Technology helps Upper Valley choruses stay apart while singing together

  • At dusk on Oct. 5, 2020, The North Country Chordsmen and The VoxStars rehearse outdoors at a safe distance from each other at Civic Memorial Park in West Lebanon, N.H. Using a sound system so they can hear themselves on headphones, they are able to resume in-person singing during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Director Dan Falcone, of Plainfield, N.H., leads The North Country Chordsmen and The VoxStars in warm-ups at their outdoor choral rehearsal in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 5, 2020. Singing through a sound system set up by Bill Stearns, of Enfield, N.H., left, the performers can hear themselves on headphones from a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Bruce Pacht, of Lebanon, N.H., helps Michelle Apigo, also of Lebanon, set up her microphone and headphones for an outdoor choral rehearsal in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 5, 2020. Singing through a sound system so they can hear themselves on headphones, they are able to sing at a safe distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2020 9:42:03 PM
Modified: 10/10/2020 9:41:54 PM

About a dozen members of the VoxStars gathered in a circle last Monday night, standing more than 6 feet apart, wearing headphones and headlamps with microphones in their hands.

Then they started sing, “In every heart there is a room / A sanctuary safe and strong ...” and the Billy Joel song And So It Goes started to fill the corner of Civic Memorial Park as dusk turned to night.

When stay-at-home orders took effect in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, performing arts centers, galleries and concert venues throughout the Upper Valley went dark.

Community and church choirs that met regularly tried to adapt to video meetups or ceased rehearsals altogether, some fearful of spreading the coronavirus through the act of singing itself, especially after a choir practice in Washington state was identified as one of the earliest superspreader events in the U.S.

Now, some groups are turning to technology to be together. For the a capella VoxStars, it’s Driveway Choir, a system with headphones and wireless microphones that are connected to a low-frequency radio station in the back of a vehicle, which allows chorus members to maintain social distancing while still being able to harmonize. In winter months, singers can access the station through their car radios to keep rehearsing.

“It’s better than not singing,” said Sharon Wright, of Lebanon, a member of the VoxStars chorus. “It takes some getting used to. If the choice is not to sing with people, this is a lot better.”

The VoxStars and North Country Chordsmen, both directed by Dan Falcone, began purchasing the equipment totaling around $3,600 a few months ago. Members each have their own headphones and microphones to cut down on the potential spread of germs, said Bill Stearns, a member of both groups who orchestrated the new setup.

“We try to be 12 feet apart as well,” said Stearns, an Enfield resident.

While the two groups tried to rehearse on Zoom, it was a challenge due to internet lag. Instead, Falcone, of Plainfield, would play a track that members could sing along to. They also tried singing spaced apart outside, but it was difficult to hear each other and harmonize.

“We could never hear ourselves all together, and that’s what this equipment allows us to do,” Falcone said.

There have been some learning curves: Singers have had to get used to using microphones, and occasionally Stearns has to adjust the system to eliminate static. Wright made masks using wire supports that keep the fabric from collapsing in when the members sing.

“We want to broadcast to people’s cars so we can perform,” Falcone said. “The next thing is to see if people would come to an event or a popup in parking lot.”

The group begins each rehearsal by going around the circle to share their recent struggles and successes.

“Music is not just about making our sound. It’s about fellowship,” Falcone said. “We have get to get through that and help each other.”

Singing on Zoom

Other singing groups are making adjustments, as well.

The Choral Arts Foundation of the Upper Valley is helping to make that happen with grants to help groups get equipment or the technology to put together a virtual performance. In past years, the grants went toward in-person performances.

“This time around we wanted to fund projects that were aimed at keeping music going in any form under the restrictions of COVID-19 and are willing to put money toward experimenting with different ideas,” said Johanna Evans, president of the nonprofit organization that includes more than 20 choirs throughout the Upper Valley. “We’re hoping one of the possible things we can do with this Driveway Choir is to have one of these systems available for church choirs to use that can be recorded and played during services.”

Mark Nelson, director of the Harmony Night Community Choir, successfully tested the equipment with members of the Jubilate chorus on Friday. Some stood outside, while others tried it from their cars. Harmony Night will also use the equipment, but all members will have their own microphones and headphones.

“The whole idea is to minimize risk,” Nelson, of Enfield, said in an interview prior to the test. “The whole idea is to make it safe for choruses to rehearse in real time and in person.”

He conducted rehearsals with Harmony Night over Zoom in late April, “just to keep the flame lit,” he said. “But then I discovered although it’s impossible to polish ensemble sounds in Zoom ... it turns out that Zoom is a pretty effective way to teach parts.”

In June, the group decided to rehearse together at the pavilion at the CCBA in Lebanon. Up to 20 members would attend.

“When we did get back together with the other members over the summer, we really could tell that we had learned the parts so we now could focus more on shape, blend and character,” Nelson said. “I’ll tell you just the moment where we started singing it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, hallelujah, we’re doing it.’ ”

Musical film

Another ensemble the foundation has helped fund is Zoomberry, a virtual choir conducted by Patricia Norton, an instructor at the Upper Valley Music Center. In addition to singing, the more than 50 members are also working on body percussion pieces taught by New York City-based instructor Claudia Rahardjanoto. People will record themselves singing, and the tracks will be put together by student filmmaker Anna King, of Etna, in a film to be aired next spring.

“It’s amazing that people are so courageous, so willing to try new things,” Norton said.

Since the pandemic started, Norton has adapted to teaching choir classes on Zoom, including the popular Pocket Songs Choir where members learn a new piece each week. Prior to the pandemic, members of area choirs would work toward a concert or showcase, but the uncertainty of when people will be able to safely gather again makes that difficult.

“You can share what you’ve learned with your friends and your family during those performances. You have this sort of celebratory moment where everything comes together and jells,” Norton said. “I knew that performing was not going to be in the picture, so I was thinking how else could we create something together that we can share? That’s where the idea of creating a film came from.”

Participants record themselves so Norton can evaluate their progress and instruct them on improvement.

“I’m learning to watch on Zoom for physical cues that show me their comfort level as an indicator of how confident they are feeling about what they’re doing,” Norton said.

She also keeps a spreadsheet of members who are skilled in certain devices and can help other members who are experiencing difficulties. One benefit of meeting online is it has allowed people from beyond the Upper Valley to participate. Zoomberry includes members in Rhode Island and British Columbia.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to stand next to you and sing, because we certainly miss something with Zoom,” said Judi Byron, a harpist and alto singer from Duxbury, Vt. “In other words, this pandemic is difficult in so many ways, and yet this silver lining is the way we can create a new reality.”

The Hanover-based Choral Arts Foundation is also putting together a video of past choral performances with commentary from directors. Prior to the pandemic, the group had been planning a showcase that would feature choirs throughout the region.

“We’re not going to have that marathon of concerts to look forward to this season, so we wanted to have one event everyone can put on their calendar and celebrate the great music we’ve had in the past,” Evans said. “The choral music audience is something we need to think creatively about how to sustain and build. I think that one possible way is joint performances, collaborating more on pieces together, might help us make all of these events impactful as possible.”

In the meantime, instructors and participants alike are grateful for the opportunity to keep choir music going in the Upper Valley.

“It means continued connection with people. It’s a way of not being lonely,” Norton said. “For me it gives me a sense of purpose. I feel like I’m doing work that matters.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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