Girls Rock Camp: Chords of confidence and co-operation

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I was privileged over the summer to be allowed to drop in on Toronto's Girls Rock Camp, hopscotching from room to room as various groups were working out songs. It was a marvel to witness girls teaming up musically:

"Well I think it might work better in F-sharp."

"You think so? Let's try it." (they jam)

"Or maybe we can try this chord?"  (audio sample)

"Oh that works better!"

And, they barely know one another. That's the magic of a Girls Rock Camp -- it may only be one week but it's loaded with so many rich experiences, learning moments and collaborations. You don't even have to show up knowing how to play.

"Musically, many come to camp without knowing how to play an instrument," Magali Meagher, GRC Toronto co-director, tells me. Meagher and Alysha Haugen started the camp in 2011 and since then it has grown exponentially.

"We see their excitement when they engage with an instrument and we see them flourish in many ways."

GRC Toronto -- which runs one July and one August camp from the Tranzac Club downtown --  accommodates girls from ages 8 to 16 with each band numbering five to six members. The camps also have a host of facilitators, instrument and band coaches, and a kitchen crew providing lunch.

No girl is turned away. While the cost of a weekly day camp runs to $300 per girl, GRC -- a non-profit organization -- raises its own funds to cover the costs for any girl rocker who wants to participate, either offering a discount or covering the entire tuition.

"We are creating a space for girls to explore music and build skills which allow them to gain confidence," explained Meagher.

Counsellors also volunteer at the camp and provide guidance for the campers in terms of learning how to talk to each other, resolving differences and also being able to deal with difficult situations.

 Serene McCarroll

Photo: Serene McCarroll

Each girl gets to pick her instrument and the bands are grouped according to age. At the end of the camp, there's a concert with each band rocking it out. 

'Completely changed my life'

Julia Orange, 9, wrote to me about her time at GRC in the summer.

"Girls rock camp was one of the best experiences of my musical life. I have been playing music since I was three and this camp completely changed my perspective of music," she said.

"But there was one thing that wasn't as much fun -- saying goodbye. They took me out of my comfort zone and completely changed my life."

GRC Toronto is gaining steam, now launching its first after-school program in January (8 weeks, twice a week for two hours for girls aged 12 to 16)  and also outreach into the community with workshops. As a result, it needs a lot more funds to keep running. Meagher and Haugen are seeking $100,000.

The organization is holding two all-ages fundraisers. On Nov. 16, they will be screening the documentary Girls Rock! -- about the first GRC based out of Portland, Oregon -- with two former campers performing at the Bloor Cinema at 1 p.m. and, they are holding an afternoon clothing swap at the Garrison bar on Nov. 30. However, anyone can donate directly on their website.

"We've run mostly on volunteer hours and we just can't do that anymore if we want to keep expanding into the community," explained Meagher. "The money is not only for the two of us as administrators but we also provide honourariums to the female artists to help out, pay for the venue where it takes place as well as for providing meals and for the rental of instruments."

Sexism in music world

As it turns out, roughly one out of five campers needs financial aid to attend GRC. 

"We want to reach out to more girls and people of different backgrounds," said Meagher, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who moved to Toronto from Guelph in 1999 and was a member of the Phonemes as well as participating in other bands such as the Hidden Cameras and Hank. 

"I never took any formal training," revealed Meagher. "I got involved as a teenager playing music and worked at a community radio station in Guelph, which had a lot of different kinds of music. It was a DIY teen music culture -- people put on their own shows."

 Connie Tsang

Photo: Connie Tsang

It's that kind of can-do attitude Meagher and Haugen like to instill in their campers.

"Girls Rock Camp is a place where they can really be themselves. They also learn to express themselves creatively and learn to better communicate to others, especially when it comes to difficult issues."

Deanna Petcoff, 17, is a three-time Girls Rock Camper. She posted about her experience on the organization's website recently.

"Girls Rock Camp Toronto is my sanctuary, my saving grace, and my home away from home. The lessons I've learned there, like how to be my own person, that doing what you love is cool no matter what anyone else says, and learning that whether or not other people consider this, you are important, talented, and beautiful, have helped me through the most difficult parts of anyone's life, the most complicated, lonely years."

Petcoff's band, Pins and Needles, is still going strong.

"They have played at Pop Montreal, gone to other cities and continue to play lots of venues," said Meagher.

"Other former campers are now in our leadership training and some come back to help out with the camp."

Meagher herself has felt the GRC effect -- it has altered how she's treated when she goes to a music store.

"Sexism exists in the music industry…The fact that Girls Rock Camp exists changes some things," she reflected. "When I used to walk into a music store, I would get looked over, dismissed. Now, I go in to rent equipment for GRC and they think 'Girls Rock Camp, that's cool!'"

June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

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