A panel of judges sat expectantly as 15-year-olds China McCoy, Angel Wade and Nali Holmes circled around the black M on the floor of Hearnes Center. The rows of seats usually filled with fans were empty except for a cluster of silent singers. They raised their microphones and a moment later “The Star-Spangled Banner” filled the arena.
The girls traveled from St. Louis to audition to sing the national anthem for MU men’s or women’s basketball games.
“We all live right down the street from each other, and I didn’t know they could sing too until last year,” China said.
The three started singing together in December, and though they have never taken a singing lesson, they arranged original rhythm and blues harmonies for the tryout. The group has sung at many events, such as their high school talent show, but singing the national anthem in front of thousands would be an entirely new experience.
“It would be a really big honor to sing at Mizzou,” China said. “It’s such a big school.”
On Thursday evening, the Missouri athletic department held auditions for national anthem singers. Among the 37 entries were solo singers, quartets, a brass ensemble and even a high school choir. Many of those auditioning were women, and some of the singers were as young as 10.
Tracey Summerfield, director of game operations, said younger singers are often assigned to smaller events such as baseball and gymnastics so they can gain some experience before facing the huge basketball crowds.
The athletic department schedules national anthem performances for between 144 and 150 sporting events each year. Summerfield, who is also one of three audition judges, said the highest-ranked singers get to sing at the men’s basketball games.
“We look for concise and complete words, quality of voice, stance and the little details that really make the performance,” she said.
Neil Minturn, a professor of music theory at MU, said singing the national anthem is difficult because it has an unusually wide range.
“You have to be prepared to dip low and go high with lots of skips, too,” Minturn said. On a scale of one to five, he said, the national anthem would be a three or four, and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” would be a one or two.
Despite the challenge, the auditions drew a wide variety of people.
Ashley Leies, 21, has sung for basketball games since she came to MU three years ago. “I was ready to call it quits this year, but I called my mom and she said ‘No Ashley, you’re trying out and we’re going to make it out to see you,’ ” Leies said. Her parents live in Utah, and she said singing the anthem for them would be special because they live so far away.
Leies, who performed in Branson as a teenager, came to the audition despite having a cold. She sings whenever she gets the chance.
Lauren Palmer, 20, is also an experienced singer. She studied singing privately for six years. She has sung the national anthem for professional baseball and soccer games in her hometown of Wichita, Kan., but never for MU.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Palmer said. “It’s such a moving song. People are more patriotic now and like to hear it more than they used to.”