Singing the National Anthem at the CWS: 2 minutes they'll never forget - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:05 pm
Singing the National Anthem at the CWS: 2 minutes they'll never forget

As hundreds of people bought T-shirts and sipped beers in parking lots outside TD Ameritrade Park and thousands more picked up hot dogs and found their seats inside the ballpark, Julie Crowell and Darci Boyer stood behind the first base dugout and prepared to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I thought we'd have a room,” Boyer said. They didn't. The hallway behind the dugout — with coaches, players, media and NCAA and ballpark staff wandering through — was the only spot the two Omaha women had to practice, check their makeup, hum and calm their nerves.

At 6:58 p.m., the women were escorted onto the field to sing the national anthem only a few feet from dozens of baseball players, several umpires and an aggressive cameraman, and in front of 25,260 people — a record crowd that would watch Mississippi State pull out a narrow defeat of Indiana, 5-4.

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Their voices gave life to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” At times serene and soft and at other times forceful, the duo's rendition — which they arranged themselves — finished to a cacophony of applause and plenty of whoops during “the land of the free.”

The song is an important moment in any sporting event. Good and bad performances have a way of sticking in the public consciousness.

When it goes well, such as Whitney Houston's 1991 Super Bowl performance or last week's rendition by Rene Racourt and the audience at the Boston Bruins game, we swell with patriotic pride. When it goes poorly, as with Roseanne Barr in 1990 or Christina Aguilera botching the words in 2011, we swell with the urge to throw rotten fruit.

Crowell and Boyer know it's a big moment.

“It is one of those more nerve-racking performances even though it's only two minutes,” Boyer said. “It's one of the hardest songs to sing.”

“I know this song is sung a billion times, but the song is super-powerful,” Crowell said. “It's not about how many notes you can hit or how high you can get, but it's about getting the point of the song across.”

Their journey to the infield of TD Ameritrade Park began a year ago, when Crowell and Boyer joined the Omaha rock band Blue Bird. They didn't know each other until they auditioned for the group. They quickly became friends and, later, roommates.

Originally from Washington state, Crowell, 36, began vocal training at the age of 13 and performed in various bands as a teenager. Upon moving to Omaha in 1997, she hoped to continue singing and scored roles in productions at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

She's studying to be a massage therapist and is still active in theater. Soon she'll play Fantine, a major character in “Les Miserables,” at the Playhouse.

Boyer, 26, is a fourth-grade teacher at Indian Hill Elementary School. She began singing as a child, was a music minor in college and coached show choir. Now she's in the Presley Boyer acoustic duo with Omaha musician Nick Presley, performing in local coffee shops.

Several months after they met, Boyer and Crowell performed the national anthem for the first time together at the Rumble at the Ridge bull-riding event in the Elkhorn area.

“We liked our rendition of it,” Crowell said. “Darci likes to sing country. I have a more classical, huskier voice, so we're lightening up the country and bringing in a little more traditional sound. A lot of singers embellish a lot of stuff, and we just try to sing it to get the meaning across.”

Three months ago, Boyer and Crowell decided to try out to sing the anthem at the College World Series. Crowell did so back in 1997, but the audition process wasn't very involved. These days, you have to send in a recorded version before you can audition in front of CWS officials.

Along with about 100 others seeking a shot at the CWS infield, the duo submitted their recording and were later selected as one of 30 finalists to audition at TD Ameritrade Park.

“It would be such an amazing opportunity,” Crowell said at the time.

Among the auditioners were instrumental musicians, choral groups and vocalists — and they weren't only from Omaha. Judges looked for various qualities, but one was “a baseball feel,” according to Katie Karmazin, national anthem coordinator.

Crowell and Boyer were selected, along with 16 other acts.

Nerves immediately set in. Crowell envisioned at least 20,000 people watching. Boyer joked about removing her contacts so the huge crowd wouldn't seem so daunting.

