Town Common Songs

and media
** Coronavirus Transmission **
** and Community Singing **

Organizing Resources

... for would-be organizers and singers, on how to start a safe sing!

People say to me: You must be crazy,
How can you sing in times like these?
Don't you read the news? Don't you know the score?
How can you sing when so many people grieve?
And people say to me: What kind of fool believes
That songs will make a difference in the end?
By way of a reply I say: A fool such as I,
Who sees a song as somewhere to begin.
—T.R. Ritchie

If this sounds like a great idea, but you've never done anything like this before...

... or if you've been to community sings but never gotten a new one off the ground...

... or if you're curious how we balance inclusivity with safety and with gathering limits...

... Read on! (And if you still have questions, please get in touch by writing towncommonsongs -at- gmail)

A brief preface: Though the widely-used phrase "social distancing" appears throughout this site, that's the wrong way to think about this. We don't need social distancing: we need physical distancing and we need social connection. Community singing can offer both (though physical distancing isn't normally a consideration, which is a large part of why this document exists).

I love attending sings like this, but I've never started one! How can I make that happen?

(OR, I've never done anything like this, ever. Where would I even start?)

First and foremost, the Country Dance & Song Society (CDSS) has a Starter Kit for Folk Song Organizers which is fantastic! Many great singers and community sing organizers contributed to that resource, and their experience and wisdom and teaching skills are the best. Much of their advice is just universally good, whatever the times. Please read it!

But... the CDSS starter kit was written with normal times in mind, not these weird socially-distanced times where health and safety are of foremost importance. Their advice about venues and publicity don't speak to our current, very unusual, situation. Indoor venues are a non-starter now, and even outdoor venues need to be carefully thought about. Your sing's catchment area should be much, much smaller now: think on the level of your village or immediate neighorhood, in which there may be only one or two people who have done any community singing like this as an adult.

We've found there are a lot of new considerations in starting a sing today, and much of what we're doing at our sing is almost the opposite of "normal advice" for organizing a community sing. We'd like to share our experience with you, along with some more general ideas about songs we like to sing and where you can look for songs you'd like to sing!

What makes a good space for a socially-distanced sing like this?

We sing on the town common right in the village center, which works well for safety, accessibility, and visibility. You may have a public park or athletic field or botanical garden which is similarly situated (if you don't live in a quaint New England village!).

Our space is outdoors and unconfined, and it's large enough to accommodate dozens of people spaced six feet apart in a giant ring should that many show up on a day... or to fit several smaller well-spaced groups... or for a central group and a distant fringe, if we should need to change our format to comply with strict gathering limitations ordered by national, state, or local officials. (We generally have between five and fifteen singers, and Massachusetts is not currently limiting gatherings in unconfined outdoor spaces, but your situation may be different, and ours may become different.)

Most of us can walk here easily from our houses, though it's also easy for those who live on the outskirts of the village to drive to the common and park right there. Everyone can get there easily.

Our town common is a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly area, which allows us to attract neighbors passing by and seeing us for the first time, which has brought us many new singers. We're also visible to traffic, which has led to several friends in neighboring towns pausing to say hello as they drive past.

We're conscious that our visibility boosts morale of those who see us, and that it also lets us publicly demonstrate how neighbors can be together while still maintaining social distance. With that comes a responsibility not only for our own health and safety but for others who may wish to follow our example.

But also... Our sing is mobile. There are some in our village who are under quarantine, or who for health reasons are self-isolating, and we can go to their houses to sing for (and with) them. We stand at safe distances around their porch or window and include them in the community sing. They, more than anyone right now, may really benefit from this connection, and they probably know and love a lot of the same songs you know and love.

How can a sing remain inclusive with social distancing, or even with strict limits on gathering sizes?

So far, our sing's attendance has been between about four and sixteen people. We form a ring with six feet ten feet between ourselves and our neighbors. As people arrive, the ring expands; when people depart, the ring contracts. This has worked for us, but twelve singers may be the maximum a ten-foot-spacing ring can sustain: at forty feet across, it's difficult to hear many voices and singing together becomes harder. (When listening is harder, having someone beat time with their arm helps, as of course does looking at each other's faces.)

When more than twelve show up, we've experimented with concentric rings. A inner ring of five or six people facing out and an outer ring of about ten facing in brings everyone closer. For rounds, we've experimented with having the circles move in opposite directions.

(Ten feet started to feel right to us, and expanding our spacing goal (from six to ten) happened organically. One day we just looked at where we were standing and thought "we're farther apart, but this feels good; let's aim for this". And we have, and it's worked.)

For new songs, particularly big chorus songs where the verses might be sung by only one or two people, the song leader(s) may step into the middle of the circle (and move about in the middle, facing different parts of the circle to engage everybody), though this isn't something we always do.

So far, Massachusetts hasn't enacted a limit on the size of gatherings in outdoor unconfined spaces. (There is a limit on indoor gatherings; and while outdoor unconfined gatherings are permitted, they are not advised We've given some thought to what might happen if a new public safety directive limits even outdoor unconfined gatherings to ten (or fewer) people, though. (And your location may already be under such a limit.) Possible solutions involve thinking about both the geography of the singers and the selection of songs.

One way could be to have ten singers in a ring with others orbiting this ring from a much greater distance (so as not to be part of the "gathering"). In our case, they would be walking around the perimeter of the town common, still singing. Over time, people in the ring would step out and orbit allowing someone new to join the ring when they have gone.

Another could be to have multiple small clusters far apart from each other, which could still be engaged with each other through singing call-and-response songs (particularly chanteys or work songs with a strong regular cadence) or possibly rounds (where each cluster sings a part and someone moves their arm to keep an extremely visible beat for everyone to follow). Clusters could also take turns singing to each other.

This is a section where we are eager to hear your experiences and ideas! If you've done group singing across long distances, please get write us at towncommonsongs -at- gmail.

How did your sing start ... and become daily ... and keep going?

[GOOD QUESTION! answer coming]

The sing became daily by enthusiastic acclaim, and has carried on simply because we keep showing up every day at two in the afternoon, rain, snow, or shine.

"This is what we do: We show up. Then we show up again." —Bob Deluca, da Fool
"If not now, when?" —Roger Cartwright, Ancient Man