Welcome to “Community Sings”

Matt with his frequent singing partner Robert Jones

Matt with his frequent singing partner Robert Jones

If you love to sing, you’ve come to the right place. Now, notice I didn’t say, ‘if you are a good singer’ or if you want to sing professionally’ or if you want to join a choir. For me, what makes the concept of the community sings so powerful – and they are are powerful – is that they are for everyone. Everyone who loves to sing that is. The community sings I’ve been associated with attract all kinds of singers – professionals, casual crooners, shower singers and those that were asked politely in the third grade to just mouth the words. Community sings are not performances. They exist so like minded people can gather in community and, well, sing! I have spent decades performing at coffee houses, on concert stages, in schools, senior centers – you name it – and nothing feels better than leading and teaching a casual group of enthusiastic singers how to make singing a tradition in their town. That’s what this blog is all about: How to make singing a tradition in your town.

Every community sing I’ve been involved with takes on the personality of the group that gathers. For this reason, there are no hard and fast rules that work for everyone. I hope that this blog becomes a forum – not just for my ideas – but for the collective wisdom of all of you who are already doing this in your community, or who are willing to give it a try. Let me begin by describing how we do our community sing in Kent, Ohio. Our group started in September of 2012.

Our community sing meets one evening a month. In the first year we met on the first Tuesday of every month and in the second year it was the first Wednesday (we switched because there was a conflict with the monthly town council meeting). We meet in the the lower level of the local Unitarian Church (they graciously let us do this for free). We sing from 7-8:30 PM. It does help to have at least one confident musician-type in attendance – someone who can keep a good tempo, play an instrument (if necessary), and just keep the song together. I usually start every sing with the same song (in our case it’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” by Tom Paxton. Pick a song that’s easy to learn quickly. After that we go around the circle. When it’s your turn you may, lead a song, suggest a song, or pass. Remember, if you’re doing this right, there will be a wide range of confidence in the group. As the organizer, the most important thing I do is create a safe and welcoming space for the musical magic to occur. Most of the attendees have a copy of Rise Up Singing: the “hymnal” of the community sing. I would recommend having extra copies available, and for sale for the newcomers. I encourage all types of songs. You will quickly find that some work better than others—that will be the topic of a future blog.

This simple act of singing together has been an amazing experience on so many levels. Science is showing us that singing together in community has health benefits (another future blog). I’ve watched reluctant singers become confident singers. I’ve seen small groups form and sing professionally. I know of at least three cancer patients who have used these sings as part of their recovery … who knows all the hidden stories. What I do know is that everybody who comes feels better when they leave. And I want to be a part of that.

I hope to use this space to bring together the wisdom of the folks who have already caught on to this wonderful, old idea as well as share any information that can help you start one of these in your community. As an already traveling musician, I am available to come to your community to model my best practices as well as teach workshops on song leading and organization. I would also encourage you to attend my class at the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, NC in early July. This will be my sixth year teaching during Traditional Song Week.

There are so many topics to cover in this blog and I am open to any and all suggestions. I am also open to any guest bloggers who have had successes with community singing. I want this to be the clearing house for community sings everywhere – a comprehensive list of sings, suggestions on getting the word out, song leading tips and tricks – anything that helps spread the concept. I have decided to devote the next phase of my musical career to inspiring communities all over the world to start singing together. I encourage and appreciate your help!

About Matt Watroba

Many of you will know Matt from his radio work both locally in Detroit, Michigan, and nationally through Folkalley.com and as the founding host of The Sing Out! Radio Magazine. Some may also know him as a performer. He has performed throughout the country, both as a solo, and with his musical partner Robert Jones. But Matt considers himself, first and foremost, a community singer and song leader. He has spread the joy of singing together on concert stages, at festivals, in educational settings and in workshops for more than 25 years. For the past several years, he has taught community singing and performance at the Swanannoa Gathering in North Carolina during its Traditional Song Week. And he is also a regular contributor to Sing Out! magazine.


Welcome to “Community Sings” — 8 Comments

  1. Matt et.al.

    I was surprised that there aren’t many community sings listed in Northeast Central Ohio. I live in Mount Vernon and can travel to Columbus, Mansfield, Wooster & Newark.I will check back to see if any more are listed. I also belong to the Columbus Folk Music Society and they are good about listing events.

    In Mount Vernon we have the Music Lovers Jam about 3 to 4 times a year with the next this weekend.

    When: Saturday, March 21 from 1-5 PM
    Where: First Congregational United Church of Christ
    200 North Main ST
    Mount Vernon, OH 43050

    There will be different locations available to different types of music (folk, old-time, bluegrass, gospel, pop, and classics). Players of all levels are welcome and encouraged to attend as well as listeners.

    Snacks will be available (no potluck).

    For more information, contact Janet at walkanddance@gmail.com

    • Rick –

      Just to be clear, this is *not* the way for a sing to get included in the map and directory. You should use the link in the sidebar to submit the sing via the form so it can be included.

  2. I came across this blog while I was researching for a program I’m helping out with at the Erie Art Museum in Erie, PA. The program is called Old Songs New Opportunities (OSNO) and its goal is to work with the large refugee population in the area and train participants in early childcare services. In conjunction with receiving this professional training, the participants are sharing children’s songs that they remember from their native country. The museum ethnomusicologist, Kelly Armor, translates the songs into English and the students learn the songs in both English and the original language. Some of the cultures represented are Burundi, Congolese, Sudanese, Nepali, Bhutanese, and Iraqi. The students obtain internships at local daycare centers and teach the songs to children there. It is amazing to see how much joy the refugee students get out of hearing their songs being sung by their fellow students and by American children and the children LOVE to sing in these new languages. The program also encourages American childcare providers to sing with children regardless of their perceived talent or skill. Overall, OSNO addresses cultural literacy and understanding, the idea that the practice of singing is for everyone, not just for performers, and that singing has a crucial role in childhood development.

    Check us out:



    We’re on Facebook, too. OSNO’s purpose and the ethic of this blog seemed so aligned, I had to let you know about it.

  3. Hi Matt,
    I enjoyed hearing you play and sing this Summer. Are there any community sings in the Royal Oak/Ann Arbor area? I don’t know how to read music but I do like to sing.
    Thanks for all you are doing.

  4. Hi! Just got home from leading a song circle as part of the Charlotte Folk Society’s annual Ice Cream Social and Oldtime Music Jam and saw this blog post. Right on! We hold a song circle after our monthly concert — and yes, we use Rise Up Singing. I love seeing people walk in hesitantly saying “I’m not much of a singer” and then relax and join in when they begin to feel safe. I love seeing people suggest songs nervously (as if we’re going to veto anyone’s choice) and then seeing their relief when someone says “Oh! I love that song!” I love seeing people come back month after month, some with very little to say, but clearly feeling that they belong. I love seeing the wonder on a newcomer’s face when they realize no song is “too corny” and we are singing all these old songs with a complete lack of irony or cynicism. I love giving someone the joy of singing that silly song their old dad used to love, and which they were sure no one else in the world had ever heard. It’s a powerful thing and I love being part of it.

  5. I agree with what you said about how enjoyable Community Singing is. I perform regularly at various events and have been involved in music for years. But there is nothing that I enjoy more than seeing somebody who believes that they can’t sing, take the plunge and join with others to make a beautiful sound. It is an exciting thing to give somebody the gift of song for themselves.