Karaoke fan Alyse Whitney (seen here holding dog and mic) belts out a song in her Los Angeles apartment with her neighbors during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Alyse Whitney)
There’s nothing Alyse Whitney likes to do more than hit a karaoke bar with her friends, have a few drinks and sing her heart out.
"Feeling the presence of being kind of a rock star for the night is really fun and makes me realize that, hey, I'm good at something. This is my thing," the Los Angeles resident told KQED in a recent video interview.
The last time Whitney went out karaokeing was right before the pandemic shut down all the bars. She and her friend were the only customers in the place.
"We sang almost all of Celine's [Dion] catalog. We changed the words to Enrique Iglesias' 'Escape' to say, 'You can run, you can hide, but you can't escape COVID!' " recalled Whitney. "And we didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal and how impactful that night would have been as a last hurrah."
Whitney and her friend staggered out of there at four in the morning. They closed the place down — literally, as it turned out.
"This was March 6, 2020," Whitney said. "And my karaoke drought started March 7."
The drought Whitney is talking about didn’t just affect people who like sing in karaoke bars. COVID-19 impacted vocalists across the state — both amateur and professional — in community centers, schools, churches, recording studios, theaters, clubs and concert halls.
"Last year was going to be a pretty big year in terms of my singing engagements," said vocalist, singing teacher and actress Candace Johnson. "So I was really looking forward to the [concert] calendar. And then — BOOM — it was all gone."
The blow to singers across the state wasn’t just financial as their gigs dried up. They also mourned the loss of connection and community. And on top of that, they were forced to confront a devastating truth: This beloved, healthy, everyday activity had become a killer.
"We know that COVID-19 is caused by a transmission of the virus primarily through aerosol particles, and about three times as many aerosols are emitted during singing compared to talking," said UC Davis civil and environmental engineering professor Chris Cappa, who's been studying how COVID-19 is spread. "This means that singing is inherently a riskier activity."
Most singing in public stopped. But it didn’t go away entirely.
Throughout this pandemic, KQED has been chronicling the journeys of individuals and singing groups across California. Read on to find out how singing transformed over the past year, and went from almost disappearing entirely, to helping many across the state maintain solidarity, social purpose and a sense of humor through these dark, dark times.
On the morning of March 11, 2020, Americans awoke to the latest in a deluge of coffee-spilling headlines: Despite practicing social distancing, 53 members of a community choir in Washington state tested positive for COVID-19 and started showing symptoms of the coronavirus after attending a rehearsal the previous evening. Two members died.
At the time this superspreader event occurred, COVID-19 tests were hard to come by, and health officials didn’t truly know how the virus was spread. In the early days, public messaging focused on things like telling people to avoid shaking hands with others, disinfecting surfaces and keeping their fingers off their faces.
Regardless, the wildfire-like spread of the coronavirus over a couple of hours of choral singing inside a Washington church was enough to send shockwaves throughout the singing community in California.
"That was a real warning shot for us," said Jean Davidson, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, one of the most high-profile classical vocal ensembles in the state. "And we erred on the side of caution and canceled all of our rehearsals and performances."
The chorale's last live, in-person concert took place on Jan. 26, 2020. Its last rehearsal was March 4, 2020.
In those first desolate and bewildering months of lockdown, singing retreated almost entirely indoors and became mostly a solitary act.
But despite the extraordinary circumstances and significant health risks, singers weren’t completely willing to give up on the idea of rehearsing together or even singing in public.
Last May, in San Francisco, bass-baritone J. T. Williams started appearing on their balcony most late afternoons to sing opera arias. They soon started streaming the concerts on Facebook.
J. T. said they’d been struggling with suicidal thoughts near the start of the pandemic. They found healing in the smiles, waves and applause of the people who listened from neighboring homes or stopped by while out walking their dogs.
"The audience has helped me get through very dark and difficult days," Williams said.
Meanwhile, singers were starting to figure out how to make music together online.
Many turned to platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts. But they were not built for making music. The delays caused by varying data transfer speeds made it almost impossible for people in different locations to sing together in sync.
