Who Sings When? Ways to Manage an Online Session Roster and Singers' Queue
- August 29, 2020
When we're together in real life, there are some recognized forms of
etiquette for how to manage the order in which singers follow each other in
a session. What is similar, and what is different, online?
A Note on Terms
This article uses the term *session leader* interchangeably to describe the
person actually leading the sing --the *compere*--and the person tracking
the roster--the *house manager*. It uses the term *host *as a term of art
on the the Zoom platform to mean the person in charge of managing the
meeting. The host can be either a solo compere/house manager or co-hosts in
each role. We have developed some effective techniques that depend on the
compere NOT being the (only) meeting host--see below.
Common Real-Life Models for Song Sessions
POPCORN SING The most informal has been called a "popcorn sing," where each
singer takes their turn as the spirit moves them, in response to a segue or
casually as in conversation. This works great for a smaller group, and/or
for singers who know each other as a community and are able to manage
participation gracefully as a group, with or without a designated compere.
CIRCLE SING (TALKING STICK) For more than 20 singers, and/or at a festival
or event where people don't know each other well, the most common format is
the circle sing. Participants sit in a circle and the session compere
starts the session and indicates the direction around the circle (usually
clockwise). Sometimes the compere will provide a talking stick or a twig as
a tangible item that gets passed around the circle so everyone can see
whose turn it is.
CURATED SING Less common IRL in North America, but common in Britain and
Europe and found in the US and Canada, is what I would call a "curated
sing" led by a compere. It is the session host's choice in what order to
call on each singer. This allows the leader to shape the sing with a
balance of experienced singers, special guests and professionals, newer
participants, and latecomers. Some festival sings, notably the Middle Bar
Singers at Sidmouth, have a hybrid model that allows one of the four
"drivers" (comperes/session leaders) to override the circle and physically
move the twig to another location to curate the sing.
Emerging Online Models for Zoom Sessions
Zoom sessions have taken the folksong world by storm since March 2020.
Session Calendar <https://www.bostonsongsessions.org/virtual-sessions>lists
over 30 regular sessions a week in North America, Britain, and Australia.
The Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) has a growing Online Events
<https://www.cdss.org/community/covid19/online-events> section on their
portal. Folklife Magazine out of Wales sponsors a Virtual Folk page
<http://folklife.uk/virtual.folk.html>. All of these consolidators are
eager to hear of new online/virtual/digital sings that they can catalog and
Full disclosure: no one person could attend all these sessions in a week or
a month, and I certainly have not done so. However, from mid-March to late
August, I've been to a wide range of song sessions in multiple countries.
Here's what I've seen on the question of how each session decides which
singer goes next and in what order. The most formal of the models properly
comes last in this list, but here it demonstrates the contrast with the
more grassroots models.
SIGN UP AND PRESELECT (CONCERT MODEL) The largest participatory sings I
have encountered are the two chantey sings at the South Street Seaport and
the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Both sessions provide a series of links
in a workflow where singers buy a sometimes free ticket (total headcount),
indicate in registering or by filling out a separate form that they would
like to sing (singer headcount), and then receiving a link to the session.
Comperes appointed by the organizer review the singer headcount and
accept/decline according to the estimated available singing time. Ideally
acceptance/rejection gets sent to singers before the sing (which is a great
deal of overhead).
Once a signup sing starts, it becomes a CURATED - COMPERE'S ROSTER sing and
evolves through the following stages until the event becomes too large for
a real-time roster. A sing can absorb only 10-12 songs led an hour, so if a
3 hour session were expecting more than 35 song leaders each to sing one
song, they would need to extend to 4 hours or go to an advance signup
Solo Host Models
POPCORN- MICS ON/OFF Again, best for smaller sings and well-established
communities like local pub sings gone online. The host usually, but not
always, kicks it off and then opens the floor to conversation until the
next singer starts up. This requires sharp microphone skills, since every
participant has the option to mute/unmute at their choice. I've seen this
work most effectively with an experienced and courteous group willing to
absorb a fair amount of "oops, never mind" and "no no, after you!"
model often combines in practice with a curated sing.
CURATED - AD HOC This approach is the easiest for a new sing, and can work
very nicely with a conscientious compere and a small group of up to 10-12
singers. The compere chooses and announces either the first or the first
three singers (#1, 2, and 3) and everyone mutes their mics. After each
song, only the compere unmutes between songs, announcing the next three
singers (#2, 3, and 4) in rolling fashion. It's becoming customary, and
emerging best practice, to greet first-timers as they arrive, ask if they'd
like to sing, and move them to one of the 3-5 songs up next. This means new
folks don't have to wait too long to sing, and the group can meet the
newcomers musically. This transitions seamlessly into the next model.
CURATED - COMPERE'S ROSTER At about 10 singers, even the best comperes'
brains explode. We run out of fingers and start scribbling names on a pad.
This roster usually gets jiggered throughout the session as the compere
crosses off those who have sung, adds new singers at the bottom or by
squeezing them in, and tracks who has just arrived, who has to leave early
and needs to be moved up, and who has already left. Choosing a small
scratch pad for this usually self-corrects within an hour.
There's a basic choice here, to assume everyone wants to sing or to ask
people to confirm. A good compere can graciously balance thanking the last
singer, welcoming new singers, asking individuals if they have a song, and
announcing the next singer and the upcoming roster. Talking is a different
cognitive activity from writing a list AND admitting users from a waiting
room! It totally helps to designate a House Manager/Left Brain as a
backstage technical host and a Compere/Right Brain to do the talking. If
you are fortunate enough to have two session leaders, see the Shared and
Published roster models. Try trading off roles to practice using the other
halves of your brains for both online speaking and online writing.
