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‘I rock! You rock! She rock, she rock!’: A week at Minnesota’s Girls Rock n Roll Retreat

Campers performing at the 2017 GRRR showcase. (Photo: Emmerlee Sherman and Mariah Crabb for She Rock She Rock)
Campers performing at the 2017 GRRR showcase. (Photo: Emmerlee Sherman and Mariah Crabb for She Rock She Rock)

by Colleen Cowie

September 06, 2018

As students head back to school this fall, many return to their classrooms with stories from summer camp. Some kids will tell their friends about making s'mores and friendship bracelets, while others will tell tales of writing original music and performing in their own rock concert.

In addition to writing for The Current, I teach at Girls Rock n Roll Retreat (GRRR), a week-long music camp for girls, trans and non-binary kids. Each camp session only lasts for a week, but in that time campers learn an instrument, join a band, write an original song, and perform at a showcase in front of hundreds of people.

Girls Rock n Roll Retreat co-founder Jenny Case started playing the electric guitar when she was 14 years old. Case has always been influenced by an array of genres, from progressive rock to funk and R&B, but in the '90s, her dream was to be in an all-female metal band. She put multiple ads in City Pages, hoping to find other women interested in playing metal, but with little luck.

Despite not receiving the response that she hoped for, those ads put Case in contact with a handful of women who became her bandmates and later, co-workers at a co-ed rock camp.

Case taught at a number of co-ed music camps, although she pointed out to me that within these camps, "co-ed" really means "90 percent boys." She found that when the genders were mixed, the girls were shy to participate and share their ideas. However, when given their own space, the girls became more enthusiastic and willing to take risks.

Around the same time that Case was teaching at these co-ed camps, she was also teaching private guitar lessons. One of Case's students was 10-year-old Sam Stahlmann, who like Case, had the dream of playing in an all-girl band.

By 2005, the gears were beginning to turn for Case. She read an article about the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, a girls rock camp based in Portland. She saw how her students in private lessons and music camps longed to connect with other girls and have access to spaces where they could express themselves freely. On the car ride home from one of these music camps, Jenny and her friends dreamt up ideas for their own girls rock camp and came up with the name, Girls Rock n Roll Retreat.

The first year of GRRR took place in 2007. The camp only lasted one week and there were 32 campers. The first camper to register for GRRR was Case's student, Sam Stahlmann.

This August, GRRR wrapped up its 12th year of camp. Stahlmann now works full-time for She Rock She Rock, the nonprofit that oversees the camp, as its co-executive director. Some aspects of camp have changed in the past 12 years; GRRR now holds four sessions each summer, with one dedicated specifically to teens, and has expanded its gender inclusion policy to include trans and non-binary campers. What hasn't changed is the camp's commitment to providing campers with spaces to express themselves, challenge themselves creatively, collaborate, and take on positions of leadership.

Every year, leadership chooses five to six cover songs, as well as the camp’s theme song, “I Rock, You Rock, She Rock,” to teach the campers during their instrument classes. This year’s cover songs included Lizzo’s “Let ‘Em Say,” “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings, and Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl."

GRRR draws teachers from across the greater Twin Cities area. Many perform in bands and regularly play shows in local venues. On Monday morning one week this summer, they band together in a sort of local supergroup to perform the cover songs for arriving campers as they sign in, receive their name badges, and find a seat in the auditorium of St. Paul's Laura Jeffrey Academy, one of the locations at which camp takes place. Teachers encourage campers to dance and sing along to the songs. A conga line might break out, or a camper might start a flash mob of the macarena. Before long, the middle school cafeteria feels like a bustling rock club at 8:30 on a Monday morning.

After the Teacher Jam and Opening Assembly, campers head to their first instrument class. When registering for GRRR, campers choose an instrument (drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, or vocals) that they learn throughout the week. Some campers have taken lessons for years before coming to camp, and others have never touched their instrument before Monday morning. 

One of the most exciting parts of the week is meeting your band. Throughout the week, this group of seven campers, plus two to three band coaches, bonds together through writing an original song, designing band t-shirts, and attending workshops, all as a collaborative unit.

GRRR Band Rehearsal
Campers practice their song in band rehearsal (Photo: Emmerlee Sherman and Mariah Crabb for She Rock She Rock).

