By Abigail Lee ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
A new documentary about car choirs looks at how singers and musicians found a way to keep the music alive during the pandemic.
The Drive to Sing is about Marlborough-based musicians Bryce and Kathryn Denney and their project to reinstate live choir in 2020. Singer and voice instructor David Newman, along with the Denneys, refined an audio system that connected car radios so that singers could gather in a parking lot to rehearse but still remain safely distanced in their own cars. Directed by Bryce Denney and produced by Kathryn Denney, the 76-minute documentary has been traveling the local film festival circuit and is available to view this week online or in Arlington.
“We didn’t expect to do a film from the start,” Bryce Denney said. “[During] the whole pandemic, you can’t plan anything.”
At the onset of the pandemic, the close proximity of choir rehearsals made them the site of large outbreaks. Singers adapted to Zoom, but many found the audio delays made it difficult to replicate the synchrony of in-person rehearsals. Car choirs offered a way for singers to hear each other and adjust their performances in response to one another. That kind of instantaneous connection is something akin to magic, the filmmakers found.
“It showed us what a physical feeling it is to make music with other people,” Kathryn Denney said.
The feeling is made possible by wireless microphones, an audio mixer connected to an FM transmitter, and car radios. The system was originally conceived by Newman, and through conversations with the Denneys, a basic guide made it accessible for choirs across the country. Soon, word spread, and the Denneys were traveling to organize car choirs in other communities.
The documentary captures the reaction of singers upon hearing their voices together again. For many singers, the car choirs were some of their first in-person activities during the pandemic. A poignant moment is the performance of the Brahms Requiem by Chorus pro Musica of Boston for a spotlight on the Today Show, in which some singers had an emotional response to the sound.
The emotional nature of the music carried through to the editing process, as Bryce Denney mixed the audio files for the film.
“I got to hear it right in my ears and [have] the realization that the parking lot would have been completely empty,” Denney said. “This beautiful thing would never have happened, but we got to work with this amazing group.”
Throughout the film, there are interludes in which information about the state of the pandemic is given to convey the isolation and uncertainty the singers and musicians lived through. This contextualization, along with narration by the actor Russell J. Gannon and interviews with choir directors and singers, pulls the events into a concise narrative. The decision to narrativize such a recent period was fueled by the way car choirs had become a phenomenon, but not everyone recognized the extent to which it had spread.
“There were all these little five minute news stories…’oh, look, this happened in Massachusetts. This happened in Florida,’” Kathryn Denney said. “Meanwhile, we could see the sweep across the country that most people couldn’t see.”
For the first-time filmmakers, creating the documentary was as much of a trial-and-error process as refining the audio system for the car choirs was. Bryce Denney is a microchip verification engineer and amateur pianist, and Kathryn Denney is a music teacher and choir director. The Denneys’ discovery of car choirs and filmmaking speaks to how crucial innovation was during the pandemic to keep people together.
“Community and unity, music not argument, is key to what it means to be human,” Garrett Yates, a pastor in Lincoln, Massachusetts, says in the film.
This note of uplift characterizes the documentary’s dedication to showing people’s resilience during the pandemic. Car choirs are much less frequent now, as most groups are rehearsing in-person again. But the documentary records a distinct period of the pandemic when performers responded to unprecedented challenges.
“What a wholesome thing, all these people singing together,” Bryce Denney said.