bit, but not too much. I am a tenor, so for me to sing hi is hard on it's own...to go from low to super high is even more difficult. Anyways, I am a HUGE SF Giants fan, and I work at a restaurant right down the street from the park. The restaurants owner is frie ...more
Kristen - Feb 2, 2015 07:51:51 — Never mind, I thought you were a singer...thanks anyways
Elena - Mar 23, 2015 01:36:52 — If you have to choose between singing with a prerecorded or acapella,what would you choose? I think I would rather ask for the starting note or the chord (I am leaning towards doing it in G, much lower and I can't get the bottom note anymore) and then go from there, rather than try to follow a r ...more
Buddy Buchanan - Apr 9, 2015 10:52:27 — Sing from the heart. As Americans we tend to believe that our rights as citizens allow us to place our creative registry on a song that many of our citizens have died for. That often allows them to butcher a very beautiful melody. The song is a hard piece and if you don't have the range don't attem ...more
Rebekah  - Apr 9, 2015 04:05:52 — https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3vXzSa2JcCo Singing it this Sunday...constructive criticism would be really appreciated. I'm already cutting down the last note. ;-)
Rebekah - Apr 18, 2015 05:12:20 — Thank you! It went alright! I was blessed to have the opportunity to do it!
Dutch - Apr 27, 2015 11:13:53 — Jonas - Thank you for your suggestions! Will be singing the National Anthem with a symphony orchestra. I've sung it before, in the bass part, at the Astros and other sports events, but will be singing solo, melody this time. I'm told it will be in B Flat. I'm retired military, so will be in my f ...more
Toni - May 5, 2015 10:38:47 — I have looked and looked for this answer and can't find it, but when singing the national anthem, do the performers place their hands over their hearts?
Toni - May 7, 2015 01:35:57 — Thanks so much!! :0)
Kenadee - May 20, 2015 03:23:11 — Fun to sing
Issy - Jun 9, 2015 09:51:35 — Hi Jonas. I'm 12 years old and I'm singing in an 8th grade graduation tomorrow with a band. This is the first time I'm singing the USA National Anthem. I'm nervous and excited at the same time, but this isn't the first time I'm singing in public tho. I sang in a choir for like 7 times and I know the ...more
Breanna Anderson - Jul 5, 2015 01:47:49 — I think its Amazing
Breanna Nichole Anderson - Jul 5, 2015 01:51:03 — I think its Amazing do you think you have another one coming up
Stan - Jul 6, 2015 01:14:34 — The word banner is almost always sung wrong. The note change is on the ner. That was taught to me by my high school chorus teacher when we all sang it wrong. Look at the sheet music.
Andrew - Jul 13, 2015 05:08:48 — Hi Jonas, Great website-- love it. I will be performing the SSB at a pro tennis event this Thursday and potentially a few more nights over the next couple weeks. I was hoping you could provide feedback (positive or constructive) on my acappella performance at a pro tennis event last year. I hop ...more
Andrew - Jul 14, 2015 05:44:08 — Thanks so much your feedback. Your rec on "O, say...." makes sense-- I'll have to see if I can be relaxed enough to bring it out all in one breath!
Andrew - Jul 17, 2015 08:35:08 — Well, here is how it went. I was able to comply with Rule 8, however I couldn't attempt the others. My backing track helped to mask my inability to make it through "O Say" in one breath. Thanks again for your feedback. https://youtu.be/iVL5cEDcEsM
Keith - Jul 30, 2015 06:11:52 — Hi Jonas: I just sang the star Spangled Banner for the 1st time in public in March at a local 5K race. since then I have been asked to sing several more times and have now sung at 4 races and earlier this week at a AA baseball Game. I do not have any real formal voice training so read your tips and  ...more
Allen - Aug 3, 2015 10:52:11 — So, I disregarded your sage advice to run screaming and I'm singing at Wrigley field this week. I'm a singer in a band and was a music major (percussion, ooops), but I'm decent. I'm most worried about the time delay of what I'm hearing versus singing. Thank you so much for this site. I've fo ...more
Allen - Aug 8, 2015 12:25:47 — Your site was super helpful. Seriously helped me get through it and I was asked backed, so that's a win!
Julia  - Oct 1, 2015 06:17:00 — I really hate this website. Your telling people not to sing The National Anthem? Were here to get tips not to start doubting something they where pumped for.
