It’s a tradition in high school football. Every Friday night in the fall throughout the country players line up on their respective sidelines, remove their helmets and face the American flag for the playing of the national anthem. In most cases it’s either the band playing the tune or maybe a recording played over the speaker system. Ho-hum, ok, the Star-Spangled Banner is over, let’s get to some football. But, man, when someone sings it right and really belts it out, it can be a riveting moment that sends chills down your spine. If you haven’t been to an Oakcrest High School home football game in the last two seasons, you’re missing out. And if you are walking up to the field just before kickoff you may think it’s the popular recording done by Whitney Houston prior to the 1991 Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla. It’s not. That’s senior choir and band member Essence Pittman getting the crowd into a frenzy with her stirring rendition of the song. Pittman singing the national anthem is impressive because of the maturity in her voice, said choir director Richard Tinsley, a 2006 Oakcrest graduate who is in his first year of teaching at the school. “Her voice is just so mature for someone her age,” Tinsley said of the 17-year-old Mays Landing resident. “When she did it the first two weeks everyone was so excited about it.” Tinsley said he held open tryouts in the beginning of the year to see who would get the honor of singing before Falcons football games. Those tryouts lasted all of about two minutes. Pittman was the first to audition, and there really wasn’t a need to continue after that. “Essence was the first to come up and I was like, boom! That’s the one,” Tinsley said. “Of course other people got to do it, but once she did it once for me I said, ‘that’s the one.’ It’s so exciting to see her out there because she really embraces the spotlight. When you walk out to that 50-yard line, you’re in front of everyone, both teams, both crowds, and you are singing one of the most important songs. “We’ve seen big stars mess it up and for her to go out there as a high school student and do it, that’s big. It’s exciting for her. She really made it her own and that’s what I like about it. She took her personality and put it into the national anthem and took it to another level and I thought that was great.” Although Tinsley didn’t play football in high school, he said he can see current football players getting pumped up for the game when Not only is Oakcrest senior band member Essence Pittman a talented musician and singer, she’s also a whiz in the classroom. Among the colleges she is applying to attend is Princeton University. (Glory Days Magazine photo/Dave O’Sullivan) Pittman sings the anthem. “They always seem fired up when it’s one of the good ones,” Tinsley said. “You always know when something is not right and they’re not going to get hyped. When it’s good, you see the football players’ helmets in the air and they are ready to go. It gets really exciting, and it’s exciting to see.” “It gets us really pumped up. The guys really look forward to hearing it, then at the end it really gets us into the game,” said senior wide receiver Quincy Hughes, and 18-year-old Mays Landing resident who also is in the choir with Pittman. “Essence does it her own way. She puts Essence into the Star-Spangled Banner and that’s why people enjoy it. I’m very impressed. I’ve known her since the fourth grade. She progresses every year. She gets better and better.” Pittman said she credits her mother, Angela, with getting her started in her singing and musical career. Not only does Pittman sing, she also plays the tenor saxophone in the marching band and got her start on the clarinet. Oh, and she just happens to also be a straight-A student and captain of the dance team. “My mom saw potential in me so she wanted to push me into singing,” Pittman said. “Maybe when I was around 11 or 12 I realized (I had talent). That’s when I made my first CD. I started out with church music but then I started to expand my variety. In school I sing some classical songs, different languages like Latin or Spanish or French.” Pittman said that during her first year of high school she realized that students were singing the anthem prior to football games, but she didn’t want to step on any toes. “I didn’t want them to be like, ‘oh, why is a freshman going up there doing the national anthem?’ So I wanted to wait a little bit. (Athletic Director Dave) Bennett asked me to do it my junior year and I started doing it a lot,” Pittman said. “I was nervous (the first time). It feels good, though, when I hit a high note and everybody is cheering.” Pittman said she understands the effect a strong performance singing the national anthem can have on players, but also credits the players with giving her the inspiration to do it well. “I think it impacts them. A lot of my friends are on the football team and they are like, ‘yeah Essence, go sing it girl!’ They are pepping me up when I should be pepping them up,” Pittman said. “The coaches will come and hug me afterward.” “She’s not afraid to sing it out. You will hear every note that she sings. When we start hearing those last couple of lines, we’re getting pumped up,” Hughes said. “For some football players that can be an emotion rush because maybe they had somebody in the military that they lost and they’re going to play that game for them, or maybe they’ve had family members who have fought in wars and died in wars, so hearing the national anthem sung by any good singer it puts that extra kick in it.” Pittman isn’t just some kid who has a nice voice plucked from the band to sing the anthem. She’s an accomplished musician and singer and has been performing at big events for years. She even got to appear at the famed Apollo Theater in the Harlem section of New York City. Pittman has been on stage during Wednesday Amateur Night, a tradition that dates back to 1934 and is the inspiration for the new wave of singing talent shows on TV such as “American Idol” and “The Voice.” According to apollotheater.org, the legendary venue launched the careers of iconic singers such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. “I’ve done the Apollo Theater for Amateur Night and I was in the section ‘Child Stars of Tomorrow,'” Pittman said. “I think I can say, honestly, I was nervous. New York crowds are tough, but the crowd cheered me on so I must have done well.” “She is just so far ahead, maturity-wise, in her voice than most high school kids you run into. She’s been placed in the spotlight before and done very well. I couldn’t wait to get in here and have her as my student at least for one year,” Tinsley said. Tinsley said Pittman is really hitting her stride during her senior year and he expects big things from her in the future. He also said he is thankful that Angela Pittman has given her daughter the support and direction she has needed to flourish. “Her mom said she started singing in church when she was about 3 years old. That’s pretty awesome. That’s where I got my start and to hear other people get their start (in church) is cool to know. A lot of times people get their start and don’t have anyone to push them and they let it go, but she’s been doing it for so long she’s really starting to grow in her sound,” Tinsley said. “If she keeps singing the way she is, she’s got big things coming. Whether it’s in the R&B industry or the gospel industry or the singing industry in general, she’s got the talent. If she can harness it and get in with the right people and really start to work for whatever she wants to do after high school, she can go places.” Not only does Pittman have maturity in her singing voice, she also has enough self awareness to be critical of herself in order to keep striving to get better, in much the same way star athletes are never satisfied with their performance on the field. “I know my personal performance level and where it should be, and if I don’t do well I will feel sad about that,” Pittman said. “I always push myself to give 110 percent all the time.” She has the same dedication in the classroom. The straight-A student wants to attend West Chester University, but also will be applying to Princeton this fall. She plans on a double major in music and psychology and has ambitions of attending law school. “She’s a smart girl so if she ever decides to stop singing she will have her education to fall back on,” Hughes said. This year Oakcrest’s Thanksgiving game, one of the biggest games of the year for any high school team, will be at Absegami. Who knows, maybe the Braves will break tradition and let a member of the visiting marching band sing the national anthem so fans can hear the true Essence of the song. Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays.