Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rock Camp Run Down, 2009: There's a first time for everything

I'm happy to report, dear readers, that I'm recovered from an exhausting, but super-successful week at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls! In five days, my fellow volunteers and I helped 80 girls to form 16 ass-kicking bands, write 16 smart, funny, and often poignant songs, learn about body image, self-defense, music history, and music merchandising, and make an untold number of shirts, buttons, and zines.

As for myself, in addition to teaching guitar and helping our campers to use and understand their gear, I'm happy to report that I spoke to a number of volunteers, off the record of course, about their bands and projects. Many of our volunteers are working musicians and artists, and last week I got to hear the latest news on what their bands are up to, and about their experiences as musicians.

In many of these conversations the younger lady volunteers admitted to never having played with other female musicians before. It seems that none of them have played exclusively with men by choice -- all of the volunteers I spoke to about this told me that they'd never found other girls to play with. For many new volunteers, last week was their first real experience with a community of women musicians. My guitar co-teacher, Rebecca, for example, told us that she signed up to volunteer with Rock Camp because she'd never played with other women.

Rebecca is a songwriting and guitar performance student at a certain very prestigious conservatory. She's in what she told us was the biggest popular music program in the world, an apparently unique course of study offered by no other school of music. She is frequently the only female in her classes. When some of us guitar instructors pressed her to tell us more, she told us that she's witnessed and experienced all sorts of discrimination and condescension. She told us that she took on a guitar performance major in part because songwriting students are looked down on. Songwriting is assumed to be easy, while performance studies, which involve rigorous training in technique, is assumed to be one of the most difficult majors. Rebecca described these assumptions as 'totally gendered'.

I found this totally depressing. The upside is that based on the sexism she's encountered, Rebecca was able to facilitate what turned out to be a great in-class discussion on this topic with our students. We asked them to talk about being female guitarists and working with other female musicians. Like the volunteers, most of our guitar students hadn't played with other girls before coming to Rock Camp. Some of our students told us that they'd struggled to find teachers who didn't make them feel uncomfortable, and that they had issues with music groups at their middle and high schools: some of them afraid to audition because there weren't any other girls in the group, some of them were already in a school-based group but felt isolated and lonely in them.

Rebecca and I couldn't do much to actually help the girls with these issues. The best we could do was share our experiences, and encourage them to find solutions to these problems, to keep searching for the right teacher, to keep working until they feel confident enough to audition for groups, to keep looking for girls to play with and to support and keep in touch with each other as they get older. Rebecca talked about her program, and I admitted to the campers that I never really took guitar lessons, because I was too scared to even look for one that didn't intimidate or condescend to me. I told them that I was lucky to have played with other girls in my high school and college orchestras, and that I was fortunate enough to find a true mentor in my high school conductor.

Since that discussion, I find myself wondering about these issues. I find myself wondering why these problems existed ten years ago, when I was in grade school, and why they still exist. How can we change things? How can we start to make music and music instruction less sexist? Is this even possible? The more I thought about it, the less possible it seemed, and the more discouraged I felt.

Cut to the volunteer afterparty, held on Saturday in a beautiful Brooklyn backyard. I am exhausted from my week at camp and my brain is tired from mulling over rock's gender issues. I'm sitting at a picnic table, watching as my fellow volunteers chat, joke, sing, and tell stories about this camp session, and I'm sort of eavesdropping, even though this is totally wrong. I overhear my co-teacher talking to one of the other volunteers, and they're talking about playing jazz and about popular music studies, and they're talking about the sexism they've encountered in their music programs at school, and at clubs and bars and music stores. I overhear them planning to get together at some point and form an all-girl jazz combo.

At that moment, I stopped feeling discouraged. I no longer felt like it would impossible to come up with a way to deal with sexism in music, because I knew that just by being at camp, I was already dealing with it. I looked at my fellow volunteers, I thought about all the ladies I'd talked to that week, and all the loose plans we'd made to play together, and all the bands that had been formed because of Rock Camp, and that would be formed there in the future. This, I thought to myself, is why we do what we do at camp. And I didn't feel discouraged anymore, I just felt proud.

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