Rock 'n' Roll Inspiration: Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls

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"These kids are so inspiring. I learn from them every day," says guitar teacher and band coach Saiya Miller.

At the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a New York-based program in which campers ages 8-18 are placed into bands on a Monday and perform an original song from their band on a real club stage the following Saturday, camp volunteers tend to be as exhilarated by the experience as the attendees themselves. Camp is an intense, fast-paced, sometimes challenging, and generally joyful blur of instrument and vocal classes, band practice, lunchtime sets by professional musicians, and workshops designed to foster confidence and cooperation; and its energy is contagious. "Seeing the campers blossom as people, teammates, and musicians captivated my heart," says Sky Dietrich, who served as a band coach, guitar teacher, and workshop leader for the camp's July session, which took place last week. "It also fueled my already vigorous passion for music and collaboration." The seeds of the Willie Mae program were planted in 2003, when executive director Karla Schickele volunteered at the Portland Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls as a bass teacher and band coach, in the process falling in love with the experience and the environment it created. She asked for and received the OK to try to start a program in New York; the Willie Mae camp (named for the legendary rhythm and blues singer/songwriter Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton) began here in the summer of 2005. "As soon as I saw those girls onstage with a mic in their hand--there was a power that was evident," says Shira Bannerman, describing the focussed listening and confident speaking that emerged from the workshop she co-taught for this July's program, titled "Free Your Mind: How to Interview Like a Rock Star." Inspired by the camp, the campers, and the opportunity to contribute, Zarrin-Taj Whyte, who originally signed up to mix the live sound for the lunchtime shows, ended up also helping with guitar classes. With clear gratification, she recalls that "I taught a girl how to play power chords"--surely a meaningful lesson within the development of powerful lives.
PHOTOS BY JENA CUMBO AND TEXT BY PAMELA GROSSMAN

Published on July 8, 2012

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