‘Apart but together,’ Juneau’s Choir from Cars gives singers a chance to perform again

Every Saturday afternoon, traffic backs up outside of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Juneau. Cars wedge into improbably small parking spots, up on sidewalks or wherever they can find a spot close enough to be in range of the church. 

Everyone who signs up gets a quick crash course in the tech. They get a microphone and headphones and told to tune their car stereos to 107.1. Volunteers pass out sheet music.

It’s called Choir from Cars and the guy who’s responsible for piecing it together is Bruce Simonson. He’s the classic archetype of choir director with wild Beethoven-like hair, which he is constantly tucking behind his ears. He sings all the parts. 

Bruce Simonson talks to singers during his Choir from Cars on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Simonson is a longtime choir director in Juneau. He said this Choir from Cars thing wasn’t his idea. He saw some people doing it in the Lower 48 and thought it could be replicated in Juneau. 

“By singing from your car, you’re safe. You’re in your own bubble, you’re not sharing any air with other singers,” he said. 

He started gathering equipment in October and launched the choir in January. And, there’s a lot of stuff going into organizing this whole thing. Inside the church, audio producer/volunteer Tim Fullam stands in a tangle of cables at a mixing board. It’s his job to mix the levels and record the performance. 

For the singers in their cars, the experience is pretty simple.

Simonson stands on the sidewalk with a music stand in front of him and leads the group. 

“I’m out here and I’m actually singing at the top of my lungs,” he said. 

For people walking by, it’s a pretty odd sight. You can’t really hear people singing from their cars, so he’s just kind of alone out there just singing to the streets. 

But even isolated and alone in their cars, Simonson said something magical happens. 

“The first time you do it and you haven’t been singing for like a year in a group, it’s really emotional. What’s interesting is the first 20 minutes and you get kind of verklempt — if you want to use that word,” he said. “But then people kind of forget about how weird it is, what we’re really doing here. … In 20 minutes it starts to feel about like a regular choir rehearsal, just people are spread out a little more and not rubbing elbows with each other. People are cracking jokes and it’s just like … it’s a good thing.” 

Singers read music and sing along with each other from the safety of their cars on Saturday, March 6, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. The new Choir from Cars group meets every Saturday afternoon to practice and sing together outside of the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The songs are a mix of choral and folk music. And, right now they’re working through an arrangement of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

It’s not easy, but Bobbi Mitchell and her friend Susan Loomis are into it. 

“It’s so much fun! And it’s really bizarre,” Mitchell said. 

The two parked right in front of the church. A labradoodle, Duke, bounced around in the back seat. 

They’ve both been coming for a few weeks. When they heard about the choir through friends and social media they immediately joined. 

“It’s the choir, I so miss it,” Mitchell said. 

“We desperately love singing. We miss being able to sing in the choir,” Loomis said. “There’s nothing like the sound of voices singing together.”

Tom Fullam monitors the audio coming in from dozens of cars and at least 30 microphones during a Choir from Cars meeting on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)
Tim Fullam monitors the audio coming in from dozens of cars and at least 30 microphones during a Choir from Cars meeting on Saturday, March 6, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

There’s another woman who lives nearby who gets her gear and joins in from her living room. Another stands on the sidewalk across the street and sings from there. 

And, for an hour and a half, if you tune in — it sounds like any other choir rehearsal with just a few more technical problems. 

And at the end instead of clapping — everyone honks their horns.

For now, Simonson said they’re meeting every Saturday at 1 p.m. until they can all start meeting in person again. 

Correction: A photo caption misspelled Tim Fullam’s name. 

Rashah McChesney

Daily News Editor, KTOO

I help the newsroom establish daily news priorities and do hands-on editing to ensure a steady stream of breaking and enterprise news for a local and regional audience.

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