The Fresno Community Chorus stopped singing in March just ahead of shelter-in-place orders and the county’s adoption of COVID-19 restrictions. Seven months later, the group reunited in person to sing, not in a concert hall but in a parking lot.
On Tuesday evening, dozens of cars drove into the Calvary Chapel parking lot in Central Fresno. They parked in neat rows close to the church buildings before a small stage and sound system.
On this night, they’re singing via FM transmitter, like at a drive-in movie theater.
Alan Peters, board president of the Fresno Community Chorus, held a microphone to his masked face as he gave some opening remarks to the group.
“Welcome to this first of what may be a long string of parking lot singalongs,” Peters said. “We have chosen to attempt to see how well we can make our voices ring through open windows in our cars. We ask that you all stay in your car.”
Choir member and retired music teacher Elizabeth Layous stood before the cars with a guitar, singing into a microphone patched into the transmitter system.
The folk song “This Land Is Your Land” rang through the lot, with the singer on the microphone singing a line, and waiting for choir members to repeat it back to her.
At first there was a bit of a lag between the sound system and speakers, where the guitar came through, and the radio where the singing was happening, but it eventually got worked out.
Seated alone in his truck, the windows rolled down, choir member Rodney Lyon sang out, “Oh, when the saints go marching in,” with the radio.
Since the pandemic hit, Lyon says he and his wife have missed singing in the Fresno Community Chorus, their church choir, and attending live music and performances. That’s why he jumped at the chance to sing along in person.
“It's one of these things, they said we'll meet in the parking lot,” said Lyon. “It's an opportunity to get part of my life back. You bet, I'm here.”
Singing alone at home, he said, is just not the same. Especially when part of the fun is hearing everyone’s voices under the director, Anna Hamre.
“Being in the Fresno Master Chorale is probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done in my life,” Lyon said. “Singing with Anna specifically, because she's such an inspiring, and wonderful director. We could sing crappy music and she'll make it sound good.”
The songs they sang Tuesday night weren’t very technical or difficult, like their usual repertoire. The choir sang familiar hymns and folk songs. At one point they even sang in a round the songs, “I’m Gonna Sing, I’m Gonna Shout,” “This Train,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
For just a few seconds, listening to the live music, it felt like the pandemic wasn’t hanging over them, restricting voices and ability to gather.
In between the sing-alongs, the choir’s five-person, all-male group called Quintus performed a cappella.
“I love a cappella music,” Lyon said. “ The different groups, all of it. A cappella music is awesome.”
The five men in the group stood at the front with microphones, spaced out, and sang while wearing masks. It’s also how they’ve been practicing.
In his fifty years with the choir, “This is the first time that we've ever had anything like this happen,” said Peters, the choir board’s president.
He said it was difficult to stop practices, but it felt necessary when it became clear singing in choirs was spreading the virus.
“We had a rehearsal on March the 10th, and we said we're gonna stop until we know that it's safe to sing,” said Peters. “Shortly after we heard a choir in Washington state that rehearsed that night had more than half the choir come down with the virus and two of them die.”
Fresno’s 180-member choir has been testing other ways of gathering remotely, like Zoom meetings, but the lag time and poor connection make the experience subpar.
As the night ended, Anna Hamre, the choir’s director, said the parking lot sing-along seemed to be a success.
“It was great fun, just seeing everybody and having voices tra-la-la together just kind of makes our heart feel good,” she said.
Peters said out of the 42 cars that signed up to come, all 42 showed. Hamre added, this won’t be the last parking lot singalong.
“We wanted to limit the first time cause we didn't know how it was gonna work, but we got a better idea now!” she said. “We're gonna keep singing, you can't stop us!”