Making Music Accessible One Concert at a Time

A new concert series will help enrich the lives of individuals with special needs.

by Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois
A trial-run concert on Sunset Hill last October featured the Roundstone Buskers (pictured), Sarah & The Underground and The Deep Hollow.
A trial-run concert on Sunset Hill last October featured the Roundstone Buskers (pictured), Sarah & The Underground and The Deep Hollow.

Blue Ridge Community Farm (BRCF) is launching a new outdoor concert series this fall featuring performances by local and regional musicians. As an arts advocate, I’m always excited to learn about new performance venues that are emerging here in central Illinois. More opportunities for local artists to perform is a great indicator that our community continues to value the growing live music scene we have here. 

The concert series at Blue Ridge Community Farm, however, is designed to be much more than just a new platform for live, local music. It has been developed to amplify and serve the mission of Blue Ridge Community Farm, which is to enrich the lives of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities through educational, social, vocational and residential opportunities in rural and community-based settings. 

So how does a concert series accomplish that? To learn more, I reached out to the creative team behind the project: Laura Sniff, Jerry Kolb and Sarah Marie Dillard. 

Laura, before we jump into the concert series, tell me more about how BRCF got started.

Sniff: My husband Jim and I are the founders of Blue Ridge Community Farm. We are parents to two beautiful children—our daughter Allison, who is 21, and our son Jimmy, who is 22. Jimmy has autism and cognitive impairment and is the reason we started Blue Ridge Community Farm. When Jimmy entered early childhood education at the age of three, his class visited our farm for a field trip and had a wonderful time. We quickly realized that we had the ability to offer something very unique to those with disabilities in a peaceful, rural setting. 

Blue Ridge Community Farm
More than 1,500 individuals with disabilities visit Blue Ridge Community Farm each year.

Fast forward to today (pre-COVID), from May through October we welcome over 1,500 individuals with disabilities from more than 50 different organizations (schools, day programs, group homes, etc.) throughout central Illinois. We never charge a fee to spend a day at the farm. Field trips include interacting with our 25 animals (donkeys, horse, farm dogs, chickens and alpacas), making crafts and enjoying music. 

This year, through God’s grace, we will begin providing training and employment opportunities for adults with disabilities with the acquisition of Picket Fence in Chillicothe, a full-service floral, gift and garden center. Here we will also showcase and sell products made by children and adults with disabilities from our area and across the country.

How do you see the concert series fitting into and enhancing what you are already doing at the farm? 

Sniff: This is a unique opportunity to spread the mission of BRCF to those who may not know about us because they do not have a loved one with a disability. At each concert, we will feature artists with disabilities. The public will have an opportunity to meet these folks and purchase their products. The concert series will be free to attend, but we will also be asking those who are able to support our mission with a goodwill offering. 

Blue Ridge Community Farm

Did you ever imagine a concert series would be happening at BRCF? How did the idea develop? 

Sniff: For many years, Jim has had a dream to host concerts on a hillside that we call “Sunset Hill.” It is a natural amphitheater surrounded by trees, which help filter the sound up and over the hillside. Through a mutual friend, we connected with Jerry Kolb, who upon visiting Sunset Hill described it as a mini Alpine Valley, after the music venue in Wisconsin. We decided to hold a trial-run concert during COVID last October with only about 50 people present on Sunset Hill. It was a huge success, and then talk of a series in 2021 began.

Jerry, you are the organizer behind the series. How do you make a concert series like this accessible and enjoyable for people with sensory sensitivities? 

Kolb: Well, it all comes down to the location. When I visited the farm in the summer of 2020, Laura and her husband showed me Sunset Hill. It is just a really cool spot that seemed perfect for an open-air concert series. Our trial run in October of 2020 confirmed it to be a very gentle environment in terms of light, sound and space. We are really relying on this natural setting to provide a great atmosphere for both the musicians and for the audience.

Dillard: Jerry has also booked groups that can work really well in this setting—warm folk instruments, vocals, stringed instruments… all very soothing sounds!

Sarah Marie, in addition to performing with your band Sarah and the Underground, you will be serving as emcee for the concert series. Why did you and your husband Brandon want to get involved with this project? 

Dillard: Because we know the pain and struggle of a family trying to find where they belong in a community and never feeling like they’ve found it. That is what we hope this concert will change. On a personal note, Brandon’s younger brother has autism and there are challenges when it comes to participating in typical big events with large crowds and loud noises. We want to support a live music event where he can come, enjoy live music, and not have to leave immediately because he’s been triggered. 

Also, Brandon and I teach a lot of students with autism and families who have members with autism. Often times, these families can feel quite isolated and alone. We hope the concert series will provide a place where they can come and connect with each other, learn about the resources available to them through BRCF, and of course enjoy some great live music in a safe, judgement-free zone. 

Jerry, you’ve got some great musicians attached to this project. What were their reactions to the opportunity and the cause?

Kolb: All of these bands loved the concept and were so on board when they heard the mission of BRCF. Some of these musicians have family members with either autism or sensory sensitivities as well—so this really is important to them on multiple levels. Bottom line, they are all very excited to play for a cool place and for a cool cause. And that is before they get to pet the alpacas!

The Deep Hollow
The Deep Hollow, a harmony-driven acoustic trio from Springfield, Illinois, will perform at Blue Ridge Community Farm in September 2021.

Anything you’d like to add to that, Laura? 

Sniff: We are just really looking forward to providing a relaxing Sunday afternoon in the country, where people can listen to amazing musicians and learn a little about Blue Ridge Community Farm and the amazing folks that we are honored to serve. 

The Blue Ridge Community Farm Fall Concert Series launches on August 13, 2021, with a kickoff event at 8:30pm at Pour Bros. Craft Tap Room featuring Good Morning Bedlam and Harvest Sons. All other events will take place on the farm at 2:00pm and will include performances by The Accidentals, The Deep Hollow, Chicago Farmer and more. Attendees are encouraged to bring blankets and their own food/beverages. To see a full lineup of dates and performers, or to reserve your free ticket, visit 309tix.com. PM

Jenn Gordon is executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. Get connected to the arts in central Illinois at artspartners.net

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