CURATED - NUMBERED NAMES I've seen several sings where the meeting
host--most effectively when NOT the compere!--edits the Name of each Zoom
participant to add a number, like 15-Lynn Noel, or (for speed's sake)
replaces name with number. Early on, people hoped that this would translate
into displaying singers in order in the Gallery, aka Brady Bunch view.
Unfortunately for that plan, Zoom has a highly dynamic interface that moves
the active speaker to the home screen depending on your device screen.
However, meeting hosts can see the Participant list in order, which can
function roughly as an online roster. This numbering approach had some very
quick parallel evolution in spring 2020, but by late summer it's largely
transitioned to one of the standalone roster models.
There's a key transition here from solo to duo. If you haven't already
enlisted a co-host, even if you like flying solo as a compere, let me lay
out some of the opportunities and advantages of online collaboration.
CURATED - SHARED ROSTER Paper lists have two limits: they're hard to edit
at speed (even in pencil), and only the compere can see them. A number of
sings, including the Mermaid's Tavern sessions, have discovered the
opportunity of using a Google Doc to share the responsibility between two
comperes/hosts. If you anticipate that your sing will get more than 15
people, it's a good idea to set up a Google Doc just in case. You can
transition to one mid-sing if you're handy with multitasking and can't read
your scribbled notes without retyping them anyway.
Once you have a Google Doc, your two compere/host leaders don't need to be
in the same place any more! That means you can run your sing from Boston
with your chantey buddy in Gloucester or your evil twin in Maine. As the
compere, you get a nice clean list to work from without the hassle of
editing it while you talk, and you can still "move the twig" verbally if
you want. It also opens up an exciting opportunity for folklore nerds and
YouTube stars with the Transcript Roster model.
CURATED - TRANSCRIPT ROSTER This records not only who sang, but WHAT they
sang, so you can find it again on the session recording. The House
Manager/host starts by listing names in a numbered list and adds a hyphen.
During or after each song, either session leader writes down the song title
and author, if known, after the hyphen. Singers can and do paste this info
into the chat window, especially when asked, so it's easy to transfer to
the Google Doc.
We use a permanent transcript in a single document called Session Roster
rather than creating a new one (and a new link to share) for each session
(Aug Session, Sept Session, &c). This has the additional advantage of
creating a history of the sings, searchable so you can answer a singer's
question "have I sung this here already?" From here it's a short step to
create demand for the last model--to let everyone see the roster in real
CURATED - PUBLISHED ROSTER Every Google Doc has a permissions model where
you can assign users to view, edit, or own the document. There is also a
setting to Get Link to a somewhat messy URL so that Everyone With the Link
can View (but not edit). Once the compere, house manager, and any dedicated
scribe can collaborate smoothly in the transcript roster working smoothly,
it's easy to share to viewers with Get Link and pasting the link into the
Reflections on Real-Time Rosters
Some interesting things happen when everyone can see the transcript roster
in real time. Singers who got passed over even though they chatted SINGER
will pipe up that they are not on the roster. Singers will send chats with
corrections to their names, singing order, song titles, and authors. The
smoothest we've had a sing go is when we have a third designated Scribe who
handles the transcripts, the part after the hyphen, as well as any
corrections. That way the House Manager focuses on creating the queue and
the Compere on managing it with the singers, including any reordering
needed. The compere "holds the twig" for the room, and can move it around
as long as the roster gets updated at or near real time.
The published transcript roster is very popular with singers who enjoy
knowing where they are in the queue, especially at a larger sing. It's the
equivalent of noticing that you're sitting at 6 o'clock and the twig's only
at 2 o'clock, so you can nip down to the bar for a pint without losing your
Don't be surprised if your singers ask that the roster link be posted
frequently to the chat throughout the session. Chats get wordy, and singers
don't want to waste valuable singing time scrolling when they can ask to
have a new link posted. Sadly, Zoom does not as yet have a Pinned Post
feature like Facebook Chat, so the easiest thing to do is to keep the URL
on the clipboard for a lightning copy/paste.
This can backfire for mobile users. Remember I said it was a messy URL?
It's long, full of special characters, and doesn't work if the line wraps.
Our singers got frustrated with that, so first I made a TinyURL with a
and then later
. We also have
mileage may vary, and for a small sing this is overkill. But we draw 25-40
singers a session, so we evolved these models quickly as our session grew.
Back to the Circle Sing
Once people can see the queue as well as hear it, we are as close as we may
get online to a Circle Sing model. All singers can tell visually at any
time where they are "around the room," check to see who's singing now, and
"count twigs" until it's their turn. The compere can mention to visually
impaired singers that they are #25 and we are currently at #15. Everyone
can confirm that their name is spelled right and their contribution is
correctly recorded, and anyone can search the history of the sing to see
what they sang last time and whether a particular song has been sung
recently. Interestingly, this is what singers want to ask the compere
rather than each other, so it saves some on-mic time as well. The roster
becomes the collective memory of the compere rather than having to remember
who last sang Barrett's Privateers and if anyone's sung Claudy Banks yet.
How do you run YOUR online song session? Write me at info(a)lynnoel.com and
tell me what model you use and what special sauce you've developed for Zoom