How Girls Rock! Pittsburgh is giving young women a glimpse into a world of music beyond the patriarchy.
By: Amy M Edwards
Inclusivity and compromise are the tacit, unspoken and often most beautiful aspects of music making. While experience and talent vary greatly among young musicians, undiscriminating trial and error leads most to discovering their unique musical styles. Navigating the world of band organization, finding one’s voice, and collaboration can be qualities elusive to these young musicians, particularly for those whose musical tastes may differ from the curriculum taught in schools. Fortunately for young girls in Pittsburgh, there’s a group of musicians who have formed a summer camp dedicated exactly to those core principals.
In an electric whirlwind week-long summer camp, the participants of Girls Rock! Pittsburgh come together to form bands in order to learn new instruments, compose and record original songs, and ultimately perform with other rock star campers before a live audience of friends, families, and fans at the conclusion of the week. To accompany their new bands and original compositions, campers further collaborate to design band logos and even screen print their own merchandise—sporting names like Midnight Monkeys, Rainbow Rock, and Power Outage.
“My best memory wasn’t really a memory, it was kind of just a feeling. This feeling of empowerment and happiness. It’s really great to meet these awesome girls who have gone through the same things as you, to just dance around, and not care what anyone thinks,” said Lucha Batera, 12, a camp alumni.
GR!Pgh is open to self-identified girls ages 8-18 (3rd-12th grade) and beyond musical collaboration also offers a space in which to build confidence and challenge gender stereotypes. Past camp workshops have included Healthy Relationships, Self Defense, and Image and Identity. Reflecting on her experience with GR!Pgh, Batera added, “ I’d get a little nervous walking in the first day and then realize, ‘oh wait, everyone here is awesome and doesn’t really care what I’m wearing or what I look like,’ so that’s always a cool feeling.”
The Pittsburgh chapter of GR!Pgh represents but one verse of a much larger musical movement. Originally established in Portland, Oregon in 2007 as The Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, the fresh voices and raw energy could not be contained and quickly grew into a network now known as The Girls Rock Camp Alliance, or GRCA, which is now made up of over 60 camps worldwide, each with their own unique identity and method of operation.
During her three summers with GR!Pgh, Batera gained proficiency in drums, guitar, and singing with her bands — Fearless Five, Frozen Shadows, and Crystal Rain. “I felt very empowered, I just really felt I could take on the world,” said Batera. Her perspective is reaffirming and in line with the mission of GR!Pgh. Their website states, “We believe: Girls can play any kind of music they want. Creative voices of girls and women need to be amplified to create social change. Girls need positive role models and support for their creative endeavors. We can build a community where girls support each other rather than tear each other down. We can empower girls to recognize, understand, and respond to discrimination. “Girls Rock!” is more than just a slogan.”
The empowerment of the GR!Pgh experience is not limited to campers alone. Adult organizers, teachers, and guest performers also express amplified personal power, self confidence, and inspiration following their involvement with the camp.
Tilley Hawk, self proclaimed, GR!Pgh ‘mystery-solving musician and cheerleader,’ volunteered with GR!Pgh in 2014 and 2015 as a guest performer and mentor. In this role, she could provide campers with the perspective, empowerment, and support of an accomplished musician.
Hawk told us when she was coming of age there simply weren’t enough options for her. “There was no opportunity for women in this scene, and with only a handful of us, it was difficult to break-in. There were not female role models available, no one to talk to face to face,” she recalled. “GR!Pgh provides a platform for campers to witness women working together in a way that is distinctly separate from the patriarchy. Girls Rock! is like an incubator that provides campers the tools and information that they can take and make their own.”
In this way, Hawk believes that the counselors get to “pay back/pay forward” that which they did not have access to in the past as active participants in this process.
Her first performance in front of the campers in 2014 was notably empowering for her, also. It was her first time performing in front of an audience playing the ukulele, an instrument that she had just begun to master, akin to the campers experiencing new instruments that week. Her most memorable moment of her involvement occurred in 2015 after performing for campers directly following their Self-Defense class; the piece she performed included animal sounds as vocals and she asked the campers to practice their wolf howls along with her song. All joined in to form a “cacophony of howling from a wolf pack of little girls, all howling together and practicing their wolf magic.”
“It isn’t so much about the sound or ability, but more about the expression, about standing up and saying your piece,” Hawk affirms.
The GR!Pgh approach to creative expression and independence is radical in design and execution. Hawk likens the process to direct action and outlines the ways in which GR!P creatively subverts the typically male-dominated rock music scene. “Oftentimes, when looking at large problems within societal structures, it is very difficult to figure out solutions while looking at such a large system that is in place. In playing by their rules, it is difficult to find change, and you often find yourself back in their pocket. GR!P plays by its own rules and thus finds itself outside of these structures. It uses music and puts the power directly in the hands of those who want to use it. GR!P creates its own space, occupies its own space outside of the box, and refuses to play by [their] rules. This is proof that direct action has an effect.”
The 2016 GR!Pgh Camp kicked off on August 1st at Winchester Thurston’s Lower School with their showcase performance on August 6th in the school’s auditorium. 10+ camp bands performed songs composed over the course of the week. This year, the group was comprised of 60 campers, up from the original 30 they hosted in their first year, 2013. With increased attendance and support, GR!Pgh can now offer assistance in the form of reduced or waived tuition for everyone who needs it, no questions asked. In 2015, over half of their campers received waived or reduced tuition.
In addition to their annual camp, a GR!Pgh vocal coach has begun hosting monthly open mic nights. Held on the 4th Monday evening of every month at the Union Project, the stage is “open to any self-identified girl (aged 8-18) who would like to share a song, poetry, or spoken word in a supportive, safe, and fun environment. Participation is NOT limited to previous GR!Pgh campers, and collaborations and works-in-progress are welcome. They will have a few instruments (electric and acoustic guitars and a keyboard) available, but participants are also free to bring their own.” Check the GR!Pgh Facebook for updates on the monthly Open Mic nights.
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