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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

The High Notes of Patriotism

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Driving four days across the western United States affords one little writing time but much thinking time. July fourth came and went during that drive. Now that I am settled in one place I can put fingers to the keyboard. I have some musings, albeit two weeks late.

Four years ago on one of my trips to see my parents in the central Maryland-Pennsylvania area, I volunteered to sing at the Maryland Symphony's Independence Day concert at Antietam Battlefield in Sharpsburg, MD. It seemed like a fun idea, having grown up in the area, singing with the Maryland Symphony in past years.

A stage was erected for this event, the public sitting out on the hill on blankets and lawn chairs, with picnics and children running around and some people playing catch or frisbee. It was a bucolic scene at the location of what is known as the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.

23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after twelve hours of savage combat on September 17, 1862. The Battle of Antietam ended the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's first invasion into the North and led to Abraham Lincoln's issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

One of my family ancestors died there. Another, Jeremiah Goetz (misspelled Gates in the record) died in Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia -- a young man whose grave I finally located and visited after all those years of the family not knowing where he was. His picture sits on my mantle.


Of course it was hot and buggy, but I had a grand time singing theme songs from each branch of the military as well as other patriotic tunes. Each respective vet or service man and woman would stand when their song was played. My father was a WWII vet and unable to attend but I did note there but a handful of vets from that war. Soon they will all be gone. The war that so shaped who I am because of the effect on my parents is now so long ago. I came of age during the Viet Nam war and here were many vets of that war, but the majority was from Desert Storm.

The real thrill was in the time between the concert and the fireworks.

There were thunderheads looming so the concert ended with an abbreviated version of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -- jumping to the end with the cannon blasts provided by the waiting Army Reserves. In Ethan Mordden's A guide to orchestral music: the handbook for non-musicians, he writes:

In a live performance, the logistics of safety and precision in placement of the shots require either well-drilled military crews using modern cannon or the use of sixteen pieces of muzzle-loading artillery, since any reloading schemes to attain the sixteen shots or even a semblance of them in the two minute time span involved makes safety and precision impossible with 1800s artillery. Time lag alone precludes implementation of cues for the shots for fewer than sixteen 1812-era field pieces.

After assembling these cannons, it was impossible not to use them.

After the concert, fireworks were to go off behind the "Bloody Lane," the location of the slaughter. As I turned in that direction, a low mist was rising over the field as the sun set behind me. Before my eyes thousands of fireflies appeared seemingly coming up from the ground like the souls of the men who died. To say this was a spiritual experience is an understatement. Nature's fireworks were far better than any man made version. It is a vision I will never forget.

A few years ago I sang at a citizenship ceremony. My significant other at the time had assembled my resume to ee if I could sing the national anthem as a surprise for a mutual friend who was becoming an American citizen. Little did we know that it would be a ceremony for 995 people with another thousand friends and family present to watch. We had imagined a small courtroom experience. The event was in the historic Paramount Theater in Oakland. I nixed the idea when I saw the situation, but he persisted and gave my bio to an usher. The next thing I knew, I was being escorted by a very serious gentlemen down to another fellow with a clipboard and earpiece who asked me if I was Susanne Mentzer and did I want to sing. It would be fine, he said, but he needed to find Shirley -- the person who was to sing the anthem -- who had not yet arrived. I felt terrible putting someone off like that and was ready to suggest I not sing when he said, "Shirley has to do it all the time. She works in the office and I am sure she would like a break from it." He then sent me to a soundman who was unconvinced that I could sing without a mic but let me go anyway.

Anyone who has sung our national anthem knows how rangy it is -- it is either too high or too low and if not commencing on the right pitch one can really shoot one's self in the foot. I was quite aware of this so while I waited backstage I tried to find the right starting pitch for my voice and keep it until I had to go on. I did not realize that there would be a thirty-minute preamble followed by a video of President Obama complete with soundtrack. Entranced by this inspirational video... a great musical score... the next thing I know I heard myself being introduced to sing.

Gee, could I find that starting pitch for life or money? Nope.

Off I went, looking out at these 995 new citizens for whom this might be the greatest day in their lives, and all I could think of was DO NOT SCREW THIS UP. After singing for years to audiences on average of 3000, I had my knickers in a fit.

I plunged in, and like an out of body experience, began panicking about the words, so sure I was going to forget them, and the next I knew I was at the end trying to stay afloat having chosen a key way too high for my range. I gave it my all anyway, although I could not interpolate the high note on "land of the free" as I was already as high as I could go. The place erupted with applause after "free" anyway, and then I finished. Surprisingly, no one said "Play Ball."

Later my friend said he could not understand the words when I sang high and I told him that it was pretty near impossible to pronounce up there- sounding something like "O say does that stah-spangled banna yat wav, o'er the land of the fray."

Ah well. It still made the day a tad more meaningful for all those new citizens and it sure was moving and an honor for me.