I’ve been singing with a women’s a capella group, “BroadBand” for the last fifteen years, and tonight is our annual pilgrimage to perform the national anthem at the Boston Garden. This is our fifth time there, and I’ve come to feel pretty casual about the gig. John asked me this morning who the Celts are playing and I had no idea. I told Mia I’d be home around nine tonight and she asked where I’d be until then.
“We’re doing the Celtics game again tonight, didn’t I mention it?” I said.
“Oh, that! LOL, just singin’ the national anthem for the Celtics, no biggie,” she said.
Here are some fun, behind-the-scenes facts from the gig:
We go out on the court during warm ups to do a sound check. We are 16 women, decked out in black pants, white tops, kelly green accessories, very suburban-professional in style. Players are running drills, shooting and passing, as we thread our way to center court to find our mark for the live performance. One year, Paul Pierce was on his back on the court floor getting his hamstrings stretched out by a trainer. He is 6’7” tall, and I think his outstretched leg reached chin level for most of us. We had to step over him to get to the mic stand. That was the year we learned that skirts are not the best choice for this gig.
The backstage area is cavernous; essentially, it’s the basement footprint for the entire arena and stands above. Two or three ambulances and the visiting team’s bus are parked off in one corner, and a couple of green rooms are set aside by black curtains hung from tall scaffolding. There’s a lot of waiting around backstage with the other performers for the night’s game. More often than not, we’ve shared a green room with a youth hip hop team or a girls’ cheerleading squad, 30+ wired kids with matching jackets and gear bags, eagerly doing their stretches under the watchful eyes of whistle-clad chaperones. There is always an honorary color guard there to carry in the flags, usually composed of national reservists, I think. One year, a fellow Broad’s friend came along to hang out with us backstage, and he asked to check out one of the reservist’s rifles. Someone took a picture of it. Another time, Nate came backstage — he was a senior at Dartmouth and happened to be in Boston doing research. The Boston Celtics Dancers were practicing tumbling tricks out in the vast open space near the entrance to the court, and he went over and chatted them up. He got his picture taken with them, and one of them remarked flirtatiously that he reminded her of her best friend’s boyfriend. The women tumblers are astonishingly petite in person, resembling jacked-up fourth graders. It’s breathtaking, and a little stomach churning, to watch them practice somersaulting up onto the shoulders of the guys, eight feet above a concrete floor. That year, Nate finagled us into two seats on the floor, where we sat directly behind Boston Red Sox player and newly crowned World Series champ Mike Napoli. The photo I took of the two of them together was Nate’s profile picture for a couple of years.
The first time we sang at the Garden, I could barely control my voice I was so nervous and excited. Singing while nervous is a challenge, because your body is your instrument, and most vocal technique requires subtle and very specific mechanics. On a good day, it can be hard to get it right – to form vowels correctly, to “place” the sound so that it resonates fully, to raise your palate, relax your tongue, and fully support your voice with your breath. When I’m nervous, though, these finer mechanics go out the window, and it’s all about the breath. When your heart is hammering in your chest and your mind is freaking out about the high C that you only hit in about half of rehearsals (and that, after a relaxing glass of wine with your friends)—well, it’s hard to breathe.
For our first appearance at the Garden, my breath came like a baby rabbit’s: shallow, fast, terrified. We are supposed to smile and look up at the stands. One of our husbands took some photos, and many of us, myself included, look wide-eyed and stricken. It was an out-of-body experience, plain and simple. “Out-of-body” is not a very comfortable place to be.
The incredible thing about performing the national anthem in a major venue like the Garden though, is the energy you get from the fans. They start cheering right around “banner yet wave,” which in our arrangement is a beautiful, rich chord: harmonic hollandaise that the fans don’t even get to taste because they’re whistling and carrying on. You’re not exactly sure whether they are cheering for you, or because you’re almost done and the game is about to start, but that quickly becomes immaterial. By the time we’re hitting “home of the brave” we can’t even hear ourselves sing because 15,000 fans are hollering and clapping, blowing airhorns and drumming the seatbacks. The first time it happened, I was surprised to be overcome with emotion. Now, we’ve come to expect it, and we start grinning as we begin the run up to the final verse.
People always congratulate us as we leave the court. Once or twice, a player has given us the thumbs-up; the courtside security guard tells us it’s the “best one this season”; kids snap our picture on their cellphones; season ticket holders call out stuff like “bee-yoo-tee-full!” and “good job, girls.” It’s a high to feel yourself borne up by the goodwill of 15,000 human souls in community: truly, a body electric. Certainly, there’s a sentimental patriotism that gets me choked up. But I am even more moved by the palpable vibe that resonates when people come together and share their positive energy, even if only for that one chord before the game begins, and they start chewing out the ref and booing the visiting team, Bahston-style.
I’ll let you know if I manage to hit the high C.