If you were lucky enough to wander into the seven-story HealthPartners parking ramp, just outside their Bloomington headquarters on a Wednesday night this winter, you would have been in for a treat. Nobody trudging through a massive garage has any right to expect to hear dozens of women singing four-part harmony.
But that’s exactly what happened over the last few months of 2021, as the 200-member Twin Cities Women’s Choir (TCWC) found itself practicing in one of the metro’s bleakest spaces: the third floor of a 1,666-space parking ramp in a desolate suburban office park.
This is where the “record scratch” moment occurs, when the choir turns to the camera and asks, “Well, I guess you’re wondering how I got here…”
The answer is that the two-year-long COVID-19 pandemic completely upended choirs, making business-as-usual all but impossible. That was especially true for groups like the 25-year-old TCWC, which depend on fundraising from their dedicated members.
“Completely and totally,” replied TCWC Artistic Director Janice Hunton, when I asked her how COVID had affected their work.
It’s hard to think of an activity more unsuited to a viral pandemic than choral singing, predicated on people in close proximity sharing as much air as possible. Even during the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it did not take long for choirs to become a red flag. An outbreak in Seattle, where 52 people got COVID-19 during a choir rehearsal, became a warning for choirs all across the world. That’s when the TCWC leadership cancelled nearly all their plans.
“As the Artistic Director, my priorities changed completely,” said Hunton. “90 percent of my priorities were about keeping this community together, not about making music.”
As with the most of society in 2020, the women took a break and muddled through. For a while, rehearsals became group Zoom calls and breakout sessions. As Hunton describes it, online singing is better than nothing, but has a lot of flaws: “They could hear me plunking out bad piano parts; they could hear themselves, but we weren’t a choir.”
The months went by, and it wasn’t until summer 2021 that some members felt comfortable enough to meet in person. They practiced in person at a bandshell in a Richfield park, singing through their N-95 masks. The choir even performed a small “informal concert” in August.
“Looking ahead at the fall, it felt so good to sing together,” said Hunton. “We asked, how could we keep this going? We all knew zoom was adequate, but fatiguing. It was hard to keep anything going long term.”
That’s when they began to think outside the box, and by “box” I mean buildings designed for human habitation.
It turned out that Hunton had attended a dance performance in a parking ramp back in 2018: the Aniccha Arts “Parking Ramp Project.” The thought occurred to her that, with open walls and a solid roof overhead, it might be a workable space. Executive Director Elisa Olson reached out to Health Partners, the choir got permission to give it a shot.
And that’s how the TCWC ended up spending nights on the third floor of the HealthPartners ramp, singing together in the least elegant setting I can imagine.
Parking ramp rehearsals: pros and cons
With most people working from home, parking ramps like the one at HealthPartners became particularly useless pieces of architecture. That meant there was one thing the choir didn’t have to worry about: ample parking for all the singers. The choir normally practices at Calvary Lutheran Church on South Minneapolis’ Chicago Avenue, so having a thousand empty stalls was a nice bonus for drivers.
“We made good use of the space, and parking was no problem,” said Hunton. “Cold was no problem really until the very end. We were happily graced with seasonable warm weather, up until the last two weeks.”
The choir gathered around the well-lit third floor elevator shaft, using the electric hookup to set up a keyboard, sound system and live-streaming technology.
Still, being surrounded by grey concrete, filthy road salt, and high-pressure sodium lighting hardly makes for a romantic location. Though, from hearing the choir members talk about it, the ramp offered a breath of fresh air, a lifeline for a group needing community during a stressful pandemic.
Personally, as a parking-obsessed urbanist, I was interested in the ramp acoustics. How do fifty voices bouncing off of the hard, low concrete slabs sound, compared to a church nave or a concert stage?
“It’s a very live space,” said Hunton. “It’s all concrete [but] it was nice. We could hear each other. Singing in the parking garage, the quality was actually pretty good for the live stream. People participated from home, [and] it worked really remarkably well.”
The biggest problem turned out not to be the garage at all. Rather, the specifics of the location of the HealthPartners office meant that it was right next to the Blue Line light rail and within a mile of the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, both of which proved to be problems for hour-long rehearsals. The clanging of the light rail fake bell and the muffled roar of jet engines did not add to the mix of sopranos and altos.
“It goes right by the building, so every 7 minutes there was a loud train,” said Hunton. “Depending on how the wind was blowing, the planes were taking off right over us [and] the noise got to be humorous. It was so bad. Here we were, 50 to 60 singers trying to hear each other. That didn’t work very well, but everything else, acoustically, was pretty good.”
(If the pandemic continues, some ambitious acoustic engineers should try and figure out which metro area parking ramps are best for winter choral performance.)
The return of choral limbo
The ramp rehearsals were to culminate in an outdoor concert at the Como Park pavilion in St. Paul, where the women would sing to a well-bundled audience. But as omicron began to peak in the Twin Cities, that, too, was cancelled.
“It’s just sad,” said Hunton. “We suspended it, and we’re now back to Zoom. We just couldn’t stomach the thought of anyone get sick in our community.”
The TCWC has postponed their concert indefinitely. Hopefully in a month or two, they can try performing for the public again. With an early spring in St. Paul, the pavilion might even be a pleasant place to hear songs bouncing off the lake ice.
In the meantime, Hunton and the choir members are learning new material.
“In order to keep the community going, I’m going to start Zoom rehearsal with new repertoire,” she said. “If you’re plucking out notes and doing sectionals and learning new things, Zoom is actually OK. I’ll just hope for health in the next year, so we can get back to some degree of normalcy.”
Finally, I had to ask Hunton whether or not she’d ever consider a multi-story parking garage as a future performance or practice venue, whether ramps might be a recurring feature of the TCWC calendar.
“Not in my lifetime,” Hunton declared.