On Monday afternoon, kickboxer, fitness trainer, and girls empowerment coach Lisa Van Ahn leads a self-protection workshop. All campers and staff gather in the auditorium to listen as Ahn describes how to position yourself in a powerful pose, radiate confidence, and trust your instincts. She teaches the campers how to create “I am” statements that affirm the important aspects of their personalities. The concrete walls of the auditorium reverberate with the sound of sixty young voices shouting in unison, “I AM STRONG! I AM CONFIDENT!” 

Van Ahn now teaches retreats, classes, and trainings for elementary to college age girls. She also founded the I Am Initiative, a curriculum that teaches self-protection through self-love. However, none of this would have happened without GRRR.

Nine years ago, Van Ahn was asked to teach a self-defense class at GRRR. At the time, she was teaching boxing and kickboxing, and had led a few self-defense classes for adults, but had little experience working with kids. "That was the first time I really taught what has now become our self-protection curriculum,” Van Ahn said about her first year teaching at camp. “It’s where everything started for me.”

The three rules of Van Ahn's self-protection curriculum are: (1) F.L.Y. (first love yourself); (2) Face your fears, run away from danger; and (3) Be positive change. When designing the curriculum, Van Ahn made a choice to distinguish between self-defense and self-protection.

GRRR Mission Statement
Mission statement written by a camper during Lisa Van Ahn's self-protection workshop.

“Self-protection is the beginning of self-defense," says Van Ahn. "Self-defense is something you use one time. I don’t need to teach these girls something that they will use one time and hope that if it happens that one time, that they’re going to remember. What I want them to learn is how to protect themselves every day. Every day, they need to protect themselves from outside influences.”

Another activity that teaches campers about embodying self-confidence is vocal class with Debra G. Regardless of what instrument they sign up for, every camper attends at least one vocal class during the week, where they learn to perform using their entire body onstage.

"I really look forward to watching students blossom in my vocal class; owning their space, owning their bodies, and feeling more confident through dance and singing," said GRRR vocal coach Debra G. "I love watching how that can be transferred into their performance at the end of the week."

At a concert, it’s not uncommon to hear performers (most often women) apologize for playing a wrong chord or taking too long to tune. From a young age, girls are taught to feel sorry for not knowing something, making a mistake, taking up space.

At camp, you are not allowed to apologize for making a mistake. Instead, you say “I rock!” If you hear someone else apologize for playing a wrong note or getting lost, you say “You rock!” The rule doesn’t just apply to campers — as a teacher, I’ve caught myself slipping out a habitual “sorry” for forgetting the form of my band’s song or pointing to the wrong chord in an instrument lesson. Old habits are hard to break, but after a while, new ones start to stick. By the end of the week, I’ll interrupt my friends mid-sentence to tell them “You rock!” after they apologize unnecessarily.

When GRRR started, the camp focused primarily on music. After a few years, Case and other GRRR staff started attending conferences organized by the Girls Rock Camp Alliance (GRCA), a network of girls rock camps from around the world. Once a year, the GRCA unites organizers from girls rock camps from Sydney to Buenos Aires to share ideas.

Attending the GRCA conferences inspired GRRR leadership to incorporate activities during camp like the "I rock!" rule that touch upon identity, gender, and social justice. GRRR also has its own chant, "I rock! You rock! She rock, she rock!" which is repeated many times during camp.

Throughout the week, teachers lead workshops on a range of topics including gender and sexuality, activism, privilege, consent and boundaries. Campers learn what gender pronouns are, and practice introducing themselves using their gender pronouns in band rehearsal and instrument class.

Thursdays at camp are Inner Beauty Day. Campers and staff are encouraged to take less time to get ready in the morning and use the time that they would normally spend picking out an outfit or putting on makeup to sleep in or eat a leisurely breakfast. Bathroom mirrors are covered with paper and markers sit on top of the sinks, inviting campers to write affirming messages for their peers to read.

GRRR Mirror
Messages left by campers on a bathroom mirror for Inner Beauty Day.

GRRR strives to create an environment where campers feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things, whether that means learning a new instrument or identifying their gender pronouns for the first time.

