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Napa Valley College Uses Ingenuity and Technology to Present Live Chorale Concert

As any music lover knows, choral concerts and other live performances have been a casualty of the COVID-19 era. Not only are audiences unable to gather in large groups to appreciate the art, but, as Napa Valley College (NVC) Director of Vocal Studies Dr. Christina Howell notes, public health experts advised against singing in groups, making it impossible for NVC’s 20-voice Chorale to even meet for rehearsals.

The group, which includes students and community members, tried in fall 2020 to rehearse on Zoom, which did not work well.

“Because of audio latency [slight delays], we were not able rehearse in a way that we could hear each other,” Dr. Howell said. “This was not only very difficult but also misses the point of why people want to be in a chorale in the first place; the connection they feel with other singers.”

That connection is even more important given the challenging times and the social distances required by the COVID pandemic. According to Howell, singing activates the Vagus nerve in the neck, which can be a form of therapy for trauma and singing in a choir may help lower blood pressure and improve heart function.

“We decided to change our approach to Chorale this spring, using different technology,” Howell said. “Matt Cowell, the technical director of the Performing Arts Center [PAC], and I came up with a plan that would allow the singers to hear each other in real time. The ‘car choir’ was born.”

On Tuesday nights, Chorale members and Dr. Howell can be found in the parking lot of Napa Valley College, the singers in their cars and Dr. Howell standing outside, in front of the doors of the PAC Scene Shop. Inside the scene shop is a sound board, an electronic piano and an FM transmitter. Each singer wears a wireless “lavalier” microphone and tunes his or her car radio to a particular FM frequency.

As rehearsal begins, each singer’s contribution travels through the microphone to the soundboard, mixing with the other singers’ voices and the piano. The combined music returns to the cars through the FM radio, in perceptually real time, so it sounds as though the other singers are in the same room.

“All sound waves take some amount of time to travel physical distance,” Howell said, “but in this case, the latency is so low as to not be perceptible to the human ear.”

The result is so successful that Howell approached Will and Julissa Marcencia, owners of Napa’s Wine Down Media, about partnering to present a “car choir” concert to the community.

“They are so invested in the community that I thought it was a great opportunity for collaboration,” she said. The Marcencias agreed, and on Sunday, May 23, the Napa Valley College Chorale performance will air live on KVYN 99.3 FM from 1 to 2 p.m., with the help of the Wine Down Media broadcast truck.

“Artists always depend on creativity, but during the Covid pandemic, we musicians have had to be incredibly nimble, looking for opportunities ‘outside the box’ of what we would normally do,” Howell says proudly. “Even though it has been a challenge, it has also been rewarding and in many ways fun to tackle these problems and win!”

The free performance will include both poetry and musical compositions. To find out more, visit PerformingArtsNapaValley.org.

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