PENDLETON — Bonnie Smythe walked boldly across the grass, took the microphone and began belting out our national anthem — a song that is notoriously difficult to sing.
“O, say can you see
By the dawn’s early light.”
The singer got to the pinnacle of the song’s range with “o’er the land of the free” and cruised to the end of the song with ease.
Smythe, the first to sing, was vying on Thursday night to be one of six chosen to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” during this year’s Pendleton Round-Up and Professional Bull Riding events in September. She stood near the same spot where the lucky few would deliver the anthem to thousands of rodeo fans. During those performances, loud explosions drown out the words “bombs bursting in air” and occasionally jets roar overhead.
On this day, there were no such embellishments. Only the judges, the other contenders and some supporters listened as Smythe and 26 others sang their hearts out. Judges sat in the grandstands jotting notes. Several people painting the chutes listened as they worked. Seven sprinklers emitted a swish, swish, swish sound and two small dogs raced around the grass.
After her melodic rendition, Smythe breathed out in relief. The 34-year-old Pendletonian has performed most of her life, but she admitted to fighting nerves.
“I was nervous all day before coming here,” she said. “I’m better now.”
The anthem is most often sung without instruments. If the performer doesn’t start low enough, trouble lays ahead. There have been infamous flubs by professional performers such as Christina Aguilera, Steven Tyler, Scotty McCreery, Michael Bolton and Roseanne Barr.
Bill Mayclin, a music director who auditioned with other members of the the Pendleton Men’s Chorus as a quartet, said the song offers challenges. Instead of flowing, the melody leaps around.
“The range is a little extreme,” he said. “It gets up pretty high and hangs there a while.”
The lyrics, originally a poem, were penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British. The poem evolved into a song and became the national anthem in 1931.
David Placido, of Rainier, experienced the mine field of singing the national anthem firsthand. He started with power, then faltered. Finally, he handed the mic back to Round-Up Director Nick Sirovatka who acted as emcee. Placido, who studies vocal performance in college, said he just froze.
“It’s such an important song. It carries so much weight,” he said. “It got in my head and I went blank.”
He gathered his nerve and tried again — and nailed it.
“I knew I could do it,” Placido said. “I’ve sung it 100 times a day for the past month.”
Each person who auditioned Thursday brought a slightly different flavor, ranging from country twang and classical violin to gospel and pop. Volumes fluctuated from low and sweet to blow-the-roof-off loud. Each time a singer finished, the small crowd clapped and whooped.
Sirovatka announced each person’s name and stood nearby during the audition with his hand over his heart. He said later that it didn’t matter to him that these were auditions.
“You’ve got to show respect for the national anthem,” Sirovatka said. “Even if it’s being sung for an audition, that doesn’t lessen the importance of the song and what it stands for.”
Sirovatka evidently liked what he heard. At one point, he nodded to the eight or nine judges in the grandstands and said he was thankful not to have their job. Judges evaluated each singer for originality, tempo, vocal control and overall feel of the performance.
The singers will learn via email whether they made the cut.
Mayclin said the competition on Thursday was impressive. He sang with quartets in a few past Round-Ups, but he had no idea whether his group would get the nod this year. To those who do, he said the experience can be heady, but intimidating.
“It can be terrifying,” Mayclin said.