Most of us have a list — be it the kind that sloshes around in our minds or exists on actual paper — of things we’ve always wanted to try, always wanted to dare to do, but, for reasons as plentiful as “Snovember” snowflakes, have never quite gotten around to trying or daring. Sometimes the excuses are legit, sometimes we just plain ol’ chicken out, but the bottom line is that it’s still on the list, seemingly condemned to stay there for all time.
Mine includes a wide variety of items — from the likely unattainable, such as finding the money & time to get my private pilot’s license or go on a legit second honeymoon— to the “doable” category, such as skydiving or shoot a Buffalo Bills Super Bowl, though I’m not sure if that one belongs in the “doable” category.
It’s a big deal if we manage to check something off of that elusive list, so please join me in a quick “yahoo!” as I scrawl a happy line through “Try out at Buffalo Bisons national anthem auditions.” Been there, done that, as of March 28th, 2015.
That particular entry had been on the list for a handful of years, and most of the time, when the early spring audition date came around, something would inevitably pop up on my schedule to force the anthem singing fantasy back onto the shelf for another year. So I’d shrug my shoulders, mutter “maybe next year” and go on doing what I do, which is sing in my car. Haven’t been doing it as much in recent times, but I have a selection of karaoke tunes on my phone that, when the mood strikes and my voice is in good form, I’ll belt out while driving around. Don’t really care if anyone sees or hears me, either. At age 54, I just don’t worry about things like that much anymore, which is actually quite liberating. I think this means I’ll be mowing the lawn with Bermuda shorts & tall white socks this summer.
As it happened, a Buffalo News reporter was doing a story on this year’s auditions and chatted with me briefly. He asked why I was there, and I told him that, after years of car singing, I decided it was high time I gave this a whirl in public to see if my versions of “Oh Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” were as credible as I imagined them to be. I had no delusions I was going to be stealing gigs from Doug Allen or have the Bills come calling, but I thought I had them down to a point where I could sing them out loud without folks cringing and maybe even liking parts. And as any actual singer can tell you, that’s no small accomplishment when it comes to singing America’s national anthem. Requiring a range of more than 1-and-a-half octaves, those without sufficient range need not apply. If only Roseanne Barr had heeded that advice before turning in one of the all-time worst anthem renditions before a San Diego Padres game in 1992. I was never a fan of hers to begin with, but that cinched it for life. Beyond being woefully off key, she repeatedly butchered the lyrics. As country singer Lyle Lovett aptly noted: “If you forget the words to your own song, you can always claim artistic license. Forget the words to the national anthem, and you’re screwed.”
Thanks to countless hours of watching hockey over the years, I know both anthems quite well, musically and lyrically, but I’ve also been around long enough to know that auditioning in front of a crowd can bring instant-onset amnesia. As a precaution, I brought the words on 3 X 5 cards, just in case, though I wound up just keeping them in my pocket. Only later did I read about the wrath incurred by Michael Bolton at a 2003 Yankees/Red Sox game when he was caught peeking at the lyrics scribbled on his palm. I guess he had other issues that night, but I can’t really hold the emergency palm notes against him. Beats actually singing the wrong words.
However, what I found more disconcerting standing there in line for 90 minutes was hearing the songs sung over and over in keys different from the one I sing them in, making me fear that, when my turn came, I’d forget the right note to start on, which would be an instant disaster. I learned this lesson the hard way at my first public karaoke experience. One of the first songs I ever felt confident enough to try in public was Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” but when the karaoke DJ hit ‘play,’ his version was in an entirely different key and range than the real song is in. Turned into “Crocodile Wreck.” Mindful of that history, I quickly jotted my starting anthem notes down: “G” for Oh Canada and “E” for The Star-Spangled Banner. Phew.
The Bisons auditions are also a cappella, which adds another degree of difficulty. There were singers in line before me who bombed - folks whom I have a strong suspicion would’ve done much better if allowed any sort of accompaniment to keep them on track. Blessed with perfect pitch, I was optimistic I could at least keep things on track musically in my head.
As the count-up ticked closer to my #72, my immediate line mates and I formed a brief bond. In front of me were a 14-year-old girl and her parents, though from where, I know not. To her credit, the teen seemed much less nervous than her mom. The four of us mused back and forth as we critiqued those singing before us. “Eww…forgot the words.” “Wow, she was really good.” “Awww, what a cute little girl.” And so on. We tended not to be too harsh, knowing full well it would be us, center stage, soon enough.
And suddenly, we were at the front of the line. As I stood in the musical on-deck circle, the 14-year-old stepped up to the plate and did a really solid job. Wouldn’t be at all surprised if she gets an invite to sing at a game. As she sang, I stuck my foam earplugs in place, hoping to dampen any chance that the stadium reverb would throw me off, glanced at my starting notes one last time and then, it was time for fantasy to meet reality. A nice kid who may or may not have been old enough to have a beer at the ballpark handed me the wireless mic, told me to stare out into center field and start by saying my number, then sing when I was ready & he’d tap me when he wanted me to stop. Most folks got interrupted part-way though each song, presumably a time and sanity savings for the poor Bisons folks who understandably must dread this annual ritual.
“Number 72,” I announced with the confidence of someone who’s spoken into a microphone once or twice over the years. My internal pitch pulled up a “G” and off I went. As Oh Canada tumbled out of my mouth, it came with a reasonable amount of confidence. There were definitely some leftover butterflies fluttering around inside of me, but, well, like I told the reporter: At age 54, I just don’t get as nervous about things like this as I once did. And that’s very cool. For all of its aches, pains & other disappointments, getting older should come with a few perks, too.
PS: If you want to hear how it sounded, click the photo above or here.