In a practice held via Zoom KQED sat in on in May 2020, the group's artistic director, Eric Tuan, tried to get the young singers to build a chord from the bottom up. “Actually mute yourselves," he was forced to admit. "It’s not going to work."
But for others, virtual collaboration wasn’t even an option.
"Hi everybody. It’s just me and my ukulele," Wilmurt said at the top of one of her very first videos. "I thought you could sing with me.”
Many of the 8-12 year-olds in Wilmurt's group come from low-income households. They don’t all have access to internet connections fast enough for online meetups. In the absence of in-person get-togethers for singing, Wilmurt's videos provided the students with a way to learn songs in their own time from home.
"Days can really blend one into the other here," said Yaron Milgrom, the father of three young singers in Wilmurt's chorus. "Music and singing songs, it's just part of keeping a sense of normalcy."
Wilmurt has been teaching this children’s choir for over 20 years. She said what keeps her sticking with it is the sense of connection the kids feel when they get to meet up in person to sing.
"It's palpable, the energy that choirs bring singing together, there's just nothing like it," Wilmurt said. "And, we can't do it with the technology yet."
As the pitiless Spring dragged on, it became increasingly clear that breaking into song around others was one of the most unsafe things a person could do.
Even though California was beginning to emerge from the shelter-in-place orders, infections were on the rise. The state’s Department of Public Health started issuing warnings against singing in public, and it continued to do this throughout the year.
But when Californians took to the streets in protest after George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, they sang anyway.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, people marched to the late Oakland-born rapper Mac Dre’s “Feelin' Myself.”
In L.A., they sang “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. The song has been embraced at Black Lives Matter rallies around the country in recent years because it speaks to hope in difficult times.
Around the same time as many Californians took to the streets, many others 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 just locked herself in her room and sang. "It felt like the end of the world," she said.
One day, Jimenez had an idea.
"Here I am singing by myself, and I thought, well, maybe, maybe someone wants to hear me, I don’t know," she said.
As a professional singer, Jimenez realized in that moment maybe she could use her talent to help others overcome their feelings of exhaustion, loneliness and despair. So she placed an online ad offering her services for free to front-line workers, or anyone homebound or isolated due to the pandemic, and in need of a little uplift.
The vocalist has performed nearly 100 "Sidewalk Serenades" through the pandemic for front-line workers and people who are isolated in the Bay Area.
One Sunday, KQED caught up with Jimenez as she was serenading elders outside a retirement home called Channing House in Palo Alto.
“Hello, Channing House!" she said after setting up her microphone, music stand and portable amp on the sidewalk across from the drab concrete building. "Oh, dear friends, I'm so happy to see you!”
Dozens of residents appeared on their balconies and in the parking lot to listen. "It's so exciting to have Nova come and sing for us," said resident Nancy Fiene.
Wearing a dress emblazoned with red peonies and white daisies, Jimenez exuded the spirit of warmth and romance as she sang old-time favorites like "Solamente Una Vez" and "La Vie en Rose."
Life has been far from rosy for the residents of Channing House this past year. They’ve been rocked by two COVID-19 outbreaks and five people have died. It’s been a time of loss and confinement. Fiene said Jimenez's performances at Channing House have provided a break from all of that.
"She's got a lot of pizzazz," said Fiene. "It's a little 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."
To add to the sense of community, Jimenez's concerts often end with singalongs.
"I want you to feel like you're going to just let it out and sing to the heavens!” she said.
The singer launched into her rendition of “Brand New Day” from the musical "The Wiz."
Nearly everyone joined in for the choruses. They waved their arms and clapped. Some even danced around in the parking lot.
Afterward, the Channing House parking lot erupted in claps, cheers and cries of “Encore! Encore!”
“Thank you Channing House. Te amo! Te amo! I love you!" said Jimenez. Then the performer packed up her gear and the residents went back inside, maybe feeling just a bit more hopeful about the future.
