Clumping Solstice Singalongs in Groups of 2-4

post by Raemon · 2020-01-05T20:50:51.247Z · score: 15 (2 votes) · LW · GW · 5 comments


  Getting Comfortable
  Deep musical headspace
  Interwoven Story and Song; each Round Deepening
  Your Mileage May Vary

This post assumes you're familiar with rationalist solstice [LW · GW]. (It also assumes that while yes, ritual is something to be epistemically careful about [LW · GW], the overall effect size is relatively small compared to spending much of your life thinking about a topic [LW · GW] with peers that think that topic is important, and meanwhile having community identities is valuable. If you want to debate that please do so on one of those previous posts)

If you run a solstice ceremony with singalongs, there's particular value in:

This isn't the right approach for all possible solstice aesthetics, but there's a magic thing that can happen here if you do. And if you're not doing it (i.e. most solstice organizers seem to default to the "story/song/story/song" thing), you won't receive any feedback that there's a different thing you could do with a magic, synergistic outcome.

Reasons to want more songs, and to cluster them in groups of 2-4:

There are reasons not to want this many songs, or to have them clustered this way. Some people get more value out of the speeches or other activities than songs. One organizer of a small solstice mentioned their primary concern was "Have each person bring one activity to the solstice", and most of them weren't comfortable with songleading. Getting people directly involved with Solstice indeed seems valuable if that's an option. (This makes more sense for smaller communities)

But my impression is that much of the time, the ratio of songs/stories and their placement was determined somewhat arbitrarily, and then never reconsidered.

Getting Comfortable

It used to be that group singing was quite common. There were no iPods or headphones, or even recordings. Running into a 1-in-a-million musician was a rare event. Therefore, it was quite natural that if you wanted music in your life, you had to make it yourself, and when you did you were comparing yourself to your friends and family, not to popular superstars.

This is no longer the case by default. So it takes people awhile to get used to "oh, okay I am actually allowed to sing. I am actually encouraged to sing. It doesn't matter if I sound good, we are doing this thing together."

For many people, it takes at least two songs in a row to get them to a point where they even consider singing at all, let alone feeling good about it. The feeling of hesitation resets when you spend a lot of time listening to a speech.

The idea here is not just "people get to sing", but, "people feel a deep reassurance that singing is okay, that we are all here singing together", and I think that's just impossible to get in the space of one or even two songs. (It becomes even harder to hit this point if there are proportionately few singalongs, and especially if there are also performance-piece songs that people are not encouraged to sing along with)

Deep musical headspace

In my preferred celebration, "Deep reassurance that singing is okay" is only step one. There's a second deeper stage of feeling connected to the other people in the room, and connected to ideas that you're all here to celebrate, for which reassurance is a prerequisite but insufficient.

Step two requires the songs be resonant, and for you to have a strong sense that the other people in the room all have a particular connection to the songs. (The sense of ingroup identity and sense of philosophical connection are separate qualities, but work together to produce something greater than the sum of their parts)

You can get pieces of this in the space of a single song, but there's a version of it with unique qualia that takes something like 8 songs to really get going (and then, once you're there, it's nice to get to stay there awhile)

Interwoven Story and Song; each Round Deepening

The formula I find works best (at least for my preferences) is:

Once you've gotten into the overall singalong headspace, it's less necessary to do groups of songs – alternating between a song and a speech won't kill the headspace once it's had a chance to take root.

Your Mileage May Vary

Reiterating a final time that this is just one particular effect you can go for. I think it's important that local solstice organizers adapt to fit the needs of their particular communities. But the effect I'm trying to describe here is hard to grok if you haven't directly experienced it, and I wanted people to at least have considered an option they may have been missing.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-01-06T19:16:48.683Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

While I really like the idea of multiple songs clumped together and having them be singalongs, I feel like many of the songs at, for example, the 2019 Bay Area Solstice, were not easy to sing along to. Aside from a handful that are either well known popular songs or folks songs designed to be sung well the first time through, I feel like a lot of the songs suffer from being difficult to sign right on the first try unless you already are fairly familiar with them, and for many (maybe most) attendees that is just not the case (or at least I and a lot of people near me struggled with a lot of the songs). So I like this idea, but I think it only works if the songs are better optimized for singing along.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-06T20:58:02.773Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My experience has been, that there's a combo of skill, and comfort, at singing songs that you don't know well, and (importantly) being okay with not getting it right. Smaller solstices have definitely succeeded at imparting this, Big Solstices create a bit more angst and social pressure unless that's directly countered. (Acoustics of the room also matter a lot, and I don't think the Bay planetarium was very helpful. More on that later).

This definitely went well at the 2012 Solstice (around 50 people), where there was a professional singer I had brought in for one particular song (which he wrote, and nobody there except him and me knew), and he had had a vague plan for how to slowly warm the audience up to the prospect of singing along with it. 

And instead, immediately, 2 seconds into the song, he had a crowd of 50 people singing along with them pretty loudly. (I think mostly hitting the correct notes. Or at least, my subjective experience was that the average note was approximately right).

Part of this is just being okay with "it might not come out right." But the other thing ties back into this longterm goal of mine:

There is a long game that I think singalong solstice celebrations can help with, which is to restore musicality as a basic skill, which in turn allows you to have much richer musical traditions than if it's an incidental thing you do a little of sometimes. The payoff for this comes on a multi-year timescale.

