Mister Chris on the Farm
Yesterday afternoon, after the reliable 3:15 mail delivery, I yanked open my frigid mailbox to find among the bank statements and junk mail, a hand-written envelope from Chris Dorman. I could tell by the shape that it was his fall album — a gift for donating to his Kickstarter campaign to produce the pilot of his Vermont PBS children’s show. I first knew of Chris from attending the popular Burger Night — a weekly summer gathering of music and food, at Bread and Butter Farm. Some of you may be familiar with it, but for those who are not, Burger Night is an outdoor gathering where folks can enjoy plates of farm-fresh food and live music, while kids run free through fields, hoop houses and gardens. Chris and his wife, Corie Pierce, own and operate the South Burlington farm. They're out there every Friday evening, along with their robust summer staff, greeting guests and making sure the busy dinners go off without a hitch. Burger Nights are consistently magical gatherings my family, and many others, have come to cherish.
Chris is the master of ceremonies for the event, and in his gentle, confident way, introduces the musical acts, sings his own songs and facilitates a children’s parade around the grounds. As a spectator and performer, I’ve always admired Chris’ ability to hold a strong presence while also humbling himself to the greater community, in particular when he gives thanks to the farmers and the land for bringing the evening meal to us. I think the word community is key, as it relates to the work Chris and Corie do at the farm. Building community and fostering connections is what they have set out to do. And they do, so beautifully.
Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know Chris and Corie personally, at parties and other social gatherings, but also, attending the Music for Sprouts class at the farm with my young son. I’ve choked back a fair share of happy tears seeing the joy on my little boy’s face as we danced and sang with “Mister Chris” and friends. When I heard about the possibility of Chris partnering with Vermont PBS for a children’s show that would take place at Bread and Butter Farm, I knew it could be a great opportunity for his music and vision to reach more people.
To listen to Chris speak about the importance of community, to hear him sing with children about planting seeds and watching them sprout and grow, it’s nothing short of moving. I wanted to interview Chris about the show and knew it had to be a Q and A, where his words would do the talking, not mine.
Here’s some of the conversation I had with Chris in his kitchen, over a cup of coffee.
When did you first discover your love for music?
I started playing the piano when I was four. We always had a piano in the house. It was meditative for me. I would just sit and compose stuff. My sister really sweetly reflected to me something a couple years ago; when we were teenagers, and my mom would work late all the time, at night, I would feel kinda nervous about it, and I would play the piano. What I didn’t know, was that it would put my sister at ease, too, and she’d fall asleep listening to me playing. So, piano was the first step in my love for music.
I got into performing at an open mic night in East Lansing. I was 17 and was terrified. At the time, I suffered from pretty severe social anxiety. I wasn’t able to do well in college because the social anxiety was too much, I couldn’t handle those situations. But music … At this open-mic night, I went and sat down and I had written this song after a breakup. I was so nervous. There were 70 people in the room, all college-aged. They all listened to every word, clapped at the end and it was like something in me broke free. I thought to myself, oh my god, this is the place in which I can be at my most vulnerable. So I started going regularly and three or four months later started hosting it. I ended up hosting open-mic nights for five years because it became a passion of mine to help people do the same thing. Music saved my life.
You seem very comfortable as the Master of Ceremonies for Burger Nights — it’s seems like it's a natural role for you.
Music helped me find a center point. I walk up and I always have a mantra: It’s not about me. It’s about stirring up the magic that you see around you. And that’s all you gotta do. You go up and you try to be the most vulnerable and the most supportive and just allow things to move through you. I am kind of an introverted guy, so I have to work in specific realms to be able to do that. The stage is one of those realms and the classroom is one of those realms.
If we can create more environments like that and then use those same tools in our everyday life, it’s empowering. No one comes to Music for Sprouts because they want their children to be a virtuouso or a professional musician. They just want joy in their children’s lives. They want their kiddos to interact with other kiddos and they want to do it together. They want to celebrate life together.
