Metro, Newton, Arts

Driveway Choir Finds Creative Way to Perform During the Pandemic

Since the pandemic hit, most in-person performances have been put on hold. But Bryce and Kathryn Denney, a husband-and-wife team from Marlborough, have not let COVID-19 prevent them from safely singing with others. The couple’s solution was a driveway choir, which allowed singers to perform together in real time from the safety of their cars. 

In March, the couple began thinking of alternatives to performing in person that would still give people a communal experience. They wanted to create a performance experience different from Zoom. 

“We did some virtual choirs, both participating in it and also doing the video editing, and it’s okay,” Bryce said. “But it’s not community at all, it’s not a making-music-together experience.” 

On May 27, the Denneys began experimenting with a driveway choir. Singers in four separate choirs sang together using gaming headsets. They sang from their cars in their driveway, Bryce said. 

Bryce went on to explain the technology they use in order to make the choir work.

“Everyone has a microphone, and then, to combine into a choir sound, you adjust everyone’s levels so you can hear everyone equally,” he said. “And then, you use the output of the mixer. Usually, we use an FM radio transmitter, which is sort of like making a low power temporary radio station.”  

The mixer helps to merge the choir’s voices, he said. The set up allows everyone to hear one another from separate cars without having to overcome lags, which can sometimes occur on Zoom, according to Bryce.

The Denneys said that the choir has come far since its inception, especially with regard to the technology involved and the number of participants it has seen.

“We used gaming headsets at first, and they were great, we could even hear each other breathing,” Kathryn said. “But, they have tons and tons of cords. That’s how we decided to go wireless.”  

The Denneys were also able to make this change by learning from others. After posting their first video on Facebook, they connected with a man named David Newman from Virginia, who shared with the Denneys how he used wireless microphones. 

“I guess, perhaps a big part of the story has been collaborating with people and getting ideas from all over the place,” Bryce said.

The choir has come a long way from quartet performances, and is now able to accommodate 30 people with rehearsals in large parking lots within close proximity to the singers’ residences.  

“We call it a rehearsal rather than a performance, because sometimes we’ll work on things and then we’ll usually try to run through a piece after we practice,” Kathryn said. “It’s not performance quality necessarily, [but] it’s still really satisfying.”

Throughout months of rehearsals, the Denneys have gained a loyal following, including regulars who attend to practice with the group. The Denneys said that they enjoy performing in a safe way and spreading cheer to others.

“It’s actually good news that’s happening in 2020, and there’s just not that much [of that],” Bryce said.

Kathryn said that different individuals sing with the group each time it gathers for performances. Since they began performing in this new format, the Denneys have collaborated with churches like St. Agatha Parish and St. Anne’s Episcopal, which enabled them to perform with their unique set up.

Bryce added that the music selection is based on whether they organize the group, or whether they are being sought out by another conductor, as well as the experience levels of the individuals performing with them.

“I’ll usually invite a whole bunch of people who are really advanced musicians and can sight-read, or I might invite a group from the community theater group that I direct,” Kathryn said. “Once, I decided I wanted to give this experience to people who can’t sight-read very well, and in this case I just sort of told them, ‘Hey let’s sing “Amazing Grace” but with this funky beat to it.’”

The Denneys still continue to perform and are in the process of planning different rehearsals in the coming winter months with hopes to reach a wider audience going forward.  

“We want other groups to be able to do [the rehearsals] too, so a big part of our work has been to write everything down and explain how it works, and edit videos,” Bryce said.

The Denneys run a website where they post information about how the choir works, information regarding upcoming performances, and videos of their performances and practices. 

On Oct. 24, the Denneys partnered with Chorus pro Musica, a professional Boston group, for a performance of Johannes Brahms’ A German Requiem in a parking lot in Newton, and around 50 people gathered in their cars to watch. A clip of the performance was broadcasted on the Today Show on Nov. 22. 

“I think for both of us it’s been really interesting because [the choir is] utilizing both of our skills,” Kathryn said. “Bryce is [an] engineer who thinks of new things and knows all of the technical stuff. He’s also a pianist. I’m a choral director and singer, and somebody who loves to gather groups of people and plan events. It’s the first time in our marriage where we’ve been doing one thing together.”

Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Heights Editor

January 19, 2021