National anthem singers put their best voice forward at audition

The solitary voice of 12-year-old Emily Ross echoes through near-empty Cliff Keen Arena. She is singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" into a microphone and through the public address system, to five seated judges.

Beyond the volleyball nets and waxed wooden court where she stands to sing, a handful of others are sitting on team benches. They are here to audition in hopes of being chosen to sing the national anthem at selected U-M sporting events this season.

Emily, in a blue print top, green shorts and wearing braces, soars high to hit "and the rockets red glare." Her dad, Brian Ross, a professor of radiology and biological chemistry, smiles. Emily succeeded in her audition last year and was chosen to sing at a women's field hockey game.

"She posted it on YouTube for fun," her dad says.

"I've always dreamed of being a famous singer," Emily says.

She is among about 45 who signed up to audition. Roughly 20 will be chosen to perform to crowds of up to 3,500 at athletic events ranging from men's and women's soccer, tennis and gymnastics to women's basketball, softball and baseball.

"It adds to the game atmosphere," says Katy Jackson, assistant director of marketing and promotions for Michigan Athletics. The Michigan Marching Band performs at men's football, basketball and hockey games.

"I'm here for the audition," says Lance Fletke of Kentwood. He's one of the first to arrive for the 4-9 p.m. tryouts. The U-M sophomore has sung the anthem several times before; primarily in his hometown. "It's always a great way to be filled with pride," he says. "It's moving, not just for everyone else but for yourself."

Fletke says the only thing he worries about, a little, is the words. "If you forget the words it's petty much a no," Jackson says. "It would be tough to risk that happening. Over the years we haven't had a lot of people who were unprepared."

First to audition is Stephanie Powel, a 2007 U-M graduate from Flint. She's a bit winded before starting. "I MapQuested the wrong place — I actually ran here," she says.

The judges clap when she finishes, as they do for all who audition. "I think I did well," she says.

Like several others auditioning, Powel has experience singing the anthem. She sang at a Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game in Bradenton, Fla. "It's kind half and half split between adults and high school or college students," says Jackson, adding the youngest scheduled to sing today is 8 years old. Groups also audition.

After each singer finishes, the judges write on a one-page form, rating the singers on pitch, tone and the speed of their anthem presentation. "We don't time them with a stopwatch, we just don't want them to be dragging," Jackson says. "Presence is also important; just overall singing."

Jackson says if the judges are divided in their assessment, a singer may be assigned to a smaller event.

"If they only get to sing one event through the year it's a nice opportunity," she says.