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MUSIC

Cars are the perfect choir loft for this ‘Messiah’ sing-along

Group singing is extremely dangerous for coronavirus transmission, but a Marlborough couple found a way by keeping everyone in their cars.
Group singing is extremely dangerous for coronavirus transmission, but a Marlborough couple found a way by keeping everyone in their cars.SIMON SIMARD/NYT

More than 54 million Americans, from children to seniors, actively participated in choral singing before the pandemic hit this year. (That’s according to arts organization Chorus America.) But these days, the soul-rejuvenating practice of lifting one’s voice in song with others — breathing as one, riding on waves of communal energy — has been targeted as one of the worst super-spreader activities out there. Back in March, one Washington State church choir’s infamous rehearsal resulted in a single sick chorister infecting nearly everyone present — 53 out of 61 people.

Enter Driveway Choir, which facilitates the joy of communal singing without the risk of in-person coronavirus spread. People sing together from the safety of their cars, blending their voices in real time via car radios. Created by Marlborough musicians Bryce and Kathryn Denney, Driveway Choir began with a simple concept and modest means. Inspired by Virginia baritone David Newman’s neighborhood drive-in chorus, the Denneys purchased some audio equipment and gathered four vocalists to their driveway last May to sing together, all wearing headsets and singing from inside their respective cars to maintain social distancing. It was a revelation, providing a gratifying opportunity to reconnect with a passion that had been on hold for months.

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“Choral singing expresses things that can’t be expressed any other way, a collective way to breathe, shape a phrase, give an emotion, and tell a story that requires people to work together,” maintains Kathryn, the organization’s music director.

Singers performed in their cars at a recent Driveway Choir event.
Singers performed in their cars at a recent Driveway Choir event.Kathryn and Bryce Denney (Custom credit)

Since then, Driveway Choir has blossomed to foster a range of projects all over Massachusetts and beyond, including a 50-voice Chorus Pro Musica rendition of Brahms’s Requiem in a Newton parking lot and a performance of the Fauré Requiem by the Nashoba Valley Chorale involving roughly 100 registered participants. The musical solitude of pandemic restrictions has given way to singing together in yards, driveways, and parking lots.

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The Denneys personally have facilitated about one event per week since May, which is no easy undertaking. “We have a fair amount of prep time, we have to wash the mic screens, change batteries … It’s a big project,” says Bryce, who also works as an electrical engineer. Nonetheless, he and his wife feel a sense of mission to spread the joy of music — totally free of charge.

Bryce also posts how-to videos with technical info and schematics on the organization’s website to encourage others to create their own systems, which are set up so that singers can hear one another without the kind of lag time (aka latency) found on Zoom. The system uses color-coded microphones for the singers, a mixer, and an FM transmitter that broadcasts the blended sound through an unused frequency in the singers’ car radios. The Denneys’ Facebook page “Making music together during COVID” now has more than 300 members from around the country, many of whom have started similar “drive-in” choral experiences to get people singing together again. “Other people had similar ideas,” says Dave Kay, who first sang with the Denneys in July. “But they really took the ball and ran with it.”

Bryce worked the audio system at a recent Driveway Choir event.
Bryce worked the audio system at a recent Driveway Choir event.Axie Breen

The Denneys’ next big project is a “Driveway Choir Messiah” in a Boxborough parking lot on Dec. 19. The event will bring together roughly two dozen choristers from three local groups — Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, Cantata Singers, and Chorus Pro Musica — plus keyboardist Edward Jones and seven professional soloists from Opera on Tap Boston — to perform part one of Handel’s “The Messiah” led by conductor Michael Pfitzer. And the public is invited to join in — or as many as allowed by current COVID guidelines. While public participants won’t have microphones contributing to the group sound heard over car radios, they will still have the pleasure of joining in just as they would for a normal “Messiah” sing-along.

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It’s an uplifting privilege of the season that is needed now more than ever. “I hope this performance might allow singers to safely participate in a cherished holiday experience, and perhaps hearing about how it goes will bring some joy during what is sure to be a difficult holiday season for many,” says Pfitzer. “I think what the Denneys have created is extremely special and joyous at a time when we could all use some joy and togetherness in our lives.”

DRIVEWAY CHOIR MESSIAH

Dec. 19, 2 p.m. Free but attendance is limited. Registration required. www.drivewaychoir.org/events/messiah-dec-2020



Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.