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Super Bowl XXXIX: In Her Own Words

Unless you’re a New England Patriots fan, the best part of this year’s Super Bowl may well have been the pregame show, in which Alicia Keys performed “America the Beautiful” with students from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. Leslie Saxton Costello ’93, M’97, director of music at the St. Augustine school, provided the following first-person account.

Super Bowl XXXIX

Photo courtesy of Leslie Costello

Our campus has 750 students, and Don Mischer Productions (the group that did the pregame and halftime shows) wanted a particular number of students selected. I identified our top seventy students in the Blind department, based on talent, motivation, and behavior. The Deaf department then matched our group (for a total of 140 students performing). My students ranged in age from 7 to 20. 

We began rehearsals after the Christmas break, meeting twice a week. We familiarized the students with the song, worked on singing four-part harmonies, and focused on some singing fundamentals for those who had not participated in chorus before. Information about the pregame program filtered in slowly in bits and pieces, with the actual arrangement of the song not arriving until six days prior to our performance. The kids were amazingly patient and flexible with all the changes going on, including the day of the performance!

In the week before the Super Bowl, the music producer arrived from Los Angeles and rehearsed with the kids. Rickey Minor was the producer, and he has worked with some of the biggest names in music, not to mention being a great musician in his own right. He was awesome with the kids, very enthusiastic, upbeat, and playful. He even did an impromptu “jam” with some of my jazz band kids.

The day after Rickey’s visit, the people from Don Mischer Productions came down to the school, and we practiced on the football field. Our maintenance staff had built an exact replica of the stage we would be using at the Super Bowl for our kids to use to practice on our field. Orientation and mobility were keys to getting our kids situated on the stage. We had eight minutes (we did it in four!) to get all the kids into place and one and a half minutes to get them off the field (lest they be trucked away by the Patriots).

The Friday before the Super Bowl, we had a rehearsal at the stadium. Most of the kids had never been in a stadium, and none had been on the field. I explained the differences to expect on game day—having performed in several stadiums with IUP’s Marching Band, I knew what to expect and how to prepare for it.

Once our rehearsal was completed, we went back into the stadium’s club level and waited for a final run-through of the timed pregame show. It was at this time that the students met Alicia Keys. She was very personable and friendly. Following our portion of the run-through, she talked to them briefly and posed for pictures.

The day of the game, all of the pregame participants met at a central location in Jacksonville. We then had a police escort to the stadium. (I think there were nineteen buses full of people, with our school leading the way!) The students and staff received their credentials that would allow us on the field, and we passed through the strict security—just as we had a few days before.

Being on the field was just thrilling for everyone (including me), and seeing/meeting folks like Alicia Keys, Black Eyed Peas, Gretchen Wilson, Will Smith, the president of Fox Broadcasting, and all the production people was just amazing. Some of our students got a tour of the Jaguars locker room and met Jaguars players, and some shook hands with President Clinton and saw the first President Bush. And yet, the students were treated like celebrities themselves.

The entire month of preparation for the three-minute appearance at the Super Bowl was valuable in so many ways. Phone calls started coming to the school before we had even left the stadium. The kids have been featured in local and state media and on national news and entertainment shows, such as ESPN, Access Hollywood, and network morning shows, and we have had many e-mails flying in with words of congratulations and tears of joy. The performance of “America the Beautiful” seems to have been one of the highlights of the day. For the kids, it was one of the highlights of their lives.

More information about the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, alma mater of the legendary Ray Charles, is on the web at www.fsdbsuperbowl.com.