Singer Nova Jimenez serenades seniors from the sidewalk outside Channing House, a retirement community in Palo Alto, on Feb. 7, 2021. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Nova Jimenez sets up her mic, music stand and portable amp on the sidewalk across the parking lot from Channing House, where around 250 seniors call the austere, 11-storey concrete building in Palo Alto home.
“Hello, Channing House! Oh, dear friends, I'm so happy to see you!” says the singer into her mic. “I come to sing for you a few Valentine's Day songs and some inspirational songs. Let's get started!"
Jiminez is no stranger to this type of concert — she's spent nearly every weekend since last May performing her "sidewalk serenades" for frontline workers and isolated individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The professional soprano's varied repertoire includes the Italian opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Mattinata," the vintage American musical number "The Way You Look Tonight" by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and "Show Yourself" from Frozen 2 by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez.
This is the third time Jimenez has sung outside Channing House since the pandemic started. She had previously performed inside the senior residential facility, as part of its live events series. (The series, like all of the facility's live events, was canceled last spring as lockdown orders went into effect.)
Dozens of residents appear on their balconies and in the parking lot to listen, as they did when the singer last serenaded them, around the holidays.
"We enjoyed it very much at Christmas!" says resident George Young.
"It was just so touching to hear her sing and also to see the residents out on their balconies enjoying her performance," says Channing House CEO Rhonda Bekkedahl. "Any time we get a little bright spot in our day during these times, it's just a really wonderful thing."
This time, wearing a dress emblazoned with red peonies and white daisies, Jimenez exudes the spirit of springtime and romance as she launches into crowd-pleasing classics like "La Vie En Rose."
But life has been far from rosy for the residents of Channing House this past year. They’ve endured two COVID-19 outbreaks. Five people have died. It’s been a time of loss and confinement.
"The residents are really limited in what they can do," says Bekkedahl. "We're not allowed to permit any visitors to come into the building. So that's been a real challenge. It's just been the hardest time."
Jimenez's sidewalk serenades provide the residents with a much-needed break.
"It's a little bit of a breath of fresh air from the outside world," says resident Tom Fiene. "We've been pretty well isolated here for many months."
"She's got a lot of pizzazz and she's just fun," says his wife, Nancy Fiene. "We were up on our balcony when she was here before and we were dancing up there, but we decided to come down here this time."
Jimenez says she’s always turned to singing in difficult times. It’s the first thing she did, alone at home, when the pandemic hit.
"And then here I am singing by myself, and I thought, well, maybe, maybe someone wants to hear me? I don’t know," she says.
The singer placed an ad on the online community site NextDoor offering her services for free to frontline workers, or anyone homebound or isolated due to the pandemic, and in need of a little uplift.
The response has been enthusiastic. Jimenez says she’s performed more than 50 outdoor serenades during the pandemic, for audiences as varied as E.R. doctors and nurses, mail workers and nursery school kids and teachers.
The latest concert at Channing House even involves a singalong.
"I want you to feel like you're going to just let it out and sing to the heavens!" instructs Jimenez before explaining how to sing the chorus from "A Brand New Day", a number from the 1974 musical The Wiz.
This optimistic song might resonate with the residents of Channing House, because they just recently received the COVID-19 vaccine.
"I can't wait till I can come in person and sing for you all in your beautiful auditorium again," Jimenez tells her audience.
Maybe it won't be too long before the singer will be able to say farewell to the sidewalk and bring her serenade indoors.
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