Camp prepares girls for life of music and empowerment

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Lisa Nakamura is teaching the class how to say "no." Actually, she's teaching the participants how to scream it.

The self-defense instructor goes around to each student and taps her on the shoulder, asking her to imagine she's being attacked. Each student takes a second to muster up the strength and bellows "no." The room erupts in laughter and giggles.

It's not customary that a self-defense workshop would be taught at an all-girls band camp, but at Girls Rock in Pittsburgh, all kinds of stereotypes are being broken.

The camp was founded in 2007 in Portland, Ore., as a facility for helping girls "build self-esteem and find their voices through unique programming that combines music education and performance, empowerment and social justice workshops, positive role models, and collaboration and leadership skill building," the website claims.

This is the third session held by the Girls Rock Pittsburgh location at Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside. This time, the weeklong session has attracted young women from around the country between the ages of 8 and 18.

The young women are led by a team of volunteers, most of whom are involved in music outside the camp. Campers are divided into bands at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week each band will have come up with a name and written a song to perform at the final concert.

In between rehearsals, campers attend workshops in various areas, from garage band to improvisation and stage presence. One of the workshops is on body image.

"It's crazy to hear that at 8, 9 and 10 [years old] there's pressure to wear makeup, be thin and look good for boys," co-organizer Madeleine Campbell said. "Our main objective is not to discourage girls from doing that but to encourage doing it because they feel empowered that way."

The girls, she said, are "acutely aware" of the media's influence on their lives.

Ms. Campbell works professionally in the music industry as an audio engineer -- a field that is predominantly male.

"The one thing I would say is I wish I had a camp like this," she said. "The goal is to provide campers with as many resources as possible. At the end of the day if none of them even touch an instrument again, that's fine. They have a community and a support system if they want it."

Females are gaining prominence in the music industry, and girl bands are gaining popularity in the mainstream. Acts such as Tegan and Sara, Haim, and Lorde are headlining major music festivals and dominating airwaves. Pittsburgh is no exception in the national trend.

When Pittsburgh-based band Brazilian Wax (which plays R.A.N.T. on Saturday) formed two years ago, it was all female. Now, the three-piece band, described as "grunge, girl punk," replaced its female drummer with a man.

"We looked for another female, but it's so rare, it's like finding a unicorn -- Actually, it's a little better now in Pittsburgh," said bassist Athena Kazuhiro. She emphasized that the drummer, Luke Ondish, is a feminist.

Although there are more all-female bands in the music industry and specifically Pittsburgh, Ms. Kazuhiro explained that it doesn't take an all-female band to have a feminist image. In fact, she'd rather Brazilian Wax not be referred to as a "girl band" at all.

"I don't mind being called a feminist band or a political band ... Some of my favorite bands were all-male, like Pink Floyd or Nirvana, but I do want it known that women can make music, and they can make really good music, too. It's not a secondary thought. Our fans are equally men and women. We've had a very positive reception here in Pittsburgh," she said.

Still, Brazilian Wax has a clear message.

"I definitely want people to know that women are people and we're not just gonna sit in the backseat and we're not gonna take it. ... It speaks to me that there is this undercurrent that women don't feel like they can do the same things as men. They're not encouraged to do the same things as men, even though it's getting better," Ms. Kazuhiro said.

Decorations adorn the walls in the auditorium at Winchester Thurston. There are cardboard cutouts of stars and photos of female musicians.

One poster is especially large and has a heading in bold red ink: "Because I'm a girl they said I couldn't..." Girls have written underneath the heading:

Be a leader.

Play football at school.

Be myself.

Live my dreams.

Reflecting a welcoming attitude, Pittsburgh recently hosted Vulvapalooza, an event that features multiple bands with female members and takes place around the country. This show benefited the Women's Shelter and Center of Pittsburgh.

Murder for Girls was another band at the festival. Although the four-piece band isn't all female, it does feature a female drummer, which is more rare.

According to guitarist Tammy Wallace, people aren't necessarily against female musicians, but she has noticed people react differently.

"Sometimes you get more attention because you are a female, and on the other hand, some people just don't want to play with you or book you for whatever reason because you are female and they think you're going to sound a certain way, I guess," she said.

It's not that the band is outwardly feminist or labels itself as a "girl band." People just perceive the presence of women differently.

Meanwhile, many of Brazilian Wax's songs have feminist undercurrents, including a song, "Lowest Common Denominator," which is about the patriarchy.

"I just want the little girls out there to know that they're as good as the boys. I grew up with boys, and I always tried to do whatever they could do," Ms. Kazuhiro said. "And I'm a minority, so it's not like I can blend in with anyone else. I've always been the 'other.' I just like to speak for others and people who don't think they have a chance."

It's lunchtime at Girls Rock, and the girls sit down in circles with girls in their grade, opening brown paper bags and unwrapping peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There's a roar of chatter, and many girls are running around playing tag and socializing.

They don't talk about the fact that they're in an all-girls environment; as Ms. Campbell puts it, it's not an "anti-male zone." Still, the girls like having time to themselves.

"I think it's nice having a break," 9-year-old Nora says.

The day's guest musician, Tilly Hawk, comes in and plays a few songs on the ukulele. Her songs are riddled with lessons and themes of female empowerment, and the girls clap along and ask her questions at the end of her performance. Ms. Hawk normally plays in the punk band Zeitgeist -- another headliner at this year's Vulvapalooza. Although she doesn't play in an all-girls band, that hasn't changed her experience as the only female in the band.

"I don't think it's about all-girl bands because either way we'll have to deal with men. It's about taking up space and not being afraid.

"It's about learning to stand up and be together," she said.

Still, performing at Girls Rock gives her a unique opportunity.

"I firmly believe that music can change things, and it's neat to see that actually happening. It's like maybe the world isn't that bad."

Kate Mishkin: or 412-263-1352

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