The year singing got dangerous

“The days can really blend into each other here,” said Yaron Milgrom, the father of three young singers in Wilmurt’s choir. “Music and singing songs is just part of maintaining a sense of normalcy.”

Wilmurt has been teaching this children’s choir for over 20 years. She said what held her back was the sense of connection children get when they meet in person to sing.

“It’s palpable, the energy that choirs bring to singing, there’s nothing like it,” Wilmurt said. “And we can’t do it with technology yet.”

June 2020

As the ruthless spring dragged on, it became more and more clear that singing around other people was one of the most dangerous things a person could do.

Even as California began to emerge shelter-in-place orders, infections were on the rise. The state’s Department of Public Health began issuing warnings against singing in public, and it continued to do so throughout the year.

But when Californians took to the streets to protest after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, they sang anyway.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, people marched to “Feelin ‘Myself” by the late Oakland-born rapper Mac Dre.

In LA they sang “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. The song has been adopted at Black Lives Matter gatherings across the country in recent years because it expresses hope in difficult times.

Also in June, following Floyd’s death, the Vallejo-born R&B artist HER released the song “I Can’t Breathe”. The singer’s heart-wrenching performance won this year’s Grammys song of the year award.

Around the same time that many Californians took to the streets, many more stayed indoors.

Nova Jimenez was among them. The singer and vocal music teacher said she felt so sad at the start of the pandemic that she locked herself in her room and sang. “It was like the end of the world,” she said.

One day Jimenez had an idea.

“Here, I’m singing to myself, and I thought, well, maybe, maybe someone wants to hear me, I don’t know,” she says.

As a professional singer, Jimenez realized at this point that perhaps she could use her talent to help others overcome their feelings of exhaustion, loneliness and hopelessness. So she placed an ad online offering her services free of charge to frontline workers, or anyone confined to home or isolated due to the pandemic and in need of a little help.

The singer performed nearly 100 “Sidewalk Serenades” during the pandemic for frontline workers and those isolated in the Bay Area.

One Sunday, KQED met Jimenez as she was serenading elders outside a retirement home called Channing House in Palo Alto.

Nova Jimenez serenades the sidewalk outside Channing House in Palo Alto. (Chloé Veltman / KQED)

“Hello Channing House!” She said after setting up her mic, music stand and portable amp on the sidewalk in front of the dingy concrete building. “Oh, dear friends, I am so happy to see you!”

Dozens of residents appeared on their balconies and in the parking lot to listen. “It’s so exciting that Nova is coming to sing for us,” said resident Nancy Fiene.

Dressed in a gown adorned with red peonies and white daisies, Jiménez exuded the spirit of warmth and romance as she sang old favorites like “Solamente Una Vez” and “La Vie en Rose”.

Life has been far from rosy for the people of Channing House this year. They were rocked by two outbreaks of COVID-19 and five people have died. It has been a time of loss and confinement. Fiene said Jimenez’s performances at Channing House broke all of that.

“She’s got a lot of spice,” Fiene said. “It’s a bit of a breath of fresh air from the outside world,” said Fiene’s husband, Tom. “We’ve been pretty well isolated here for months.”

Nancy Fiene, Tom Fiene and George Young, residents of Channing House. (Chloé Veltman / KQED)

To add to the feeling of community, Jimenez concerts often end with singing.

“I want you to feel like you are just going to let it out and sing to Heaven!” she said.

The singer has embarked on her interpretation of “Brand New Day” from the musical “The Wiz”.

Almost everyone joined the choirs. They waved their arms and clapped. Some even danced in the parking lot.

Afterwards, the parking lot at Channing House erupted into applause, cheers and shouts of “Again! Bis!”

“Thank you Channing House. I love you! I love you! I love you! “Jimenez said. Then the artist packed his equipment and the residents went back inside, perhaps a little more optimistic about the future.

July 2020

In July, state officials imposed restrictions on places of worship after they were the site of several high profile events. Indoor services were to be limited to a maximum of 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower, and there was a total ban on singing.

The new rules angered Robert L. Jackson, senior pastor of Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland.

Acts the senior pastor of the Full Gospel Church, Robert L. Jackson. (Courtesy of the Full Gospel Church)

“It’s like trying to play basketball without a basketball. It’s like playing football without a soccer ball,” Jackson said. “You just can’t have a service, worship service to God, without singing.”

Like many other religious leaders, Jackson has moved his services online and outside. He said singing was a regular part of his Sunday drive-in services in the church parking lot.

“People were singing in their cars,” Jackson said. “Most of them had their windows down.”

August 2020

Live vocal performances continued to be a rarity for the remainder of the past year.

But Californians began to find creative ways, often involving technology, to keep singing as the pandemic restrictions dragged on.

Starting last August, Fox managed to record two seasons of “The Masked Singer” in Los Angeles using a cleverly edited virtual audience. The hit reality show has proven to be the ultimate entertainment in these times of pandemic with its celebrity contestants wearing masks, like an appearance by Olympic snowboarder and Long Beach native Chloe Kim, dressed up as a pretty green jellyfish.

September 2020

In September, the Silicon Valley-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus went from struggling to sing together in long distance rehearsals to being able to sing perfectly in sync online.

The transformation happened because of a parent of a choir member. Watching his child struggle with rehearsals online on Zoom inspired entrepreneur Mike Dickey to develop a new technology called JackTrip. The free and open source software, created in partnership with Stanford University, allows singers to synchronize their voices online from their homes in real time.

Solutions to the latency problem for musicians have been around for years, but they are complicated and expensive to implement. “The idea with JackTrip is to help make online music performance and education as easy and accessible as possible,” Dickey said.

December 2020

As the daily number of COVID-19 cases statewide hit an all-time high at the end of the year, a San Francisco theater company decided it would do whatever it takes to present a show.