Who Sings When? Ways to Manage an Online Session Roster and Singers' Queue

 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 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. The Virtual Session Calendar 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 section on their portal. Folklife Magazine out of Wales sponsors a Virtual Folk page. All of these consolidators are eager to hear of new online/virtual/digital sings that they can catalog and share. 

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. 

Broadcast 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 receive 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 concert model.

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!" This 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. 

Co-Host 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 people, one acting as comperes and one as house manager/scribe. 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 session 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 time. 

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, it's easy to share to viewers with Get Link and pasting the link into the chat. 

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 spot. 

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 permalink http://tinyurl.com/mermaidstavernballadroster and then later balladroster.mermaidstavern.com. We also have chanteyroster.mermaidstavern.com and openmicroster.mermaidstavern.com. Your 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@lynnoel.com and tell me what model you use and what special sauce you've developed for Zoom sings.