It began with a scream—actually, about sixty of them, one after another, coming from a circle of girls holding hands in a large room. Some screamed with glee; others shrieked; still others were so painfully self-conscious they could barely make any noise at all. When they were done, Emily Marks, the thirtysomething executive director of Girls Rock Camp Austin, made them do it again, this time faster.
After the scream circle came the dance party, in which—with “We Got the Beat,” by the Go-Go’s, blaring in the background—every girl was supposed to leave the perimeter and enter the center and dance, for a second or five or even ten if she felt like it, while the others imitated her moves, clapping and whooping. Then she would walk back and pick the next dancer. For some girls it was excruciating, and a couple refused, but most swayed or moved or just hopped or raised their arms and ran back, smiling. A fifteen-year-old with long hair did a hippie dance. A twelve-year-old did a version of the Riverdance dance. A shy ten-year-old reluctantly walked out with her shoulders slumped, danced for exactly two seconds, then picked someone else.
It was July 27, the first day of this week-long, nine-hour-a-day exercise in rock and self-empowerment for tween and teen girls at Austin Studios, the film production facility on the site of the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. Five dozen girls, mostly ages ten to seventeen, would take lessons in guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and singing. They’d go to workshops on gender issues, sound systems, and poster making. Best of all, they’d start bands, write songs together, and, on Saturday, perform at a large club downtown.
Girls Rock Camp was started in Austin in 2007 by Marks, a guitarist and teacher from New York (recently the name was changed to Girls Rock! Austin). She modeled it after the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon. “We’re not just a rock camp,” Marks says. “We’re an organization that uses music to teach the girls, to create personal and social change.” She held a strategy meeting with her coaches before the camp began and told them, “When it comes to songwriting, there are no mistakes in rock camp. If you hear something ‘wrong,’ don’t correct it—let them figure it out for themselves. The number one goal is to get the girls empowered. If they never want to play again, that’s fine. The skills they get at rock camp they’ll carry for the rest of their lives.”
Today Marks had first gathered everyone by instrument—some could play, others were novices—and then sent them off to their lessons. The air was filled with beautiful noise: the guitar riff to “Sunshine of Your Love,” the plonking of electric basses, the intro to “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” vocal scales. When it was time to form a band, Marks told them to stand under big sheets of white paper stuck to the walls: “Alternative,” “Soul/Jazz,” “Grunge,” “Hip-hop.” She asked, “Does anyone want to play death metal?” Eight girls raised their hands. Everyone congregated, talking about their favorite musicians and videos. After thirty minutes of chattering chaos, Marks announced: “Find a band!”
Most kids take years to form bands; these girls did it in an afternoon. They got together, found out who would be playing what, joked about being rock stars. After an hour or so, there were eleven bands. They retired to their practice rooms with their coaches, who were all veteran musicians.
The group GLYCH took its moniker from the girls’ first names: Gabby Mutschler, a twelve-year-old who wore jeans and a pony-tail and played guitar; Laura Sanchez, a tall, shy fifteen-year-old bassist; Yinka Oluwadele, a thin fourteen-year-old girl who seemed to know everyone; Celeste Hermes, a ten-year-old guitarist who had been playing since she was six; and Holly Stoever, a fifteen-year-old drummer. All the girls were rock camp veterans, though only Holly had played in a real-world band, and she had been the only girl. “It didn’t end well,” she said. “Boys think girls are whiny and can’t play. You have to really prove something when you play with boys. Here, we all just play.”
While some other bands had trouble getting going, GLYCH started jamming right off. Holly began with a simple beat, Laura hit some bass notes, Celeste played a wandering riff, Gabby followed, and Yinka came up with a vocal melody. When it became apparent the song was going nowhere, the girls discarded it and tried again. Laura started playing a simple bass line, going from one note to another; Holly joined in, then Celeste and Gabby played chords. Yinka sang a singsongy melody. They were on to something. Gabby came up with a cool arpeggio guitar riff, and Celeste played off of it. Holly tried a slightly faster beat, like the one in “Get Off of My Cloud,” and the song took a new direction, which everyone liked. They ran through the verse four or five times, with Celeste and Gabby working out their parts and Holly and Laura locking in on the rhythm.
They had a verse. It was only Monday.
Every day at rock camp had a schedule: assembly in the morning, then instrument instruction, workshops, and band rehearsal. Another of the coaches, Sara Landeau, a guitar teacher from Brooklyn who helps run the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls there, told me that she has taught classes of girls and classes of girls and boys. “When boys are in the group, they won’t stop playing, and they’re very loud. Girls won’t take solos—they won’t play in front of the boys. But if it’s all girls, they’ll play.”
That morning GLYCH’s verse still sounded great—the guitars rang like bells—but the chorus was giving the girls fits. They tried to match Yinka’s melody to some chords, but it didn’t sound right. Then the PA started feeding back, and Gabby’s guitar went out of tune. Holly and Laura leaned against the wall, frustrated. When they finally started playing again,