Last Sunday I attended an Amish youth singing in Lancaster County. What follows is a short account. Youth practices may vary from community to community.
Amish youth groups
The singing is a venue where young members of the community socialize. When an Amish teen reaches the age of 16, he or she will be expected to “go with the youth”, and select a youth group to join. In Lancaster County these groups are nearly uncountable, though I hear that one enterprising young man produces a newsletter in which he attempts to do just that. They number at least in the dozens. Many of the youth groups have bird names, such as the Meadowlarks and Parakeets.
Groups are “higher” and “lower”—I was at the singing of a particularly “low” group, which is another way of saying more conservative when it comes to guidelines. All youth in this group, for example, use open carriages. Decorations were visible on some carriages—usually a decal attached to the orange slow moving vehicle sign—typically an outline of a deer buck or the logo of a hunting club (you see this often with Amish youth; this is my all-time favorite). This group is adult-supervised, with adults attending the day’s events, though that is not the case with all of them.
A youth will join a given group depending on a number of factors—the group his siblings or friends belong to, the particular rules of the group—with some “faster” than others, the wishes of his parents as well. Speaking with a young man the day following this singing, he explained that it is sometimes not exactly just the decision of the young person—parental influence can be strong, with youth sometimes being pressured to join groups against what would otherwise be their preference.
He described a situation where one youth intentionally broke a rule because he sought to be thrown out of the particularly conservative group he was a member of. Apparently when adults found out that this was his intention, he was kept a member.
Amish adults tend to remember this youth period fondly. It should be said that this is not so much a time of testing and decision as it is a time to socialize and find a life partner, as our Amish correspondent Aaron Miller has explained (see “Rumspringa: Myths and Reality“). The Sunday evening gathering is a key event in the social life of Amish youth.
One important part of a youth gathering are the outdoor games, in most cases volleyball. On this particular day, four nets were set up in a row on the flattest part of the farm (being a hilly land, flat is a relative term here). Teams are mixed, with boys and girls on both sides. Some were at or near age 16, and you had others ranging into their 20s. Volleyball may begin in the afternoon and carry on after the supper meal, which takes place around 5.
This isn’t just your everyday tame volleyball game—there is an intensity to make big plays with dives and flying spikes common. Shortly after arriving, I witnessed a young man leap, sail towards the net and bring his arm down like a mallet on the ball—spiking it directly into the face of a girl on the other team and sending the ball careening off into the out-of-bounds area. She was surprisingly unfazed by the force of the impact and continued on with a laugh.
There is a bit of a competitive spirit, with some minor “trash talk” happening, though mild compared to non-Amish standards, and done all in fun. What you hear a lot more often are encouraging words—“Good effort”, “shake it off”.
Seeing that one of the games was lopsided, with 6 vs. 7, I had a chance to jump in, at my age with little doubt the oldest “youth”. Since the day had been pretty damp, the game was a muddy affair, visible on the hands of players as we lined up and filed past each other under the net, slapping fives and offering congratulations on a good game.
The Amish youth singing
After volleyball came time to prepare for the singing itself, which was set to begin at 8pm. At this point the adults take seats at opposite ends of the long room. The barrier demarcating residences in this split farmhouse had been removed, creating a long open space spanning one home’s kitchen to the next—a distance of perhaps 50 feet in length and with an area capable of seating over a hundred.
The youth file in, first the boys and then the girls, to shake the adults’ hands, who remain seated. It is a happy occasion with many smiles and some joking around. I sat with the men in one kitchen while the women sat opposite us in the other. One of my little buddies (age 3) hopped up on my lap to keep me company, and amused himself playing with the comb and handkerchief his dad handed him to keep him occupied during the event.
After being seated, one member of the group takes the lead in singing out the first few notes of the first song chosen. Then the chorus of voices comes crashing down, youth and adults alike. Later, some girls take turns leading off songs as well. Songs come from one songbook for the first hour, after which it is switched for another, containing somewhat faster tunes, for the remaining hour. All songs are in German, though one was sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace”, the only one I was able to recognize.
Not knowing German is another challenge here. As usual I tried to follow along and even pronounced some words correctly, but you’re dealing with a) not knowing the tune, b) not understanding German, c) the gothic-style script, where the ‘s’ resembles an ‘f’, and so on, and d) the unmarked repetition and melodies—sometimes the last 4 lines of a verse would be repeated, at other times boys would sing one part and girls another. So as usual I was more observer, or rather listener, than participant.
Let me be honest—perhaps it was just a long day (I had attended church that morning as well), but as the singing entered its second hour, I began to struggle and started ruminating on what waterboarding and similar ordeals must be like. When you’re worn out at the end of the day you get the occasional odd thought like that—despite the happy tone of the event and uplifting nature of the songs. The heat of the gas lamps raises the temperature in the room considerably as well, and had it been the full-on summer months we would have all been sweating with parched throats. A community water cup was passed around to offer some relief to the singers, some of whom were belting out notes from somewhere deep down in the belly. In any case I was pretty beat as we arrived at the end, but lest I sound like I am complaining, I am not. It was a memorable event and I was grateful to attend.
Finally, after 2 hours, the singing ended with snacks—trays of cookies and dessert bars, and bowls of a mixture of popcorn, potato chips, corn chips and crackers passed around—as well as tea, coffee, and cocoa. Youth began to slowly trickle out, with some congregating in the barn, some leaving in their carriages, and some remaining behind with the adults in the home to socialize. I drifted off to sleep in the recliner as activity and conversation filled the home all around. A fitting ending to a vigorous day.