In July, state officials put limitations on places of worship after they were the site of several superspreader events. Indoor services had to be restricted to a maximum of 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower, and there was a total ban on singing.
"It's like trying to play basketball without a basketball. It's like playing football without a football," Jackson said. "You just can't have a service, a worship service to God, without singing."
Like many other faith leaders, Jackson moved his services online and outdoors. He said singing was a regular part of his Sunday "drive-in" services out in the church parking lot.
"People were singing in their cars," said Jackson. "Most of them had the windows down."
Live vocal performances continued to be a rarity for the rest of last year.
But Californians started to come up with creative ways, often involving technology, to keep singing going as the pandemic restrictions dragged on.
Starting last August, Fox managed to tape two seasons of "The Masked Singer" in Los Angeles using cleverly edited virtual audiences. The hit reality TV show turned out to be the ultimate entertainment for these pandemic times with its mask-wearing celebrity contestants, like an appearance by Long Beach native and Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, disguised as a cute, green jellyfish.
In September, the Silicon Valley-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus went from struggling to sing together during remote rehearsals to being able to sing perfectly in sync online.
The transformation happened because a of choir member’s parent. Watching his kid struggle with online rehearsals on Zoom inspired entrepreneur Mike Dickey to develop a new technology called JackTrip. The free, open-source software, created in partnership with Stanford University, allows singers to sync their voices online from their homes in real time.
Solutions to the latency problem for musicians have existed for years, but they're complicated and expensive to set up. "The idea with JackTrip is to help make online music performance and education as easy and accessible as possible," Dickey said.
As the statewide COVID-19 daily case count was hitting an all-time high at the end of the year, a San Francisco theater company decided it would do whatever it took to put on a show.
In December, San Francisco Playhouse became the first professional performing arts company on the west coast (one of only a couple in the entire country) to produce a musical with a full cast in an indoor venue.
"We had to test three times before we even showed up," said cast member J. P. Gonzalez, a native of Lompoc, north of Santa Barbara.
They all podded up — actors and stage management in one pod, director and designers in another. "So basically we never mixed," said Gonzalez.
They prerecorded all of the songs. "We couldn't sing live on stage," Gonzalez said. "So we had two days to record all the music."
Once on stage, they lip-synched their way through the performance. And the stage was partitioned to further protect cast members from the potential for flying aerosols even while lip-synching.
"We had plexiglass dividers on stage," said Gonzalez.
Also, they didn’t share dressing rooms and wore masks when not singing or filming. "We were masked completely the entire time," Gonzalez said.
COVID spikes in December meant that there was no live audience in the theater. The entire production was filmed and distributed online.
Gonzalez said he was very glad to be part of the production, despite the unorthodox process.
"I can reach people with my voice. I love singing. I love music. It's so healing and it’s so powerful," said Gonzalez. "That's like the ultimate goal for me is to make people feel good."
Before the pandemic, the Threshold Singers in San Luis Obispo on the central coast (one of many "threshold choirs" around the country) sang at the bedsides of terminally ill patients in hospices and homes.
In January of this year, even as COVID-19 cases continued to spike in California, and bedside singing had by then been out of the question for many months, the choir members figured out how to meet to sing together in person — from the safety of their own cars.
“This time when we sing it, I really want us to think about who we’re singing for," said Ruth Baillie, the group’s director, speaking into the microphone from her vehicle parked outside the local hospice during a rehearsal. Half a dozen other cars were parked in a semi-circle opposite hers. "So let’s think about being at the bedside. Can you picture somebody you want us to sing this to?”
Then Baillie sounded the starting note of "Rest Easy," a slow and soothing song by Marilyn Power Scott, and the singers started to sing in harmony, a cappella, from their cars.
Driveway choirs like this one have been springing up around the country during the pandemic.
Singers connect from their vehicles with the help of a cheap FM transmitter that hooks into a mixer. The participants use microphones and can hear each other when tuned to the same frequency on their car radios. Baillie said the person receiving the song in the hospice can join in, too.