Shannon Maroney had taken piano lessons and participated in school choir, but had never played rock music before coming to camp. Since signing up for GRRR at the age of 13, Maroney has now learned to play guitar, bass, and drums through camp. GRRR also introduced her to two of her close friends and bandmates, who write and perform music under the name Kill You Twice.

“I had never really written music before camp," said Maroney. "I think being there told me, ‘You can do this, don’t worry about it. It might seem scary but it’s possible and attainable.’ I think it did a lot for my self confidence as a growing musician, being younger when I was involved with it.”

Maroney still attends GRRR as a camper during Teen Week, and also teaches at camp as a junior counselor. The Junior Counselor program is one of the initiatives spearheaded by Stahlmann to restructure leadership opportunities at camp.

“I don’t want this to be one person’s organization, I want it to be our organization," said Stahlmann. "I do think it’s important to continually pass the torch and give leadership to especially younger folks who aren’t always taken seriously.”

“Since Girls Rock Camp is a youth program, having opportunities for it to be youth-led is so important. Youth understand youth more than older folks can,” continued Stahlmann. “We’re in a world where women and non-binary folks are told either you can’t be a leader, or if you are, there can only be one woman at the top, and so you have to fight each other for it. But I think it feels very radical to be like, ‘No, there’s space for all of us up here, and there is room for all of us to lead.’”

GRRR Drums
(Photo: Emmerlee Sherman and Mariah Crabb for She Rock She Rock).

GRRR's leadership team also prioritizes making camp accessible to all kids, regardless of their financial ability. "There has been a huge effort to do more fundraising and grant-writing so that we could offer scholarships to kids," said Stahlmann. "We have never had to turn anyone away due to inability to pay, which is something that’s really important to us."

Although GRRR only lasts for four weeks out of the year, its effects can be seen far beyond the summer.

Keyboard instructor Kelly Mason uses techniques she has learned at camp in her music classes. “I use a lot of what GRRR teaches in my music classes, like developing our own set of rules or guidelines to follow. I do that in basically all of my classes now. We use the 'I am' statements as well in music classes that I teach.” 

Marla Khan-Schwartz attended GRRR's sister-program for adults, Women's Rock n Roll Retreat, and continues to write and play music with her band. "Once you are done with this camp, you truly feel like a rockstar," she said. “We still get together and we are writing songs and we are playing together. I feel that She Rock helps to create long-lasting friendships as well.” 

“Even if [campers] don’t stick with their instrument, the confidence and personal growth they experience during that week is invaluable; you can’t put a price on that,” said GRRR power coach and band coach Cat Shoener.

"Knowing that you have so many strong, talented, influential women in the music industry that have your back, even if they’re not a part of the band that you’re in, even if they’re not at the venue that you’re in, feels so empowering," said vocal coach Debra G.

GRRR 2017 Showcase
(Photo: Emmerlee Sherman and Mariah Crabb for She Rock She Rock).

Many of the campers' songs linger in my head weeks after camp. One of the ones I haven't been able to forget was written by the Flaming Arrows, a group of nine year-olds, titled "We Are Rock and Roll." Its lyrics consist mostly of "I am" statements inspired by Lisa Van Ahn's self-protection workshop, such as "I'm smart, I'm fun, I'm awesome" and "I am independent."

The song's chorus goes, "I am rock and roll, you are rock and roll, we are rock and roll!" Maybe this performance has stuck with me because of the band's matching headbands which were made to look like a flaming arrow was sticking out of each of their heads. Maybe it was the two lead singers' confident delivery. But I think what really struck me about this song was its message. These campers, at such a young age, are learning to define their own identity. They learned to play their instruments in just a few days. They are confident in their own abilities, and they are changing the world.

Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.


Interested in learning more about Girls Rock n Roll Retreat and She Rock She Rock? Check out their website, make a donation, or read up on other ways to get involved. She Rock She Rock is hosting their bi-monthly all-ages jam at the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins on Oct. 7. Registration is open from September 4-18 for the Rock n Roulette fundraiser, which will take place on Nov. 11 at the 7th St Entry. She Rock She Rock also has openings for their Intro to Ableton classes this fall for both youth and adults, as part of their Beats by Girlz program.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.