If you are reasonably skilled at singing along with such, there is basically no such thing has hitting wrong notes (unless the song is deliberately confusing). Instead, you end up hitting harmony notes. Basically, each note constrains the note that come afterwards and there are only a few "valid" options. 

This isn't something you can immediately get in one solstice-runthrough, but I think it is a quite achievable goal over the longer term.

Room Acoustics

Now, getting back to "room acoustics" – you mentioned people near you all struggling a bit to hit the right notes. An important fact about the 50-people-in-a-living-room Solstice was that everyone could pretty easily hear everyone else, so having one loud person next to you hitting the wrong notes couldn't screw up your singing experience too badly. I think that's less true in a large room, esp. when people are spaced fairly far apart from each other. (The 50 people were somewhat selected for being the sort of early adopters who thought singalongs are great in the first place, but I don't think the average singer quality was much higher than average singer quality at the recent Bay Solstice)

So, a partial solution is getting rooms with better acoustics. Another partial solution (admittedly a bit logistically tricky) is getting a better distribution of good singers throughout the audience. (Like, if you were sitting in front near the choir you probably had a better time, since many of them were familiar with the songs)


Another partial solution, which I personally emphasize at Solstices I run but is also a bit constraining, is to have one of the jobs of Solstice be "be a music tutorial." Where each of the first few songs are designed, in part, to teach a particular skill. i.e the first song is "be loud" and the second song is "be energetic" and the third song is "here's a melody that's relatively simple, and repetitive, which you can learn on the fly" and the fourth song is "here's a somewhat more complicated song, but with a repeat-after-me structure such that you get to hear the melody for each line once before you sing it."

And then by the middle of Solstice, when you get to things like Brighter Than Today (a moderately complicated song), it's actually an achievable ask to sing along if you haven't heard it before.

I think this partly depends on song ordering, and for 250 people probably also depends a bit on explicitly signposting that this is what we're aiming for, and that meanwhile the socially approved activity is "sing even if you're not quite sure what the tune is". 

A reason I think other Solstice organizers have faced some constraints here is that I designed a bunch of solstice songs to explicitly fit this pattern, and flow into each other nicely, but it only really works with a very narrow window of song choices. And if there are other songs you want to do, they won't automatically work in this way.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-06T21:08:55.624Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do appreciate the datapoint of 'the songs were hard to singalong with'. Fwiw, one other person said 'I kept being surprised by how possible it was to singalong with the songs'. 

I agree they still aren't all that easy, but, also fwiw, fyi the current distribution of singalongability is what we got after 10 years of optimizing hard for singalongability (while also keeping other constraints in mind, including not being too repetitive or boring). Not saying that as an excuse, just, well, things are a lot harder than you think

I think the situation has been somewhat compounded by the Bay not doing this for the past 10 years. I wrote this article in part because I was exasperarated at the Bay doing, like, 6-9 singalongs, spaced way too far apart such that they might as well have not been singalongs.

In NYC I think the ratio of people singing along is much higher, in part because NYC has been doing 20 songs for 10 years, which has (longterm) successfully output a community of people who a) know most of the songs, b) are more comfortable singing along with things they don't know, because it was the thing socially expected of them.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-01-06T21:25:00.727Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
If you are reasonably skilled at singing along with such, there is basically no such thing has hitting wrong notes (unless the song is deliberately confusing). Instead, you end up hitting harmony notes. Basically, each note constrains the note that come afterwards and there are only a few "valid" options. 
And then by the middle of Solstice, when you get to things like Brighter Than Today (a moderately complicated song), it's actually an achievable ask to sing along if you haven't heard it before.

So I noticed this year that in particular songs like "Brighter Than Today" are musically complicated in ways that made them harder to sing along to than some of the others. Maybe this problem is less of an issue in, for example, the smaller space where a stronger feedback loop towards good singing is created, but my experience of it was that people were struggling with the melody, hitting notes at the right time, and generally not stumbling over the words.

For example, I experience "Brighter Than Today" has having some weird timing change ups in the chorus where syllables suddenly and unexpectedly get shortened to stay within meter. I heard this most strongly around the second line of the chorus, "although the night is cold", where it seems like people start tripping over themselves to keep up. I noticed other places in this song and other songs having similar effects. Maybe something else is going on musically, but that's how my semi-trained ear perceives it.

I think I ignored this in the past because of some combination of the songs being new, everyone being new to Solstice, there being different levels of emphasis on singalong in the past, and factors like those you mentioned that made the singing of the songs at different venues different. But this year we are not so new to Solstice, the songs are not so new, and there was a stronger effort to make singalong an important component of the event.

It made me yearn for more simpler and familiar songs that fit with the theme generally and less songs that were crafted to fit Solstice tightly but that are more complex and less familiar.

comment by Raemon · 2020-01-06T21:43:00.726Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nod. Fwiw I'm still open to suggestions on improving Brighter Than Today. It's already been through 3-4 rounds of edits intended to make it easier, and it may be that it needs more. (although by now it's got a fair amount of critical mass so making changes is more costly)

I think the current level of difficulty of it is obviously harder than many super-simple-folk songs, but not harder than median pop songs, which I think is a reasonable difficulty setting for songs in mid-solstice. (Recording of the most recent version is here. By this point I don't expect radical rewrites of the song to happen, since it's the most popular song* and pretty well known, but if you have specific notes on which bits felt most unintuitive that'd be helpful)