Forget tailgates, parking lots are for choir practice

Members of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir rehearse from their cars amid pandemic concerns.
WCC Parking Lot choir members in cars
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Chamber Choir
A few members of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir practicing from their cars earlier this year.

Among the COVID-19 era adaptations made by local performing arts groups, the Parking Lot Choir at Madison Christian Community certainly takes a unique approach. Since singing has been found to spread airborne droplets that can contain the coronavirus, Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s artistic director Dr. Robert Gehrenbeck was racking his brain to come up with a way to bring his vocalists back together.

After testing a socially-distanced radio system with his colleagues in Whitewater, Gehrenbeck tried it here in Madison and got positive results.

“We were surprised at how well it worked,” says Sherri Hansen, a choir singer and WCC board member. “Because singers must project their voices, they create a lot of aerosol which is amplified by close proximity and length of rehearsals and concerts. … Several research studies have concluded that singing is one of the most risk-laden activities for spreading the coronavirus.”

So upon polling 55 singers across south central Wisconsin, the Parking Lot Choir confirmed what they suspected: that performers were more comfortable belting out a seasonal carol from the comfort of their cars than virtually or fully outdoors.

And the PLC was born.

Since its creation, Hansen and the rest of the choir have been rehearsing Tuesday evenings in Madison Christian Community’s upper parking lot to prepare for its upcoming recorded and live performances.

PLC singers drive up to get their wireless handheld microphones, which send signals to a digital mixer assigned to each singer. Tech wiz Joshua Cruz-Schmidt ensures there is a balance between the multiple voices, and then sends the audio back via radio transmitter so the singers can listen live from their cars.

“Our director is out front, so we can see and hear him in the mix [and] we have our collaborative keyboardist, Mark Brampton-Smith, playing in the covered entrance,” Hansen says.

Broken up into two groups — Hansen says they had 40 singers who wanted to participate, but only 20 microphones and a 24-channel mixer — the WCC is able to practice their compositions by Bach and Vivaldi as a big group again. Soon enough, audience members will be able to here the choir, too.

“Although we love the camaraderie of singing with people as passionate about music and the challenges of learning difficult repertoire as we are, what we love most is sharing that passion and art with our families, friends and fans,” Hansen says.

Pre-pandemic, the WCC typically held two major performances a year, including the holiday show. The choir plans to perform using this new format on Dec. 12. The location has yet to be determined, so check the WCC website and Facebook page for more information.

Hansen and her fellow choir members may have had to whip out the jumper cables a few times to revive car batteries. And they take a break mid practice so the singers can turn on the heat in their cars to warm up. But WCC is just happy to be singing together again.

“Hey, we’re hardy Wisconsinites!” Hansen says. “Although we may not be able to sing [while standing] next to each other, it has really helped maintain community and allowed us to do what we love … which is singing.”

Hansen and the rest of WCC hope that other local choral groups will pick up on this idea, as the world is desperately in need of some more music.

“In any ensemble music, part of the power comes from being part of something larger than yourself and creating beautiful art together,” she says. “2020 has been a dark and difficult time for everybody, [and] music has the transformative power to uplift, soothe and comfort people and we need that now more than ever.”

Sam Jones is an editorial inter at Madison Magazine.

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