I don’t even own an electric guitar. Why did I volunteer to teach guitar at a girls’ rock camp? I make my living teaching music and some of my students are rockers. Over the years I’ve learned to mash through power chords and scales. Plus, I’m a feminist and that’s what we do – support girls and women. This is a music camp, sure, but it’s also a vehicle for empowering girls and I’m all about that.
Enough about me. How was camp? Amazing. Life changing. And not just for the girls, for the volunteers, too. All of the volunteers are women, many of them working musicians. How cool is that?
It started on a Friday night, November 6, at a gallery downtown. Girls checked in and made name tags. We played fun ice breaker games including one where we organized ourselves by birth day and month. There were three girls with September 13 as their birthday and then Madison, one of the guitar teachers, rushed in with her infant and proclaimed it as his birthday too. It’s also my dad’s birthday, the one partly responsible for me being a guitar player. Cue Twilight Zone music.
The evening ended with a movie, pizza and instrument assignments. For the latter, teachers went to various corners and as a girl’s name and instrument was announced she went to that corner. I was a little worried when I saw that I was one of only two guitar teachers and we had a half dozen guitar players, some who’d never touched a guitar. We did a little “Yay! Guitar players!” and everyone went their separate ways, excited for the weekend of activities. The other guitar teacher and I approached the teacher organizer and she assured us that all was well – one of the teachers was there but had to go home early plus there’d be other instructors joining us for the weekend. Whew. I was already a bit out of my element and this made me feel a lot better.
Saturday started early with volunteers setting up at the Capital Rehearsal Studio. The studio hosts rental space for local bands. It’s gritty but perfect for us with its large main room and separate rehearsal rooms. For a while I was setting up the guitar room alone, a daunting task for someone who can put together a PA but has only worked with guitar amps once or twice. Somewhere in the distant recesses of my mind I remembered that some amps had two separate pieces – a head and a speaker – and that they needed to be connected. After a few minutes, one of the other teachers came in to help me. That and a large mug of Bridgehead coffee (with real cream!) helped get everything done. I proposed marriage to the two women responsible for the coffee. This wasn’t Folger’s from the can. This was Good Stuff from a local chain.
Campers arrived mid-morning and the festivities began. In the morning girls split up into separate rooms according to their instruments. Marla Mitchell – one of the other guitar teachers – and I did a Vulcan mind meld and fell into team teaching like we’d done it forever. The other instructors, Allessia and Madison, assisted. After teaching a pentatonic scale (only five notes) the teachers played the chords for a 12 bar blues and had each girl put together a solo. It didn’t matter if it was two notes or twelve. We were guitar players and it was all good. In the afternoon band names and songs were chosen. While all the band names were fun, I think my favorite was “Moist Anonymous.” (I need to write a song with that title.)
In the afternoon, girls went back to their instrument rooms and worked on the cover tune they’d chosen, along with help from the staff – “Paranoid” (Black Sabbath), “I Love Rock N Roll” (Joan Jett), “Bulletproof” (La Roux), “Zombie” (Cranberries) or “Seven Nation Army” (White Stripes). I had three guitar players to teach for “Zombie” and “I Love Rock n Roll,” songs I’d thankfully heard before and for the latter, had even taught my private students. Two of the girls could already play and picked up things fast. The other had never held a guitar before but I figured out some one or two finger power chords which she got right away. I was impressed by everyone’s willingness to jump right in. The player for “Zombie” confessed that she had never heard the song before but was excited about it and about playing in the band. That kind of attitude leapt from every band. Girls were so amped to be there, they practically levitated.
During breaks I got to know some of the other volunteers. Even though I was the oldest one there and one of the few who wasn’t a rocker, I always felt comfortable. Conversations ranged from raising orchids to Canadian politics to where their band was playing. The girls did the same, gathering into groups at lunch and other breaks. I loved seeing them connect and make friends.
After lunch there was more jamming, then in the late afternoon we went our separate ways. At home I ran through a couple of the songs and figured out some parts that I promised two of my guitar players.
