Tension mounted in the darkened wings of the LSU Music School recital hall on Saturday morning as a cluster of hopeful contestants — mostly youngsters and their moms — nervously watched the first singers step out from the shadows and into the glare of the stage lights.
Four teenage girls walked to the microphone. A cough to clear the throat, a sideways glance for support, and the quartet eased into a sweetly harmonized rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The only audience members in the deserted auditorium were a panel of LSU judges, two from the music school and two from the athletic department, responsible for auditioning prospective national anthem singers to perform at a variety of LSU sporting events, excluding football games.
Now in her third year as judge, voice professor Terry Patrick Harris said, “We need a lot of singers because we have so many sports events, and our music students often are too busy to participate.”
Notoriously difficult to perform, the national anthem ranges over an octave and a half of musical notes. Interestingly, the song has generated controversy from time to time in recent years, with performers sometimes veering from traditional arrangements toward more unusual vocal stylings.
First-time judge Pat O’Neill, LSU voice professor, said, “I have my own opinions about the way it should be performed. I look for a nice voice, good pitch … and someone who presents with dignity.”
Luke Lovell, director of fan experience at LSU, brought a slightly different perspective to the panel of judges. In addition to voice quality, he said he had to take into consideration the constraints imposed by live TV coverage of events.
“I need someone who can deliver the song before we time out,” Lovell said. “If we have one minute and 30 seconds, the anthem can’t last for two minutes. Once I got an earful from an ESPN producer because we ran over.”
Emily Zering, graduate assistant and also a judge, laughingly compared Lovell to TV talent judge Simon Cowell, known for his edgy comments. “Really, if it’s not a live event, it’s OK for the song to last a bit longer,” she said.
The teen quartet members concluded their harmonized anthem.
They sedately left the stage. Safely back in the wings with their moms, they seemed giddy with relief. “I was so scared,” said one performer, Loren Landers.
The next contestant to hit the boards was Lauren Lee, 16, a two-time veteran of “American Idol” auditions. After belting out her song with a surprisingly big voice for a young woman, Lee said, “I’m just relieved that I didn’t mess up.”
Lee arrived at the recital hall more than an hour early, which made her one of the lucky ones to be included in the first set of auditions.
Yet outside the stage door, in a long line that snaked through the building and coiled back, 125 fidgety contestants — each with a posse of friends and relatives — waited their turn.
“I’ve never seen so much interest in these auditions,” said Ronette King Boshea, music and dramatic arts marketing coordinator.
Among those waiting in line were brother and sister, Lucas and Hannah Haley.
Lucas Haley grew up in Denham Springs, where he performed with the Livingston Parish Children’s Choir. Later, he graduated from the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches, where he also sang.
Unlike many of those in line, Haley’s experience with the children’s choir took him to big venues around the country, such as Disney World and Carnegie Hall. Yet, over time, his attention turned more toward math and science.
“I only came here today to support my sister,” Haley said. “But she asked me to audition, too. She said I never audition anymore. So I said I would.”
Although Haley is classically trained, his sister Hannah, a vet technician at the LSU veterinary school, is more of a country singer. “She sings at rodeos,” Haley said.
Back on stage, illustrating the wide variety of experience and styles present at the auditions, a young boy delivered an a cappella performance reminiscent of the Vienna Boys Choir; when the boy returned to his father in the wings, the man high-fived his son.
“You did good,” said the dad.
LSU will inform participants of audition results via email this week.