Choirs The Driveway Way

Bruce Von Stiers

There have been an abundance of articles and news stories about the pandemic and the effects it had on people. For some groups of people, the restrictions and lock down rules proved to be debilitating. The arts and theater worlds were greatly impacted. I know my favorite local dinner theater had to close for a while. And what about singing groups? I'm not talking about bands. I mean choral groups, choirs and the like. What impact did the pandemic have on them?

That brings me to something I just watched, The Drive To Sing. It is a documentary. But it is not an ordinary, run of the mill documentary. It details how a couple came up with a concept for social distancing choir singing that eventually took off across the U.S. and the world.

The film was directed by Bryce Denney. It was edited by Denney, his wife Kathryn and Justin Lahune. The Denneys are the core interviewees for the film. Russell J. Gannon, who has over twenty film credits, narrated the film.

The film begins with footage of the UVA University Singers, with David Newman as the Baritone Soloist. We find out that Newman had an Idea for trying to get vocalists together to sing even though there were severe restrictions on gatherings and travelling during the pandemic.

The film also details how wide and extensive the shutdown was in various states.

Kathrynn Denney is interviewed, as is Caitlin Felsman, of Opera On Tap Boston. They both share the dilemmas choral groups were facing.

The film highlights how Zoom calls were useful for information and interaction. But as a rehearsal tool, it didn't work. There was too much of a delay with slow internet speeds, bad connections etc.

The key was to find a way for the choruses to sing together. But that wasn't really going to work well. It ended up being each vocalist on the zoom call muting out the others and only hearing themselves singing.

Then there was the concept of a virtual ensemble, with an enormous number of vocalists all on one zoom meeting, singing things they'd might never have sung before.

The film then comes back to David Newman, who teaches music theory at James Madison University. He came up with an idea to have choir members be in their cars in close proximity to each other. Using wireless microphones, they were able to sing with each other even though they were separated, essentially isolated. Newman was able to coordinate the sound using a mobile public address system. But even as Newman posted videos and blasted social media with this concept, nobody was really doing it. Newman became very frustrated.

Then the film moves to Marlborough, Massachusetts. Bryce Denney, who is an electrical engineer and amateur musician is interviewed. He talks about a recital that he and his wife Kathrynn did. There is video footage of the recital. Then Bryce puts together some equipment and then a few people get together and sing in their cars. They are able to hear each other perfectly through their headsets and a mixer that blended their vocals. This was basically a driveway choir.

Then there is an animation showing how the driveway choir system works. That is, microphones in the cars, transmitting to either an audio receiver or mixer, then ret-transmitted back to the cars via FM radio signals.

From that point, the film highlights various choirs and vocal groups who try to utilize Newman's concept along with the guidance and support of Bryce and Kathrynn Denney. There is an Episcopal church in Lincoln, Massachusetts that had been live streaming their services. But they weren't able to bring their congregation together. They came up with a drive-in movie type of set-up. The church recruited Bryce and Kathrynn to come there to duplicate the driveway choir set-up in the church parking lot.

All along the way, the Denneys filmed the process and the apparent success of implementing the driveway choir. The filming included Bryce building a mobile set-up for all of the receiving and broadcasting equipment for the driveway choir. These pieces of film footage were incorporated into the documentary.

The film shows how various choral groups, including barbershop quartets, began to utilize this driveway choir concept. From a New York Times article to a segment on the Today show, the driveway choir concept got a bit of extra publicity. Over a period of months, groups all through the U.S. implemented this concept. It was even utilized as far away as Alaska and in a few places in Canada.

One of my favorite spots in the film is an interview with a little girl. The children's choir that she sang in was participating in a driveway choir event. Upon asking if she'd sing a holiday song along with the interviewer, the little girl said she sang songs from Taylor Swift.

I didn't have any idea that there was such a thing as a driveway choir. I knew that individuals and groups were taking exceptional steps to bring some kind of normalcy during the pandemic. But to come up with a concept such as a driveway choir, and have it be successful, is quite extraordinary. The film shows exactly how a kernel of an idea blossomed into something that became somewhat of a choral movement.

The Drive To Sing is a terrific documentary. I really enjoyed watching how the driveway choir concept really took off and that so many people were able to sing together, all while social distancing. And as I'm a bit of a nerd, I really liked the segments on how wireless microphones, mixers and FM broadcasting equipment was utilized for the driveway choirs.

The Drive To Sing is currently free to watch on the streaming service Tubi.

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© 2023 Bruce E Von Stiers