With “car choir,” Chemeketa singers use wireless mics, transmitters to sing safely in person

Christian Campbell, 19, sings during car choir at Chemeketa Community College on Jan. 14, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Mackenzie Rolf doesn’t usually bring jumper cables to choir class.

But when you’ve been holding choir practice from cars parked in the Chemeketa Community College parking lot, it comes in handy, especially when a member’s car died during a recent rehearsal.

It’s an occupational hazard of car choir, music director Kerry Burtis’ answer to the challenge of running a performance music class during a pandemic.

Rather than sing parts individually over Zoom, Chemeketa singers park in the college parking lot for their twice-weekly class. Burtis issues each a microphone that broadcasts wirelessly to a mixer, which collects the voices together, then broadcasts the song back out on shortwave radio.

Rolf, 19, sat in her car with the windows rolled up during her recent class, singing the soprano line for “Shul Aroon,” a traditional Irish song. As she sang, her car radio was tuned to the class frequency, so she could hear the half-dozen other voices blending with hers in real time.

“It’s different, but it’s good to be able to sing with people again,” Rolf said.

Music director Kerry Burtis conducts car choir at Chemeketa Community College on Jan. 14, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Burtis began car choir for winter quarter after struggling to retain singers for all-online choir classes in 2020.

He said it was clear last spring that in-person choirs wouldn’t be safe for some time after the Covid pandemic began. A choir rehearsal in Mount Vernon, Washington, was an early superspreader event in the U.S., with 52 people sickened following an early March rehearsal. More research has since confirmed that singing spreads the virus particularly well.

Over the summer, Burtis said he saw other choirs get creative with in-car setups and soundboards.

“I got excited and I did research and looked at what we could afford,” he said.

Online choir was a challenge for students, he said. He had students record individual parts and mixed them together, but found many students dropped out because they didn’t like the format. The roughly 30 singers the choir had pre-pandemic was down to fewer than 10 by fall, he said.

“They were so self-critical and they just didn’t want to look at themselves on a screen,” Burtis said.

The college eventually approved his request for about $2,500 worth of sound equipment to make car choir a reality for the winter quarter, which began Jan. 4.

(Video by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Burtis directs from a music stand in the parking lot, standing in front of a table holding the mixing board and transmitters. His wife, Gloria, accompanied the group on an electric piano while singing.

Some students have parents drive them to class and sing from the passenger seat. Others come with their own children.

Christian Campbell, 19, sung off printed sheet music as his father sat in the driver’s seat. It was his first quarter in the Chemekta choir, and he said he was pleasantly surprised by how well the setup worked.

“This is really well done,” Campbell said.

Music director Kerry Burtis conducts car choir at Chemeketa Community College on Jan. 14, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Their corner of the parking lot, near the Winema building, has an awning the Burtises can retreat under if it’s raining. Between classes, they sterilize microphones in a box with ultraviolet light and move the equipment inside, leaving it plugged in to minimize setup time before class.

The spectacle is odd: Burtis often appears to be talking to himself as he gives musical direction to a semi-circle of cars quietly idling around him. But the music comes through over the class speaker as Burtis conducts. The music is disembodied but powerful.,

On Jan. 14, the singers worked through “On the Common Ground,” a new composition by American composer Alice Parker in response to the deep divisions 2020 has illuminated. Then, they moved to the haunting melody of “Shul Aroon.”

“That went really well! I’m really pleased,” Burtis told the class.

For now, there are no plans for an ensemble performance, though Burtis remains hopeful that could become possible later this year.

He said he’s hoping the car format will attract more singers who have missed the opportunity to practice in-person.

“The only way we’re going to build the program back up is if we allow people to get together,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.