LINCOLN — In the cold rain, as night fell on a church parking lot strewn with leaves, a choir and the community that finds faith in it came together again late Sunday afternoon.
The choir of St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Lincoln performed its first live Evensong service together in months — and their first-ever service with each singing in his or her own car, holding a microphone, peering out the windshield at a distant conductor, and listening intently to the radio.
“Singers really need to sing together,” said Jay Lane, choirmaster at the church, before the service. “We’ve missed it and this is one way to do it.”
Wireless microphones were live-mixed at a sounding board and then broadcast on an open FM radio frequency, to which choir members and congregants tuned their car radios. An organ part that Lane recorded the day before — to free his hands for conducting — was also mixed in.
Atop a hill in the lot, the conductor stood beneath a canopy lit by fluorescent lights, gazing down upon about 40 cars filled with song, about half with choir members. Outside, the hum of about 20 singers rose from their cars above the din of rain.
“We are making this up as we go along,” Lane said. But he credited a Marlborough couple with creating a road map for pulling off a pandemic-safe method of reuniting his choir with in-person singing, which required about $5,000 in new equipment.
“We’ve tried to find a way that people can sing together but cannot exchange aerosols,” said Kathryn Denney, 47, a singer and former music teacher, referencing the risk of spreading coronavirus.
After taking a calendar covered in cancellations off the wall in the spring, Denney and her husband began a series of experiments in their driveway to solve a new problem: Could singers come together to make live music safely again while the pandemic raged on?
They have posted their methods, which they call “Driveway Choir,” for free online, so singing groups can safely reunite, including the St. Anne’s choir, which they used for a test run of the final setup.
“Bringing people together and connecting just feels like what people should be doing right now,” Denney said.
Sandy Creighton, an 80-year-old bass-baritone singer,and his wife, 77-year-old alto Elizabeth Creighton, appreciate just why getting together to make music is so important.
In a phone interview before the service, Sandy Creighton remembered that choir music “saved my life.”
“I came back from Vietnam a lost soul,” said Creighton, a military veteran. Friends and fellow soldiers committed suicide; Creighton kept being dragged to choir practice by his wife, he said.
“Music taught me how to feel again and to learn how to cry,” said Creighton, a Lincoln resident who has been a member of the St. Anne’s choir since 1971.
Now, the couple has thrown themselves into the new challenge of performing from the driver’s seat.
“You really need three hands,” said Elizabeth Creighton. “One hand holds the mike, the other holds the music, and third hand turns the pages,” she joked.
There are musical challenges as well, they said. “Elizabeth can really not carry a tune without others, and I am just one iota above that,” her husband said, matter-of-factly. Both have had to develop the confidence to sing out with their section-mates an SUV away.
And they’ve come to find joy in “precious moments,” like when the choir gets a bathroom break and can actually see one another from a distance as they run in to use the church facilities, the couple said, laughing.
It’s all a reminder that a choir is more than just a singing group, their conductor explained.
“A choir director is the leader of a small community and so I’m doing my very best to keep ... a community feeling like a community,” Lane said.
“So we get together and do something we all love and it’s a step back toward a normal world.”
With the early dark stealing over the church and rain falling on Sunday, their voices were once again joined in song:
“The voice of prayer is never silent,” they sang. “Nor dies the strain of praise away.”