Musician, farmer, and father Chris Dorman: listening first, then taking the leap

Photo credit for above photo for  musician parade: John Snyder, Farmington Hills, MI

Chris Dorman is a musician, farmer and educator based Shelburne, Vermont. He helped found Bread and Butter Farm with his wife and friends, and founded Music for Sprouts, which recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign for a new children’s album “Always There.”

Parent.co is streaming a living-room style concert with Chris Dorman and Friends live (and free) this Father’s Day June 21 at 6:00PM. Learn more >

Chris Dorman

Parent Co: What are some of your earliest musical memories?

Chris: We had a piano in our house at an early age, and I remember piano lessons when I was a little kid, age 4. The piano ended up not being something that I studied a lot, but it was something that was always in our house, and I did a lot of stuff, exploration with it. To my mind that was the building block of my songwriting, because it was an experimental time.

And honestly, it was a really comforting presence for me as well, every day, before we went to bed. As I got older and my mom would work late, it would be something I would do before I went to bed. My sister told me after we were adults that she used to fall asleep listening to it, that it was comforting for her as well.

Did either of your parents play piano?

That was the idea. My mom actually didn’t start learning until she went back to school. She got really good, really quickly too. She still plays. She sang in a band, a cover band, for a while. My dad always sang too. He gets booked to sing at churches, even though he doesn’t go to church. He was just telling me last night, actually, that if anyone ever takes issue with that, he just says that his goal is to embrace the music and connect with it, and that’s what he does.

Can you tell me about your Music for Sprouts program?

Yeah, it’s a music and movement program, and also just sort of a music appreciation class for families. We focus a lot on connecting the children to the music, and thinking about the ways they absorb information, but also, sharing activities that parents can really get into, and they can take home, and play in the car over, and over, and over again, It really becomes a way to celebrate each other, and connect to each other, and create musical moments together.

Do you meet a lot of parents who are intimidated at first, or too reserved to express themselves musically, or to feel like they could even get involved with their children on that level.

I do get a sense, especially in the first few classes, that there are varying levels of comfort with singing, and participating in a group setting. I always say, to the kiddos and parents alike, though more often I’ll focus it towards the kiddos, thinking the parents will be even more comfortable if I do so. I’ll just say, “Listening is often a very, very active way to give to each other, and to express yourself. So sing along in any way you feel comfortable, even if it is sitting and taking it all in.”

Some kiddos and grownups will do that for a whole year, or forever, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that either. What I love about it is the music moves through you as long as you’re open to it, and even if you’re not really, there’s not a whole lot that can stop the music from going right through.

Why do you think that is?

Well, I think we’re permeable. Just the physics of sound, the actual sound is moving through and vibrating through our body. We’re water, so there’s the physics of it, but then when a song is coming from a genuine place, coming from the heart, it’s hard not to connect to that too. That’s what I think I love about listening being an active thing. Even if you need it to be private, it can be, and you can still really get something out of it. It can be just for you.

Parents get self-conscious about how their kiddos are in class, whether they’re supposed to be doing this or that, and again I say even if you think your kiddo is not taking it in, they are. Maybe the way they need to express themselves that week is to just run around, or be in a corner by themselves. Some kids jump right in and want to play everything, and some kiddos sit quietly in their parents lap with wide eyes.Even in the most quiet kiddos, you start to see how they recognize the beginnings and ends of songs, and when they hear something familiar, and then I get to see even little smiles the parents don’t get to see, reactions … It’s all good. That’s what’s really great about it, especially at this age, or any age. It’s all good. There are no expectations.

What are some of the many ways that music finds its way into your house?

Right now it’s pretty exciting. Well, I’ll back it up. Having kids, to begin with, I was totally afraid that music would leave. Before I had Henry I was playing 200 shows a year in the midwest circuit with folk music, Indie folk music, and (when we had our first child) I was the best candidate for stay-at-home parent. We really wanted that for our kids. I didn’t know how I was going to keep it up. The first couple of years were really a tough balance and a lot of worry that I wasn’t going to be able to keep going.

Did you think that you wouldn’t be able to keep your music career going?

Exactly. I knew I could never be the musician I wanted to be if I wasn’t the dad that I wanted to be first. There was moments when I wasn’t, and it was all mixed up, but anyways, when we moved here to Vermont, Henry was 2, and again we had a lot going on. It wasn’t until our daughter, Samantha was born, I decided for the first time since I started playing music when I was a teenager that I was going to take one year off from shows. So Henry’s 4, Sam is a newborn, and I take a year off, and it was in that space that I developed the idea of Music for Sprouts, though it was Corie who named it. She came up with the name.

I figured this would be a way to help us keep our head above water, and an also a way to play music regularly. So I launched it in fall of 2012, and realized at that point, after a few weeks, I was totally in love with the work. Instead of it being a parallel journey to what I was already doing, or enabling what I was already doing, in three years it’s become my full-time gig.

What I was really wanting to get to, to answer your question, is that when Henry was a newborn it almost felt like I was at odds with him, like parenting and music were separate. Now my own kiddos are the ones who fill our house with music, even more than I do. Henry is on the piano any second he gets a chance. Samantha is like this whimsical fairy who sings, and if she’s given the space, she’ll sing at the top of her lungs, and now she requests “daddy music.” It’s a dream come true, and she knows all the words to all the songs, and now our house is filled to the brim with music, so it’s more than I could have dreamt of.

Did you ever worry that making music, and particularly music for kids, would take away some of your energy or desire to do it just as a dad with your own kids?

I think I worried about that more when I wasn’t making music for kids. My kids have really been my muse through this. I test all my songs out on them, and I ask their honest opinions about things, so they’re super involved. I really feel like we’re making more music together because of it.

Yeah, it sounds like a rare opportunity, and a rare combination. There aren’t a lot of parents who get to build their career with the help of their children. That’s a really cool, unique-sounding opportunity that you’ve created for yourself.

I don’t know if I anticipated it, but it’s beautiful, and I’m interested to see how it evolves as they get older as well.

What thoughts would you offer for parents who still long to create, but can’t make their living doing the creative things they want to do?

One thing I go back to is making sure that you feel wonderful about how you are doing as a parent, as a mom or dad. I say that with a grain of salt, because it goes day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. There’s going to be days when you feel totally, “Man, I’m the worst ever.”

But another question would be what is it creatively …? What is it about creating things that fulfills you, because there can be a hundred different ways to accomplish that goal. That was the big thing for me, the hardest thing, was to let go of this idea that there was only one way to accomplish my dreams. When you let it go, and you allow yourself to be open, you could end up being led in a new direction.

How does music help people, kids and adults, to experience the openness that you’re talking about.

I think listening is key, and so music definitely inspires us to do that. I think that’s the first step. If you stay still for a while, and you keep your ears open, then maybe you’ll find your place in it.

We do a jam session every week where a bunch of instruments get dumped out onto the floor, and I take my ukulele, and there’s no set song. I have a bunch of songs in my head, and I try to play as lightly as I can and feel out the room. It’s interesting, because after a couple of minutes, it’s almost like there’s this air of anonymity.

It’s like we create this little comfort zone where we’re all focused on the kids, and what they’re doing, and then parents get the sense that nobody’s looking, and I’m in this, and then the jam really begins… Yeah, I think it’s listening first, and then just taking the leap.