What was the bridge to children’s music?
My son Henry’s love for music, and my love for sharing it with him, planted the seed. I took him to a little music class in Michigan and I thought, this is cool. I had never known this existed. And so I started thinking it was something I could do. I was holding on strong to my original dream, which was to be a well-known artist, singer songwriter that could travel and play big shows.
The day I met Corie she had told me her dream was to own a farm. And I hopped right onto that dream because she articulated something in a brand-new way for me. I always wanted to start a community and she helped me realize that that community really needed to be centered on food.
We moved to Vermont and it all happened really quickly! The land trust had put out a call for proposals and we put ours in 3 weeks after we moved here and found out 10 days later that we had been selected and closed on the farm within a couple months. At first, we were sinking a lot of money into the farm and got the point where Corie and I said, we need to do something to keep our heads above water. So I had the idea for the program, Music for Sprouts. I started writing music for my kids, Henry and Samantha, and it was incredible. Once I started writing for them, they instantly wanted to hear it, so I started making little recordings for them and we made videos together and that’s when I started writing the curriculum. Music for Sprouts launched in fall of 2012 and because of Burger Night and the network we had at the farm I started with 35 kids off the bat, and then it grew every session —35, 50, 60 kiddos, the next year it was 70, 80, and 90.
What happens in the classroom is like magic, and it’s magic because of what exists naturally between kiddos and caregivers, between families. That magic is just there. It’s about intention towards each other. And then you put it all together in a circle, where my job is to facilitate and to enlighten that magic that we have and then use music as a medium to just stir it up. Now we have this potential to do the same thing and broadcast it to a lot of folks through this PBS show. And I don’t know how it’s going to translate exactly but my hope is that it’ll plant little seeds, so there are dance parties happening in kitchens all over Vermont.
So how did the PBS partnership come to be?
Shows are moments of transformative possibility, so you play every show to it’s fullest. I had a show like that. I got asked to play a gig at a library in Colchester. It was a long drive for me and it didn’t make financial sense, but they were so nice and I wanted to do it. So I went and there would be like three or four kiddos. But every show would be so fun! Well, one of the little girl’s father, Brian, worked at Vermont PBS.
He wrote me an email, almost 2 years ago, now, and asked if I’d ever consider creating a children’s television show. And I said, yeah! I already had a notebook of ideas. I love Mr. Rogers and I wanted to create gentle wholesome TV.
At the time, Vermont PBS was in a transition, where everybody in the station had been called to the table. They wanted to reinvigorate local programming and asked for everyone to give ideas. Brian and I put together a pitch for a children’s show to senior staff. At the same time, they were exploring new ways of funding and trying to stay relevant in a digital era. So, Brian told them that I had done two successful kickstarter campaigns and they decided to hear us out.
We met with the CEO of Vermont PBS. I went in and just tried to be as genuine as I could. What really sealed the deal was when Holly, the CEO, said to me, “beyond the show think of what this could mean for community outreach and advocacy for lifelong learning.” And I said, sign me up!
What’s the pilot going to be about?
Mister Chris lives on a Vermont farm and takes viewers on adventures that illuminate the natural beauty of our working landscape, the people, plants and animals who live there, who give to it and receive from it. And each episode would have one main learning point topic. So, the episode would be centered on, say, honeybees. We will sing songs about honeybees, we’ll have visual representations of honeybees and their habitat; there will be dancing, and fantasy. There’s the possibility of a magic barn that transports you to places through a back door. There will be a culminating barn concert with special musical guests each week … and I think that’s all I should say.
We 're going to be working with childhood education consultants and community advocates across the board. The score is going to be beautiful and we are going to put a lot of attention into scoring the whole show. It’s going to be so fun. What it’s about is making connections; what it’s about is inspiring people to do great things and to just remember that the world is a beautiful place. Because it is! It really is.