This post assumes you're familiar with rationalist solstice. (It also assumes that while yes, ritual is something to be epistemically careful about, the overall effect size is relatively small compared to spending much of your life thinking about a topic 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:
- Doing at least 16 singalongs
- Clumping* them together in groups of 2-4, rather than alternating song / story / song / story. (Clumping is valuable even if you are doing a smaller number of songs)
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:
- It takes people awhile to get comfortable singing.
- Context switching makes it harder to get into the headspace of singing.
- There is a secret, deeper headspace of singing that you only get to if you do a LOT of it, in a row, in an environment that encourages being thoroughly un-self-conscious about it.
- 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.
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.
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:
- On average, groups of 2-4 songs
- Start with a song that's a particularly inviting singalong, to set the overall context of "this is an event where we're here to sing together."
- Each song gets a brief story (like 10-30 seconds) that gives it some context and helps people fit it into the overall narrative arc of the night. The brief stories are not long enough to take you out of singalong-headspace.
- In between sets of 2-4 songs, there are longer stories, speeches, meditations and other activities that move the narrative along more significantly. Each one sets the overall context for the next 2-4 songs, shifting the particular qualia of "deep singalong" that you'd get from it.
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.