Many in the audience held cellphones high, flashlight feature shining, swaying to the beat of Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran.
But it was not a Lexington concert by the young British singer-songwriter. It was 15 teenagers from across the state, as far west as Caldwell County and as far east as Morgan County, seated side by side on black stools, mics in hand, singing their hearts out at the annual Kentucky 4-H Teen Conference.
Throughout the hourlong performance, the teens performed songs from movies, ranging from Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley to Happy by Pharrell Williams. The singers electrified the crowd and prompted a standing ovation, with a few pleas for an encore.
And there wasn’t a cow or a sheep in sight. These 15 4-H members deviated from the organization’s strong agricultural ties and dabbled in the arts as a part of the Kentucky 4-H Performing Arts Troupe.
After a push to add expressive arts to 4-H a few years ago, and after a performance by the Tennessee 4-H Performing Arts Troupe about six years ago, the idea for a Kentucky 4-H Performing Arts Troupe ignited, said Jennifer Tackett, extension specialist for 4-H youth development.
With the addition of more expressive arts and creating the troupe, 4-H activities opened up to a larger group of teens, Tackett said. As children grow older, participation in 4-H dwindles, often because of the amount of extracurricular activities in high school.
Leadership opportunities are available in the performing troupe. In addition to performances, the troupe establishes a board and committees where they elect a chair and organize workshops for the middle school 4-H conference.
During the past three years, the performing troupe taught middle schoolers a flash mob dance, an a capella version of Royals by Lorde, and how to play Roar by Katy Perry on varying instruments during the Kentucky 4-H Teen Summit.
The performing arts troupe is entering its fourth year, growing from six performers to 15.
Lydia Manley, a junior from Logan County, was one of 21 high school students who auditioned Monday in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall for the 2015-2016 version of the 4-H Performing Arts Troupe.
Manley’s mother discovered the troupe online and encouraged Manley to audition, based on her previous experience in choirs and her interest in music.
“It looked really interesting and like something I would like to do, so I thought I’d try out,” Manley said.
During auditions, each student received two minutes to perform a song of their choice in front of three judges: Kellie Moss, music teacher at Garth Elementary School; Josh Johnson, choir teacher and band director at Livingston County High School; and Jason Headrick, director of student relations in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky.
The students were asked to provide an idea for a set-list theme. While one student performed his or her individual song, the remaining 20 students were downstairs rehearsing a rendition of Riptide by Vance Joy. Within about an hour and a half, Toni Humble, Wayne County 4-H agent, had taught students to sing Riptide as a group. A few teens learned to play the song on guitar, and one student learned to accompany the song on drums.
Tackett announced the new troupe of 15 performers and three tech members last week, during the teen conference’s closing ceremony. It will kick off its season in August, performing at the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville. In September, the troupe will learn about six songs at a music camp and will then perform where it is invited.
“It changes every year, but it’s getting more popular,” Tackett said. “We’re getting more calls now.” Also, each year, the troupe travels to nearby Off-Broadway shows and explores possible careers in the music industry, including touring a radio station.
“One of the coolest things about 4-H, I think, is exposing kids to things that they might not have otherwise been exposed to,” Tackett said.
Last Wednesday, members of the 2014-2015 troupe said their goodbyes in their final performance. Tackett said she was sad to see the senior members of the troupe go after witnessing the growth and development of the students.
“Just seeing them grow both as a leader and a performer, both of those things are pretty awesome,” she said.
Emma Dame, 16, of McLean County, has been a troupe member for two years. She has grown more comfortable in her musical abilities, and she lost her stage fright once she performed as a vocalist and a guitarist.
“My life wouldn’t be the same without it,” Dame said.
Knowing it was her final performance with the troupe, Riley Jenkins, 17, of Morgan County, a vocalist in the troupe from its start, said she cried earlier in the day, sad to part with an organization that affected much of her life throughout her high school career.
“It’s been wonderful,” Jenkins said. “It’s going to be heartbreaking leaving, but it has prepared me so much for my future, and this is a big family that I’ll never lose.”