Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls – QAda Calhoun
A spin-off of a Portland program that started in 1999, the NYC-based day camp started in 2004 and has recently expanded to accept 150 students each summer. The girls are given lessons in music, performance and self-defense, among other things. Volunteer mentors have included the likes of Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna. The week culminates in a performance by each band (some band names from years past: Smokestorm, Hellish Relish and The Pink Kitties) in front of a 700-strong crowd.
Babble spoke with Fox as she prepared for the deluge of applications for campers and volunteers (info available here). You have until May 21st. – Ada Calhoun
Why teach girls music?
Music is the material that we use, but it’s not really the point. It’s an empowering and mentoring tool. They start out Monday morning. Some know how to play, some don’t. Right away we get them into bands and writing songs. And by Saturday, they’re performing for 700 people. There’s no time for them to be blocked.
What do the girls write about?
In our songwriting workshops, we encourage them to write about stuff that they know. So they write a lot about friends. We also have the girls write these zines. This one little girl who was eight wrote: “I’ve always wanted to play the guitar. My dad plays, but I was always too afraid to ask him to teach me. And now I do it.” These girls really come from a variety of backgrounds – every part of the economic spectrum.
Right. How does the scholarship program work?
Full fare is $500, which is really low for what they get. Our model is that one-third of the students pay full; one-third get partial scholarships; one-third get full scholarships.
In the girls’ performance style, do you see the typical pre-teen angst?
It runs the gamut. Check out the video of the Pink Slips. To me, that just sounded excited. Each camp session, there’s a group or two that write the tortured songs. Everybody has to go through writing over-laden stuff.
A lot of the kids, especially the ones who don’t know a lot about playing, will spend all this time arguing about things like, “I don’t want to sound like Kelly Clarkson!” And her bandmate will say, “I do want to sound like Kelly Clarkson!” Of course, they’re never going to sound like Kelly Clarkson. They’re going to sound like [the English art-punk band] Wire. Because they still don’t know how to play. Which is a gift, because it means they’re so simple and focused. After they learn, they’re never going to play such cool grooves until they’re a million.
I’m sure a lot of people make comparisons to School of Rock.
I thought that movie was really fun, but the girls were background singers! That was one of those details, but I thought it was really lame. And the real-life rock-school guy in Philly? From what I can tell, his goal was to get the kids to play really complicated Frank Zappa covers. From the documentary about him, it seems he made a lot of people feel like crap. We’re all about saying yes to girls. And making them have the most fantastic week of their lives. We just say yes all week long.
What do the girls ask for?
Like, the band will have three drummers. We’ve anticipated, what do we do if there’s a problem? But so far the kids have been really reasonable. Of course, it’s kind of VH1 Behind the Music. Very regularly the bands will break up on Thursday and then get back together on Friday and have a group hug.
Is there queen-bee in-fighting?
We noticed last year one girl had been kind of tormented in a group of four or five. They’re going to do their thing, but we try to stay on top of it. When we notice it, we get in there and do something. There’s a team in the morning that does skits, and if something’s been going on, they’ll play out the rotten behavior. If we know crap is going down at rehearsal – queen of the band, that kind of thing – we’ll send the team there to do something funny to get them to stop. Some of the mentors are more direct. One coach was like, “Shut up and play your instruments.”
Are girls today more or less feminist-minded than our generation was at their age?
The corporate drive does seem heavier, but I think they put their own spin on those things. They draw princesses, but their princesses are smart and interesting. I was reading another response today in the Times to Don Imus and rap. My reaction to Imus is that the answer to problematic speech is more speech. I’m just concerned for girls to develop their voices. It’s as direct as giving a girl a microphone and having people tell her not to be quiet.
The camp sounds so fun. I’m sad my son won’t be able to go.
The other day my son, who’s four-and-a-half, actually asked me, “Can boys rock?” So I think before long we’re going to have to add a Wille Mae Rock Camp for Girls for Boys.