BEDMINSTER, NJ — Live singing has been on a forced worldwide shutdown since early March due to suspected instances of massive aerosol spreading of coronavirus among participants. Choral singing has been shunned over fears of pandemic plumes, but local a cappella chorus Somerset Hills Harmony has found a way to rehearse safely.
In August, Somerset Hills Harmony, an all-age open membership a cappella chorus, made history by holding New Jersey’s first known, full-scale, live in-person a cappella choral rehearsal that meets guidelines for keeping singers safe from COVID-19.
An approach to safe ensemble singing was tested in Massachusetts by Bryce Denney for a church choir with piano, oboe and pipe organ. Singers parked along a road and listened to their director and accompaniment while singing into a microphone to make a pleasing musical mix over the FM radio in this so-called “Driveway Choir." Adapting the method to a cappella singing proved a challenge, but 20 members of the chorus based in central New Jersey gathered in the parking lot of the Pluckemin Presbyterian Church and sang together in-person for the first time since early March.
“We call our version ‘Hot Rods and Harmony’,” said Christian Hunter, Somerset Hills
Harmony’s coordinator of the technology team that made this endeavor possible. “Chorus rehearsals online through Zoom have been well-received, but just aren’t the same as singing with others in person. Once we heard about the ‘Driveway Choir’ we jumped at the chance to effectively and safely sing together.”
There have been many virtual choirs popping up on social media over the past six months, produced by mixing dozens or hundreds of individual recordings into a giant “Brady Bunch” style view. An enormous amount of work that goes into producing a few minutes of performance as a substitute for concerts. Singers enjoy the reward of contributing to the video, but the simple joy of in-person singing with others has been elusive.
“The drive-in rehearsal was food for the singer’s soul,” said Somerset Hills Harmony member Colleen Grzywacz, a Hackettstown middle school chorus teacher and former music teacher at Bridgewater’s Eisenhower Intermediate School. “It has been five months since I have sung live with both my students and peers, and it is something I have deeply missed. I applaud the leadership of Somerset Hills Harmony for taking the initiative and innovating a way to make this happen.”
The technology is simple in concept, but quite clever and a bit challenging to execute. Observing the need to keep it simple, Hunter noted “It’s funny people have tried to solve this problem with sophisticated and expensive solutions. We just hooked everyone into an old school microphone and mixer and then beamed the chorus sound across FM and presto, our chorus is alive! I laugh when I take off my headphones because you can’t hear any singing. It's all on the radio, so we aren’t disturbing the neighbors”.
Singers sit in the comfort of their car which minimizes the risk of spread of COVID-19 to or from others. They tune to the low power FM signal on their car stereos or portable radio. The singers can hear the entire ensemble in real time with no delay. With no piano or instruments to guide them, each car is arranged so the singer has a clear sightline of the director, who is on an elevated platform. Don Staffin, President of Somerset Hills Harmony, said, “When the crisis hit, we immediately started looking for ways not only to survive an indefinite period without traditional rehearsals or concerts, but to thrive and grow as a music organization. We have created a structure that consists of education and clinicians at our online meetings, and virtual group performance opportunities through recording and mixing of tracks. Now thanks to some really smart and dedicated people, we can safely meet in person as well. We plan to continue this until it is safe to sing together in a room once again.”
The chorus has been regularly rehearsing in a parking lot to great success. “Finding Somerset Hills Harmony has been such a joy to me during the pandemic,” said new member Laura Napolitano. “The new ‘Hot Rods and Harmony’ experience is an innovative way to bring us together physically while still being completely safe and socially distant, which is very important to me.” The chorus is taking exceptional steps to keep their singers safe with sanitization of their equipment, implementing social distancing measures and keeping extra masks and alcohol-based sanitizers available for use. With the return of a semblance of normalcy, the group is eager to see what lies ahead for them. They have even considered the possibility of literally going on the road with performances from their cars since indoor performance venues are still subject to gathering limitations. If you happen to come across some hot rods and harmony, tune in and celebrate the return of choral music to New Jersey.
For more information about the Somerset Hills Harmony Chorus or Hot Rods and
Harmony visit their website at shhchorus.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.