The girl makes her way across Cliff Keen Arena’s wood-paneled gym floor toward the long table where the judges sit, leaning forward over their clipboards. She looks to be about eight or nine. She wears pink tights, a jean skirt, and an absolutely terrified look on her face: the corners of her mouth tug down, her eyes wide.
The judges smile at her as she steps forward to take the microphone. As she backs up toward the empty bleachers, looking no less nervous, one of them offers a compliment in a soft voice: “I like your tights!”
The girl opens her mouth and begins to sing: “Oh, say, can you see…”
Her voice is startlingly steady, given her evident anxiety. She finishes the song and hands to microphone back to the nearest judge. Then, the ordeal behind her, she turns and runs toward the door. She calls out in a high-pitched voice, to whoever’s waiting for her outside, “I sucked! I sucked!”
The judges exchange smiles, mark up the evaluation sheets on their clipboards with their maize-and-blue pens, and wait for the next person auditioning to show up. They will spend the afternoon and evening listening to singer after singer – young and old, nervous and confident – offer their personal rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Why the national anthem? Because these Sept. 9 auditions determine which vocalists will perform that song at University of Michigan sporting events in the upcoming season.
How It Works
Katy Jackson, UM assistant director of marketing and promotions, wrote in an email that the university wants singers who are confident and on pitch. Two days before the auditions, 20 people had signed up to try out, and three more arranged to audition on an alternate day. By the actual date of the auditions, this number had increased to around 40.
If all of the judges decide that all of these potential singers have what it takes, the university will take them all, Jackson wrote. “We don’t have a particular number in mind,” she said. “We have many events throughout the year.”
The university has used this particular method to select singers for sporting events for roughly five years, Jackson said. This way, community members as well as UM students have an opportunity to showcase their talents.
The judges – UM Athletic Department employees and Sports Marketing Department student interns – represent the “typical” fan at the events where the singers will perform, Jackson explained. “They will have a layman’s perspective on if this singer is ready to perform at a venue such as Crisler Arena,” Jackson said prior to the auditions.
Cami Clarkson, a UM Sports Marketing Department intern, explained that she and her fellow judges graded the singers based on pitch, pacing and presence on a scale of 1 to 5. The sheets of paper on their clipboards listed these qualities along with an “Overall” category, which asked the judges to circle “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” for the singer.
Clarkson said she and the other interns get assigned to help out with different events related to athletics, like the auditions. They’re not required to have any above-average musical expertise. “We’ve all had experience watching American Idol and stuff,” she explained.
But Can They Sing?
After several singers had tried out, Clarkson commented on the variety of people who showed up. “There’s definitely been a mix, and we’ve seen differences in style,” she said. “Everyone’s singing styles are very distinct.”
The singers came for a variety of reasons. Some had professional aspirations. Others just wanted to give their audience a good laugh.
Amanda Walker, a seventh grader at Saline Middle School, sang at UM soccer and baseball games last year and decided to come back for more this season. “I hope I get to do it again, because it was really fun last year,” Walker said.
In addition to participating in choir at school, Walker explained she attended the Saline Community Education Broadway Boot Camp this past June. “I just love to sing,” Walker said. “I would like to be a singer, on Broadway maybe.”
Lincoln Boehm, a UM English major, had a different purpose in offering his vocal talents to the university. “I’m a comedian,” Boehm explained. “I thought it would be amusing.”
Boehm said he figured it would be funny to have someone videotape him “jumping around” at sporting events if he were chosen to sing. When asked about his musical background, he replied with a straight face that he played the scarecrow in a fifth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz.
“In fourth grade, there was a singing thing in my school, and I had a solo,” Boehm added. “But you would’ve thought I was in choir, huh?”
Laura Mendoza, a musician/server with a big voice and throaty laugh, said she learned to sing the national anthem during the Gulf War, when she heard the song on TV. “I think the national anthem is the first song I really learned how to sing when I was eight years old,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza, who says she gives voice lessons at her house and does local gigs, felt her audition went well.
“I think it’s really important to sing with feeling, especially this song,” Mendoza said. “And I think I did that.”