Sunday morning the bands played together for the first time. As I walked down the hall, I heard the bass line of “Seven Nation Army,” then a drum roll from “I Love Rock n Roll,” and a lot more in a beautiful cacophony. Marla took the guitar players for “I Love Rock N Roll,” leaving me with “Zombie.” Lily, the guitar player for that one, was great, jumping in with her own ideas. I scored a distortion pedal for her (Thanks to Leslie for the loan!) and that totally changed it. Here’s the band in rehearsal:
Lots of practice went on. The girls fine-tuned their songs with help from the instructors.
In the late afternoon the bands blew us away at a dress rehearsal. Lots of support and love in that room — screaming girls, cell phones in the air, and a few teary-eyed instructors. To see some of these girls go from shy kids on Friday night to a wall of sound on Sunday afternoon was really mind blowing.
I don’t mean to gloss over the other activities – there were some great presentations, workshops and a performance by a band that included volunteers. I was especially impressed by Project SoundCheck, an organization that helps keep everyone safe at music events.
And the volunteers, wow! It was great to not have to worry when and how things were happening. Lunch would show up right as my stomach growled, and patch cords would appear at the right time.
It was funny to see outside bands arrive to use the practice spaces we weren’t using. I didn’t see a single woman, just baffled-looking young guys. And that, my folks, is one of the reasons why we need this camp.
There isn’t too much I could say about camp that’s negative except for the ear worms. If I’m going to have a song rattling around my brain on repeat, I’d rather it be kd lang singing “Hallelujah” and not Black Sabbath and White Stripes, complete with distortion and bombastic drums. Oh the price we pay.
As the time for the show grew closer the energy in the room came close to cracking the windows and in a venue where rock bands regularly break the sound barrier, that’s saying a lot. Girls made last minute arrangements, gathered their stuff, and headed out to the performance venue, The Bronson Center. I loaded up my car with camp T-shirts and refreshments, arriving just before they did.
As the hall filled up, volunteers set up the stage for the show. I sat with Marla. We talked about our students and music in general. It was great to bond with another woman who makes a living teaching guitar. There aren’t too many of us.
After announcements, each band performed and blew out the walls. There were flashes of brilliance as well as some rough moments — that happens with any band. Some of the girls could be in their own band right now and I hope they form one. Heck, even if they just picked up an instrument, I hope they form a band. Some of the greatest punk bands started that way.
Each group finished to well-deserved mad applause.
Here’s Moist Anonymous covering “I Love Rock N Roll”:
One of the things I loved most was how the girls supported each other. They cheered loudly for each other when they were on stage, and in some cases, formed a joyous mosh pit right in front.
At the end, each girl ran down in front of the stage, high fiving the teachers and getting up to receive a certificate. More mad applause.
Afterward I met as many of the girls’ family members as I could. When I told one family that their daughter would be wanting a bass now her dad smiled and said, “Oh we have plenty of instruments at our house.” Good. If some of the girls want to continue in music it helps to have support at home.
I told Lily she did a great job on “Zombie” and with a huge grin she thanked me and replied that it was an experience she’d never forget. Joy, one of the other guitar players, introduced me to her brother and then hugged me, also thanking me. I couldn’t be more proud of these girls.
After all the chairs were put away and a group was dismantling the sound equipment, a group of volunteers stood in a circle and talked. We weren’t ready to let go of this amazing experience. It was late, though, and I was fried, so after a few minutes I said my goodbyes and walked out into the crisp fall air. I hope to be back next year because I love rock n roll and I especially love the Ottawa Rock Camp for Girls. Maybe the bass line for “Seven Nation Army” will be out of my head by then.
Girls, if you want to rock out and you don’t live in Ottawa, google for a camp in your city. They have them all over. Live in Ottawa? Check out the camp website.
If you’re a woman musician, consider working at a rock camp for girls. If there isn’t anything like this in your town, start one!
Some of these photos came from the ORC4G Facebook page. If I used your photo and you’d like a photo credit (or the photo removed), let me know.
Want guitar lessons? I teach via Skype from anywhere in the world and also in my studio in Ottawa. Contact me here.
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