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'Carbershop' chorus keeps harmony alive in Burnaby through COVID-19

With a little ingenuity and a lot of technology (microphones, mixing board and an FM transmitter), the Vancouver Thunderbirds barbershop chorus has found a way to keep rehearsals going through the pandemic

When you sing in a barbershop chorus, harmony is everything.

And that means there’s just no substitute for singing live, together, in person.

So when the Vancouver Thunderbirds, along with choirs around the country, found themselves unable to gather in the face of COVID-19, they looked for alternatives.

They started with rehearsals on the ubiquitous Zoom meeting platform. But, as anyone who’s tried to sing so much as “happy birthday” in a virtual group knows, such platforms have an inherent time lag. Rehearsals mean each singer staying muted and singing along to learning tracks, visible but unable to hear each other.

“You can only do so much in Zoom,” noted Jeff Gogol, the chorus’s music vice-president.

Searching for more ideas for safe singing together in a time of coronavirus, the group came across an idea from the North American Barbershop Harmony Society: parking lot rehearsals.

With the so-called “carbershop” rehearsals, singers remain safely in their vehicles, gathered in a semi-circle in a parking lot. Each singer gets a microphone that feeds to a central mixing board and then transmits over FM radio to the gathered cars.

The director is the only one who remains outside, leading the singers from front and centre while chorus members sing from the safety of their cars.

There’s no time lag, and everyone can hear the entire group, allowing them to adjust to each other’s voices just as they would during an in-person rehearsal.

“It’s a good way to actually harmonize but still follow medical health officer’s orders,” Gogol said. “It’s amazing. To actually listen and actually get to harmonize with it, it’s so much better than just the learning tracks.”

TECHNOLOGY IN A PARKING LOT 

The group has been holding its weekend car rehearsals, when weather and scheduling permit, at Burnaby’s Riverway Sports Complex, which has an appropriately large parking lot.

With the poor weather that we've seen on many weekends, the group has only managed a half-dozen or so rehearsals since it kicked off the carbershop concept in November.  But, each time, they’ve been able to get about 20 singers out, with voices from across the choir – basses, baritones, leads and even a tenor or two.

The technical equipment has also come in handy for other, smaller rehearsals; one of the group’s quartets has been using it for their own Tuesday afternoon sessions.

Now that the weather’s getting nicer, the chorus is hoping to be able to practise more regularly on Sunday afternoons, and it’s also eyeing the parking lot at the Kensington arena for some Wednesday night sessions to supplement its current Zoom evenings.

Those Wednesday Zoom sessions now are devoted to not just learning new songs but also presentations and workshops on vocal technique and music theory – covering topics such as breath control, how to look after your voice, time and key signatures, and the circle of fifths.

That offers extra learning opportunities for chorus members, Gogol noted, even above and beyond what they would normally be able to cover during in-person rehearsals.

The Thunderbirds are hoping to get back to regular in-person singing as soon as they can, but Gogol noted that won’t happen at least until everyone has been vaccinated and life has returned to a more normal state.

In the meantime, parking lot carbershop gives them a chance to connect and keep on making the music they all love.

 “Just keeping the chorus together has been great,” Gogol said.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.