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Simple Harmonies

The Do Re Mi's of Amish Singing

By Catie Noyes • Editor Published: June 2, 2014 9:00 AM
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The Amish sing from a time- honored hymnal book called the Ausbund. The very first Ausbund was published in Europe in 1964. The original edition consisted of 53 hymns that were composed by 60 Anabaptist imprisoned for their faith in Passu, Germany from 1537-1542. (Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, Ausbund Display)

Additional hymns were added to later editions bringing the Ausbund to a total of 140 hymns plus a separated addendum of six. Of those original hymns, only 51 are still used in today's Ausbund. New hymns were added over time and 141 hymns are used in Amish church services today. (Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, Ausbund Display)

The Ausbund is the oldest continually used hymnal. The only known copy of the original Ausbund is located in the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

It's interesting to note, in the first 10 printings of the hymnal books, there is no publishing names printed inside. "You could be arrested for having these books in your possession," said Lester Beachy, a New Order Amish man and author of "Our Amish Values."

The Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Berlin recently acquired a set of these hymnal books and have them on display for the public. "Of the 32 first editions printed, Behalt has obtained 26 from local historian Leroy Beachy," said Beachy.

Today approximately 10,000 copies of the Ausbund are printed to keep up with the demand. "All of the tunes are sung in German, a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) and with tunes handed down from generation to generation," explained Beachy.

The Ausbund is used in Amish church services and the tunes are sung very slow. For example: "the Praise Song is one that is sung by every Amish church today," said Beachy. "It takes on average, 20 minutes to sing."

This varies from church to church. Some Swartzentruber Amish could take up to 30 minutes to sing this particular tune, Beachy explained.

An average of four to five hymns are sung every Sunday and these hymns vary from service to service. "Not all of the hymns are used today," said Beachy.

The time of the year best reflects what scripture and hymns will be prepared for each service. For example, during the Christmas season, Luke I and II are read followed by songs that reflect the Christmas season.

During the spring, Amish service may read scriptures that reflect the planting season reciting Parable of the Sower followed by a related hymnal.

Each year follows the same pattern of scripture readings and hymnal singings, Beachy explained. "We also have certain hymns for baptismal services."

In school, children learn to sing in both German and English. In some communities, Amish children will learn actual music by learning the scales - "Do Re Mi Fa" - and matching pitch. In the English (non-Amish) communites, this method is called Solfege and is taught to all levels of music education.

This is all done by voice learning, without the use of instruments to match pitch. Amish children learn to sing in four part harmonies - soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

The children and their families look forward to the special Christmas Programs each year where they recite songs and put on a play to reflect the sacred holiday.

"We like to say, good singing and good young people just go together," said Beachy. Singing is very much encouraged amongst the youth.

In fact, youth participate in Sunday evening hymnal singings following their church services. This is an important time for the Amish youth - ranging in age from 16 years old until marriage- to come together in faith.

"The first half hour is sung in German while the last three-quarter hour is sung in English," said Beachy. All songs are sung in four part harmonies and the average singings will bring together anywhere from 60 to 80 young people.

The Amish youth will also travel to nursing homes and in Beachy's community, the youth travel to local prisons to sing. Beachy recalled a recent trip, where the youth in his community had the opportunity to travel to New York City and sing for the people from the streets.

"We received a lot of attention that day," said Beachy. He said it was a very neat experience.

Once the Amish reach adulthood (or married life) public singing is not as common. Amish families come together for family scripture readings and are encouraged to share their faith with each other in song.

"We encourage families to sing together," said Beachy. "We believe singing is joyful and people should be joyful. So spontaneous singing is encouraged."


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