How it began

Just before the country shut down in March 2020 due to COVID-19, one choir in Washington State wanted to have one more rehearsal. Skagit Valley Chorale kept their distance and took precautions, but certainly had no idea that three weeks later, one third of them would test positive for Covid-19 and two of their members would no longer be alive. This tragic experience sent a powerful message to the choral world that group singing is a "super-spreading event." How heartbreaking for those of us who spend our lives participating in collective music-making, and love to blend our voices with others. The American Choral Directors Association warned that we cannot sing together safely until there is a vaccine, and we all had to close our concert hall, church, and theater doors for a time.

The choral world also quickly learned that while programs like Zoom allow teachers to run classes, and work just fine for face-to-face discussions, the latency makes real-time music making frustrating at best. Virtual choirs sound fantastic when they are well-edited, but the process of preparing a solo selfie video and uploading it to a google drive and sending to an editor and waiting a month until it's complete... doesn't have much in common with the collective breathing and listening that singers do together when they sing in a chorus.

On May 17, David Newman, a baritone on the voice faculty of James Madison University in Virginia, started doing experiments with physically distant singers in separate cars, using wireless microphones.

David Newman's first video from May 17, 2020. Find all his videos here.

On May 27, Bryce and Kathryn Denney started experimenting in Massachusetts with a quartet in four cars, each singer wearing a gaming headset with long wires.

The Denneys' first video from May 27, 2020. Find all their videos in the Events section.

After posting videos about their discoveries on YouTube and Facebook, the Denneys and David found each other through mutual friends and exchanged ideas. They met over Zoom and decided to write everything down in detail, so that other groups could easily learn how it works. Bryce created an document called "Audio Systems to Enable Physically Distant Singing," documenting David Newman's approach and the Denneys' approach, and explaining how others could build their own variations to suit their needs.

Christian Hunter and Somerset Hills Harmony saw the videos and instructions online. They tried it, and with the help of an experienced audio engineer, Rob France, they innovated and pushed forward in new directions. Christian organized a series of webinars in September 2020, to teach others how to do it. Hundreds of people from all over the US and Canada attended, and many of them have subsequently started running tech-assisted rehearsals.

Christian Hunter and Somerset Hills Harmony organized this series of 5 webinars and taught the world how it works. The recordings and slides continue to be an excellent resource for anyone who is interested.

Tori Cook wrote a great article in September, entitled Could Drive-in Choirs be the Solution We Have All Been Waiting For?

Word got around to Bob Morris, a New York Times reporter who loves to sing in Barbershop choruses (but couldn't). In September, he decided to come to one of the Denney's driveway choir events at the First Parish Church of Stow and Acton. His article was published in the October 7: A Choir Finds a Way to Sing. Just Ignore the Steering Wheel.

photo by Simon Simard for the New York Times

Thanks to David Newman, Bryce Denney, Christian Hunter, and many others who contributed along the way, this approach is now an important part of the international dialogue about how a choir can sing together safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.