by Jamie H
Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls is a Portland-based summer camp, started in 2001, with the expressed mission to help build self-esteem in girls through music creation and performance. In other words, about 80 girls between the ages of 8 and 18 have one week to learn guitar, bass, drums, keys, voice, or even DJ-ing (or advance on an instrument they already play); they form a band and write a song to be performed at a showcase at the end of the week. Peppered in with all the rocking are workshops on zine making, self-defense, screen-printing, songwriting, and body image, all of which convey the general message that “girls rule” in more of a Kathleen Hannah vein than a Spice Girls way.
A documentary about the camp, Girls Rock! The Movie, premiered at SIFF in 2007. To say that when I saw the film I was inspired is a ridiculous understatement. The film followed four girls through their camp experience and, as with many of my fellow female musicians who saw it, it made me think about how my teen years would have been different if I would have had more confidence in my ability to share all the Nirvana riffs I had been secretly mastering with the boys, who were openly rocking out.
This summer, I’m volunteering for Rock Camp and am now mid-week in my stint as a guitar instructor and band coach. In the morning, I help teach a group of girls guitar skills that they’ll be able to incorporate into songs during band practice in the afternoon. Yesterday, I taught a guitar effects pedal class for an hour. Seeing the girls freak out over the way a delay pedal turns their guitar lines backwards has, in itself, made the long, hot days worthwhile. It’s especially awesome to hear ear-piercing squeals of excitement over distortion and wah-wah pedals rather than over Hello Kitty and Hannah Montana.
Most of the girls attending the camp are from the Portland area, but quite a few are from urban areas and the Midwest, which makes for a fascinating collaborative dynamic in the afternoon during band practice, when the girls are sent to their practice spaces to craft their song together. The band that I’m coaching, The Rainboots, wants to play indie rock, although they can’t really define their genre (but really, who can?). The stereotypical band power dynamics play out even in a room of 11 to 14 year old girls. The singer wanted the song to be about her life experience of not having enough privacy from her parents, but the other girls just couldn’t relate. So, on day two, the lead guitarist rewrote music and the drummer and rhythm guitarist enthusiastically joined in, effectively creating a power struggle between the singer and the rest of the band. Ahhh, a taste of reality, but also of collaboration and conflict resolution, especially within the realm of creativity — all skills the camp strives to teach the girls. By the end of band practice yesterday, there were yells of congratulations and rapid claps of excitement, as the band had played finally played through their whole song, from beginning to end, for the first time. As an added bit of heartwarming satisfaction, during the end-of-day assembly the girls gave an unexpected “shout out” to me for my patience and guidance while they hashed things out.
In just the three days that I’ve been at camp, the girls have come out of their shells and developed an unstoppable desire to rock the hell out. I’m looking forward to the next couple of day as bands solidify their songs and many of the girls get on a stage in front of 700 loving and supportive fans for the very first time.