“It will be nerve-racking. There's no two ways about it,” Crowell said. “Hopefully we'll be so full of excitement. We'll say the prayers we need so the nerves calm down.”

As nervous as they claimed to be before they had to sing, the women didn't chew their fingernails or pace. Mostly they joked about picturing people in the audience (the biggest they had ever performed for) in their underwear and debating whether to wear their sunglasses. (They didn't, but Boyer felt like she could hide behind them.)

The day before the performance, the women practiced “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Once.

“One time and that's it,” Boyer said. “We don't want to lose our voices because we really belt it out.”

“We did a really good one last night,” Crowell added.

An hour before the performance, they arrived at the ballpark, and a CWS intern escorted them into the building. They each got tickets to the game and then went to that small hallway behind the first base dugout. That's when they found out they wouldn't have a dressing room.

Despite the lack of privacy, the women calmed their nerves by remembering that friends and co-workers were in attendance.

They hummed and used a pitch pipe (really an app on Boyer's phone) to prepare, and stuck their heads out to the ballfield to check on the size of the audience. Not a lot of people were in the stands yet. (Whew.)

Fifteen minutes before the performance, they took a quick look at the ballfield, then retreated into a small bathroom about 30 feet from the dugout to warm up one last time.

Facing one of the walls — “I don't want to look at myself sing,” Boyer said — each took a deep breath and started into the song. Their voices wove together in harmony throughout the duet, and their louder moments seemed even more powerful in the small tiled bathroom.

“That was really loud in this itty bitty room,” Boyer said after.

“I hope we didn't lose it all,” Crowell added.

Five minutes before the performance, they adjusted Boyer's necklace and fanned themselves to keep cool. The heat seemed to collect in the hallway.

JB Duncan, a sound engineer from the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, came to check with them about the placement of the microphone.

Don't be afraid to get close to it, he said, before being reminded that Crowell and Boyer have power in their voices and wouldn't want to be too close.

“Are you belters?” he asked with a grin. “As sound guys, we love belters.”

Two minutes before the performance, they said a little prayer to calm themselves.

NCAA officials made last attempts to calm their nerves, warned that the cameraman was enthusiastic, then escorted them onto the field.

After the presentation of the starting lineups and the color guard, Boyer and Crowell were introduced. And they sang, with “rockets' red glare” and “home of the brave” soaring into the hot June air.

Walking off the field, Crowell had to catch her breath.

“You nailed it,” Boyer told her.

“Good game,” Crowell said.

“Good game,” Boyer said back.

They smiled.

Everything went well, they said after. Well, except the camera guy. He put his camera a little close to their faces, and it was off-putting, Boyer said. But it also meant their faces were all over the large screens in the ballpark. (Boyer has since changed her Facebook profile picture to a photo of the screen.)

“It was an awesome experience,” Crowell said. “That was a big highlight of my music career.”

“Probably one of the best two minutes of my life,” Boyer said. “It was a crazy two minutes. That was so much fun. I could feel myself shaking.”

Crowell admitted that she began to sing the melody with Boyer at the wrong moment, but she recovered. They were happy to find out that no one noticed.

“It was really good,” said Omahan Bill Smythe, who attended the game as a fan. Smythe knows his national anthem performances. His favorite is a version by Grammy-winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval at the 2009 Orange Bowl.

But he enjoyed Crowell and Boyer's, too.

“It had nice harmonies.”

The two singers hoped their rendition conveyed the patriotic meaning of the song.

“It's a symbol of our freedom, and I think sometimes we take what we have for granted,” Boyer said. “When the national anthem plays, you kind of take the time to reflect on your life and how fortunate we are.”

Contact the writer: Kevin Coffey

kevin.coffey@owh.com    |   402-444-1557    |  

Kevin covers music, whether it's pop, indie or punk, through artist interviews, reviews and trend stories. He also occasionally covers other entertainment, including video games and comic books.

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