"We can hand them a radio and they can listen to the radio," Baillie said. "And if we give them a microphone, we can talk to them."
In February, the state health department restrictions on places of worship involving singing came to a head when a case brought by a San Diego church reached the Supreme Court.
Churches in California had been hitting back against the rules imposed in July 2020 with a string of lawsuits, saying they infringed on their constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-to-3 decision that California could no longer restrict indoor church services. But the justices upheld the state’s ban on singing and chanting, which angered faith leaders around the state.
"Even though we have all the safety precautions, they still say, 'OK, you can assemble, according to the Supreme Court. But no singing and no chanting.' And I'm saying, 'Hey, we have to be able to sing,' said Bishop Jackson of Ask Full Gospel Church in Oakland. "So now we're trying to figure it out — how we can sing and still be in accordance with what the law is asking us to do."
On April 2, Acts Full Gospel went ahead with its Good Friday service. Viewers watching on Facebook could see it was held indoors, in a masked, socially distanced setting complete with plexiglass barriers — and plenty of singing.
California has since reversed its ban on singing and chanting in places of worship. The state is still recommending religious groups don’t do these things though — especially indoors.
At this point, well over half of California’s residents are now fully or partially vaccinated.
But even though California is reopening on many fronts, singing has been slower than most other activities to make a return to the public sphere, though groups like the San Francisco Opera have already started experimenting with live performances in socially distanced settings, like the recent drive-in production of "Barber of Seville" and concert series featuring members of the the company's young artists program, the Adler Fellows.
One person who's been waiting for a long time for singing to make a comeback is Alyse Whitney — the karaoke queen in L.A.
In an interview via Zoom from her apartment, Whitney recalled the day she tried karaoke for the very first time. It was on the east coast where she grew up, on a field trip to New York City for kids like her, who had been adopted from Korea. She was around 11 or 12 at the time.
"We went to a buffet of Korean food in Flushing. There was a karaoke private room. And I remember singing ‘N Sync. I believe it was 'Bye Bye Bye,' " Whitney said. "We just had a really fun time and that memory stuck with me."
After that, her adoptive parents bought Whitney a home karaoke machine.
"It had a tape deck and it was the hit of every party, every sleepover that I hosted as a kid," she said.
Whitney said that tape deck is still in her childhood bedroom at her parents’ house. She thought about bringing it with her when she moved to Los Angeles last September to work as managing editor for celebrity and entrepreneur Chrissy Teigen’s lifestyle and cooking website. On top of the weirdness of starting a new job in a new city in the middle of the pandemic was the sadness of not being able to karaoke with her friends back east.
"I thought about hosting a karaoke virtually," said Whitney. "I talked to friends about it, but we thought it was weird with the feedback on Zoom and the delays. It wouldn't have worked."
Since Whitney couldn’t get out and explore the karaoke scene in her new city during the pandemic, her mom treated her to some shiny new gear for her birthday last October.
"It's a big gold karaoke machine that sits under my TV," she said.
And in recent months, she’s been putting that big gold karaoke machine to good use, hosting karaoke parties in her apartment for her neighbors. They live in the same fourplex and included Whitney in their pod after she moved in.
"When I moved in my neighbors came over and they said, 'Welcome to the neighborhood.' They brought croissants and wine. They were so sweet," Whitney said.
They even formed a band.
"We call ourselves D5. And we all have a pose and our position in the band," said Whitney. "It's a fun time."
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But she said singing at home isn’t the same.
"That's what I'm looking forward to when I can emerge into the world and go back and do a karaoke room, and celebrate, and remember that even though this year was really hard, there's that light at the end of the tunnel," Whitney said. "And I think it's a disco light."
Earlier this month, Whitney was finally able to visit an L.A. karaoke bar for the first time: Max Karaoke in Little Tokyo.
The smiley, bespectacled 30-year-old wore her sparkly jumpsuit, did high kicks on the dance floor (which she said she regretted the following day) and sang her signature song — "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers.
"It was exhilarating," Whitney said. "I can't wait to go back."