‘Honking is the new applause’: Calgary choir’s drive-in concerts a chance to perform ‘like old times’

Tim Shantz has performed in churches and concert halls all over the world, but these days, all he needs is a parking lot.  

“There are moments of … we’re crazy. Then you see the cars coming in here, into the parking lot, and they’ve sold out the event,” said Shantz, an associate professor of music at the University of Alberta, and the artistic director of Luminous Voices, a professional choir based in Calgary. 

“It’s a vital sign that the arts are needed, that music is needed.”

The choir’s last concert in late February drew some 175 cars.

The musicians, each inside their own car, formed a semi-circle with sopranos to the left, altos in the middle and basses to the right.

The audience drives to a parking lot and tunes their radio to listen to the choir, who are performing in their individual cars not far away. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

A transport trailer parked up front advised the audience to tune into 105.9 FM. In smaller letters, it read: Honking is the new applause. 

“When we had the car horns honking after us, it was so heartening. It brought tears to the eyes,” said Shantz.

Choirs go silent amid COVID-19

Parking lots have become one of the only ways in which Shantz and his choir can perform safely to a live audience. When the pandemic hit, group singing was considered a high risk for COVID-19 transmission, with reports of superspreader events linked to choirs, including a Washington State rehearsal that infected dozens of members. Two people died of COVID-19 following the practice. 

Choirs around the world were silenced and Shantz remembers it well. 

“Devastating would be the word and just a gut punch. Singing is something none of us thought would be taken away.”

Tim Shantz is an associate professor of music at the University of Alberta, and the artistic director of Luminous Voices, a professional choir based in Calgary. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Shantz and his choir laid low for a few months, until he heard of a colleague in the U.S. who was experimenting with some simple tools to make music safely. All that was needed was a microphone for each car, an FM transmitter to broadcast out the voices and car radios so that the musicians can hear themselves, without a discernible delay. Think of a drive-in where the soundtrack is both emanating from the car and heard on its radio. 

Caleb Nelson does double duty for these concerts; he sings tenor and does the technical set-up.

“For me, this is an amalgamation of several different passions. I’ve been a choral nerd for as long as I can remember. And I’ve also been into recording engineering, so to use your ear as a choral musician and your skills as a sound technician is really satisfying.”

Tenor Julie Freedman Smith recalls the “magic” of the first time the choir tried this method.

“We all plugged in our microphones and then tuned our radios to the FM dial that our sound was coming through. All of a sudden, all my friends were in the car with me. Because there’s no lag, you’re just there. And we were all interacting and there’s no delay. It felt like old times.”

Adapting to new challenges

Freedman Smith has been singing in and directing choirs for years. She says the pandemic has been particularly hard for choral musicians because they can’t make music alone. 

Julie Freedman Smith says the pandemic has been hard on choirs, because members need each other’s help in order to make music. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

“If you’re creative in a way that you can be creative on your own then perhaps you haven’t been as stymied by this. But if your main source of creativity involves other people and you can’t get together with other people, you kind of feel like a piece of you has been cut out.”

The car concerts also come with challenges.

The singers are used to standing while performing, coordinating their breathing to never leave a gap and having access to a bathroom. All things they can’t do when cars separate them.

But Freedman Smith doesn’t complain about the sound.

“Does it sound as good? Yes. Does it feel as good? No.” 

Still the car concerts have allowed them to do what they love most — sing together.

“We were right into it, into the music. Because that’s what we love to do.” 

Choir members have been gathering in cars, like this, so they can keep performing together from a safe distance. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Pat Cashion, who’s been to all three of Luminous Voices’s performances, says it’s the only live performances he and his wife have attended in a year.

“We come because we love the music. Music opens the heart, it opens the soul. And it’s a wonderful way to hear these enormously talented people.” 

Written and produced by Judy Aldous.

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