Eric - Oct 16, 2015 11:59:56 — Hi Jonas, I just wanted in inquire more about the "perilous" pronounciation. My gf is a music major studing voice and has taken various classes on diction and she tells me that in English singing the words are pronounced the same as spoken. That being the case, the word Perilous takes the ...more
Bill - Oct 17, 2015 08:53:37 — Thanks for the tips, but I have sung the Anthem twice in the past for cycling events and have two more invitations to perform this fall. I consider it a very grave privilege and honor to get the event started properly. I have a stage-rattling base, so I live for the low notes - but can hit the hig ...more
Bill - Oct 28, 2015 07:25:12 — Thanks for bringing up one of my pet peeves, "perilous". Another I was reminded of in the first World Series game last night is singers who slide "wave" into "o'er", or else actually think the flag waves "for the land of the free...". Any opinion on how lon ...more
CARALYN PERCY - Oct 31, 2015 01:12:37 — I have sung the National Anthem at many events including Fenway Park in Boston. I'm a professional singer with recording and lots of live performing experience. Your tips about writing down the words IS KEY and in addition UNDERSTANDING THE WORDS. I used a dictionary as well as researching the  ...more
Mama Rose - Nov 8, 2015 09:46:46 — I really enjoyed your comments. What I would like to know is whether you have any advice for getting the NA gig for my daughter (who really is a great singer).
Mark - Feb 8, 2016 07:47:50 — Stan That drives me nuts. Only 3 notes to "banner," not 4!
Michael - Mar 30, 2016 08:49:10 — Hi Jonas, it's been awhile since I've sung the national anthem. I'd like any suggestions you may have. Thank you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9c9eO5B3uc
Lindsey - Apr 5, 2016 10:50:22 — Repeatedly mentioning Whitney? She admitted she faked it. These tips are for people who sing the National Anthem AT THE EVENT.
Joselyn - Jun 15, 2016 02:08:16 — This is a great page, and I think I hit all your tips (without knowing them; I did the anthem a few weeks ago for a Crossfit box doing Murph), but would love your feedback. My biggest beef is that I didn't have a pitch pipe, and my trick to find the pitch (sing the third note, then see if I can go  ...more
Aaron - Jun 29, 2016 02:41:29 — I completely agree about keeping up the pace. I've sang it twice now for a few SF Giants baseball games, and let me tell you, the experience is MUCH different than in practice. The stadium echo alone was a beast that I had to manage as whole new variable while not losing my concentration and/or pi ...more
Dorinda Stewart - Sep 15, 2016 10:04:59 — Here's my video singing the anthem for our local minor league baseball team. Curious to hear your thoughts.... I welcome a good, honest critique as my friends and family are a little biased. :) https://youtu.be/K5x6BNtj6FQ
Jenny - Sep 21, 2016 05:29:32 — I LOVE how over and over again individuals are told to not stray and get carried away with how to sing this song. My hubby and I always say we would LOVE the simplicity of the song, it's beauty in words to shine apart from someones overly creative kick, that is unnecessary, when the song itself is just beautiful. I hope many of you will just allow your voice to show it's raw emotion simply with your beautiful voices, singing the beautiful lyrics, without the thrills, or whatever they are called. It's like a crisp, delicious apple, just let us enjoy it...seriously, nothing else is needed. Sometimes, we must restrain ourselves, this is one of those times.ddd
Annika - Dec 2, 2016 08:31:07 — I have sung the National Anthem several times (I actually have singing it at a pro football or pro baseball game on my bucket list), and I'm seventeen (I even sang it for a minor leafie baseball team, and for my high school football and basketball games).I have also listened to many others sing the  ...more
Shivani  - Mar 13, 2017 06:45:46 — Hi! I'm in my high school choir and have been in choir for about 3 years now. But, to move onto the next level of choir we must audition with the Star Spangled Banner. I only have a one octave range (F-F) so this song poses a threat. Is there anything I can do to get the high notes? Also we have to  ...more
Barb - Aug 11, 2017 06:41:48 — I have sung the National Anthem literally hundreds of times. One stadium I have been singing at for 10 years is for spring training baseball games. Then this year, for the first time, something changed and now there is a DELAY! ARRGGHHH! I struggled the first time, went back for a 2nd time and st ...more
Barb - Aug 12, 2017 05:13:45 — Thx Jonas. The delay really is a challenge but hopefully I can work it out. You would be proud of me tho...I SING IT STRAIGHT! And get compliments every time for doing so!
Lachie - Oct 2, 2017 10:20:44 — Hi I'm lachie I'm 16 and I really want to sing on stage but I feel so nervous
Candice Boston - Feb 15, 2018 03:00:22 — I have been singing the anthem at a local ball field for our minor league team. These tips are spot on! I sing a capella, but have been singing for years and was a vocal major in college. The staff at the ball field stress that the anthem should be sung "military style"...you have to si ...more
Ben Phung - Sep 3, 2018 11:28:13 — Check out the National Performances. Please see attached links for past National Anthem Performances: " Grace Symphony Orchestra - (Estimated audience: Less than 1000) https://youtu.be/uQWXUhr9LZc " Houston ISA Organization - Chili Cook Off Outdoor stadium (Estimated audience: Less than 2000) h ...more

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