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Building a Singing Community while Social DistanSing

Singing rounds build community

GUEST BLOG: In the thick of COVID-19 social distancing, long-time Barbershopper Manoj Padki got an email from a neighbor, asking if there was a way to create an opportunity for their community to sing safely together. The result: a regular therapeutic outlet for folks who aren’t regular barbershoppers!

“Following the great response yesterday for the first session yesterday, I will be leading the Social DistanSing Chorus (thanks to Tim Pierce for the name) on Sundays and Wednesdays at 3:00pm. We do this to accommodate as many peoples' schedules as we can. We will keep going until this COVID-19 madness ends…

Notice that I did not call them "rehearsals". These are sessions where you can come in when you can and sing. I am hoping we can have some continuity of people so that we can make a few songs sound better and better - but that is not the goal. The joy of singing and the joy of singing with people are the actual goals.”

I wrote that on March 21, 2020, on the community mailing list. We had our second singing session that Sunday, March 22, and we have been singing together ever since! Now the chorus still meets twice a week, Wednesday and Sunday from 3:00pm to 4:00pm. We usually get somewhere between 6 and 15 people on a regular basis.

We have been meeting outdoors from the start, standing in a circle, and maintaining social distancing. The weather can be a challenging factor, from rain and wind to heat, but being hardy New Englanders, we have kept meeting and singing together.

How it all started

It all started with an email from a neighbor, Beezy, on Friday, March 20: “Hey Manoj, What would you think about leading some ‘porch sings’ on the Mosaic porch at some regular times? … Some regular singing therapy would be good for anyone who wanted to take part. And having a safe place to go and do something with friends would help everyone, too.”

We started with a few simple rounds and a couple of folk songs with harmonies, and have kept adding more challenging rounds and other songs. A round is a short musical piece in which multiple voices sing the same melody, but start the song at different times. When each singer gets to the end of the song, they return to the beginning and start again. Rounds are the single greatest tool for building a community of singers. They are usually easy to teach; everybody learns the same words and notes. As is to be expected, some people learn the words faster than others, and some learn the notes faster than others. In that process, everybody helps everybody else to feel comfortable making mistakes.

As Beezy wrote to me, “Singing rounds is so satisfying to me because I love singing in harmony but don’t readily learn harmonies by ear. With rounds, I just have to learn the melody.”

Teaching rounds 101

I usually teach the words first, and then the notes. I sing a line and have them repeat after me. Sometimes finding a good key is a challenge, depending on the mix of singers and of course the specific round itself. It is useful to experiment with several different keys before settling on one. Once a few people have learned the words and notes and I start getting traction, I have the whole group sing the whole round three times. That usually makes people feel comfortable going to the next step, which is singing in two groups. Once that feels comfortable to everybody, I move on to three and then four groups (depending on the round).

Why is this important?

By now we all know about the physical and mental health benefits of singing in a group. Not everybody has the time or the inclination to commit to a high-level chorus, but everybody can sing rounds and reap the same benefits!

San, another regular attendee, emailed: “The DistanSing chorus is a recurring blessing in these times, boosting my mental health and energy. We support and encourage each other as we learn and sing.”

Karen: “Joining the "DistanSing" is the highlight of my week. I always leave with my heart lifted and happy.”

Our Barbershop Harmony Society theme song says, “Keep the whole world singing!” It does not say, “Keep the whole world singing barbershop harmony!” Barbershop harmony is awesome - and difficult! I would recommend starting much simpler. Let us engage our local communities in singing, starting where they are.

Manoj Padki is a 28-year member of the Barbershop Harmony Society and has sung in multiple quartets through the years. He sings baritone with the Fireside Quartet (winners of the 2017 Boston Harmony Sweepstakes) and Mixed MetaFour Quartet. He currently directs three mixed a cappella ensembles in Massachusetts: REHarmonix in Hudson, RUPippa in Natick, and Northborough A Cappella at the Northborough Senior Center. Manoj also teaches the A Cappella 101 course at Assabet After Dark, an adult education center in Marlborough. He lives in Berlin, Massachusetts with his family.