Alone together: Singing in the Parking Lot Choir

Choir member Gary Robinson helps pass out microphones to the Parking Lot Choir

December 20, 2020

James Corden knows how fun it is to sing in the car with his friends. 
But you don’t need to know Adele or have your own TV show to enjoy it. 
For the choir members at Wesley UMC in Worcester, MA, singing in their cars means singing together — in real time — without the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Choir members sit in their own cars, parked where they can see the choir director (SUVs in the back row, please). Each singer is given a sanitized wireless microphone and a frequency for their car radio. They are able to hear the other singers and the accompaniment by Wesley’s organist through the radio and sing along. 
It’s not Carpool Karaoke, it’s the Parking Lot Choir. And it’s happening around the country.
Nan Gibbons is a musician and director of Children, Youth & Family Ministries at Wesley, and she coordinates the Parking Lot Choir. 
Being able to hear each other sing, with no lag as happens online, is what makes the parking lot singing special Gibbons says.
“It means that all these people are singing together again,” she said. “It’s fun, and it nourishes people’s hearts.”
Folks feel better, Gibbons says, because they are benefiting from “all the nice brain chemistry that singing together [creates].”
Choir members agree. 
“It was wonderful to get together again and see faces we haven’t seen in a while and be able to put our voices together. It's something that is a very important part of my spiritual life and journey,” choir member Gary Robinson said. “And it's something we've missed very, very much. … It's the next best thing to sitting next to people.”
“It's a way to give more people an opportunity to sing,” said soprano Debbie O’Driscoll. 
The labor-intensive process of editing together voices that were recorded separately makes it impractical to include too many people, she said. “Whereas, you know, with the Parking Lot Choir, it's like we're all there, and we can all just sing.”
The equipment, which Gibbons purchased herself so she could use it with other choral groups she works with, has 24 mics. After the COVID restrictions are lifted, they can be used for singing in the sanctuary.
There were about a dozen cars parked in the lower lot on this Saturday afternoon, and keeping all these folks
Nan Gibbons in her white conducting gloves. Her son Warren helps with the tech and mixing.
singing together is a bit more challenging than leading them indoors, Gibbons said. She wears white gloves and dispenses with the more “flowy” direction and complicated arrangements. 
“Right now, it’s ‘let’s all sing together,’” she said.
Folks are prohibited from leaving their cars, which can be tough for some O’Driscoll, said. They were all missing each other, but the rules are firm. 
“The first time, some people, afterwards, were wanting to jump out of the cars and go talk to people, and it's like, ‘No, no, no,’” she said.
Car singing also means no bathroom breaks, so the sessions last no more than an hour and a half. 
The parking lot choir has gathered three times as of this writing. Gibbons records the hymns and carols, which are then used in Wesley’s online worship. She has made the recordings available for churches across the Conference on her website; click the link "Congregational Song."
Before the Parking Lot Choir, there was the Quarantine Quartet. Four singers whose parts were recorded separately and edited together by Gibbons. It worked, but this makes the online worship better, said O’Driscoll, who, along with Robinson, was part of the quartet.
“The first time that I heard the Parking Lot Choir in worship versus the [Quarantine Quartet], it really felt more like congregational song. It felt much more like it feels in worship singing with the congregation and singing with other people,” O’Driscoll, said.
“When you hear familiar voices in harmony on Sunday and it sounds like everybody’s singing together, it makes you feel better; like you’re not alone, but engaged with people in worship,” Gibbons said.