The COVID-19 pandemic has led to substantial changes in everyday life, and folks have had to resort to creative ways of navigating seemingly simple things, including celebrating momentous occasions with loved ones. While physically going out to dinner and a show might be off the menu right now, Dottie’s Serenade Service adds a ray of light in these dark and uncertain times.
Local musician Dot Levine, who uses the pronouns they/them, created the singing telegram service when the pandemic threw a wrench in their normal teaching and performing routine. Through their service, customers can book them to perform a surprise song for a friend or loved one, which they will play and sing from a safe distance outside the customer’s house, provided they live in Philly or nearby.
“Music is too often referred to as a luxury,” Levine said. “But it’s such an important part of people coming together and feeling good, and feeling good is a need. Right now it doesn’t happen enough. I’m doing what I can to help.”
Levine, who identifies as nonbinary trans-femme, plays multiple instruments, knows thousands of songs and can learn new ones upon request. As a traveling serenader, they are habitually required to learn and perform new songs all in one day. “I’m put in positions like this on a weekly basis at least, where somebody wants something challenging,” Levine said.
Carly Schulman, who lives in Germantown, was one of Levine’s musical recipients in the beginning days of the lockdowns. For her, Levine performed the song “You are the Best Thing” by Ray LaMontagne, a song on the first mix that Schulman’s wife, Steph, gave her.
“It was amazing,” Schulman said about her serenade. “[My wife] just wanted to surprise me, so I went outside having no idea what I was going outside for, and [Dot] was an amazing, just smile-of-a-person. They just had a really easy way.”
She added that her neighbor in the adjoining house, a musician who periodically works with Levine, started singing the background vocals as Levine performed the song for her.
Schulman said that she doesn’t particularly like being the center of attention, so when her wife asked her to come outside on the day of her serenade, Schulman didn’t know what to expect.
“I was imagining somebody coming and doing something where I would have to be performatively happy, but I didn’t have to be,” she continued. “[Dot] just exudes goodness.”
Levine has gotten requests for all kinds of songs –– Michael Jackson, “The Golden Girls” theme song and even a Charmin toilet paper jingle mashup with “Just like Heaven” by The Cure, which Levine singled out as a unique one. They also performed the song “Miracle of Miracles” from Fiddler on the Roof for their Rabbi and his wife, and songs in Yiddish for a Russian and Yiddish-speaking recipient.
“So many people experience detectable catharsis,” Levine said. “How lucky can one person be to be the delivery person of an emotional release like that.”
Pre-COVID-19, Levine ran the West Philly Uke Club, a monthly meet-up of beginner and seasoned ukulele players, as well as the Philadelphia Uke Studio, where they gave ukulele lessons. They still teach virtually.
Levine grew up playing music with their family during the holidays, which helped foster their passion for music. They play guitar, banjo, ukulele, classical upright bass and recently, have been developing their skills in classical singing.
Years ago, Levine toured the U.S. and parts of Canada playing in large and small ensembles, including a jazz orchestra and quartets. Their Philadelphia performance career has been rooted in 1920’s style jazz, which led them to play with many local musicians, like members of the West Philadelphia Orchestra. Before the pandemic hit, they regularly performed at the West Philly beer bar Fiume.
Levine plans to continue their serenade service post-COVID-19, even when everyday life resumes.
“You only ever hear of telegrams on sitcoms,” Schulman said. “I don’t know anybody who’s actually gotten one. To come out to your favorite song with Dot of all people singing it, it’s like magic.”
Levine also plans to add a new musician to their serenade service operation. “If that works, we’re going to keep growing,” they said. “Other musicians need this support right now. People need this kind of pick-me-up.”