Big Mama’s Legacy

When Ebony first attended the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in 2007, she had no idea what to expect and feared that she wouldn’t fit in. Now 16, the Clinton Hill resident recalls worrying that the girls in the program wouldn’t like her. “I was afraid they’d make me feel ashamed of my guitar playing and vocal skills,” she admits, “and that I wouldn’t be good enough.”

Photos by Nick Childers.

Thankfully, Ebony says, her anxiety was for naught. “In elementary school when you make a mistake the attitude you get from your peers—and sometimes even from your teachers—is that you suck,” she continues. “At camp when you make a mistake everyone shouts out, ‘You rock.’ Camp is a much more supportive learning environment which makes it really nice and keeps me coming back year after year. I also love that all the teachers are women. It’s inspiring. A lot of the time you see men doing everything so hearing women tell us that we can do it—write songs, perform, or play an instrument—is empowering.”

Based in Bed-Stuy, the camp is named for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926 ­– 1984), an American rhythm and blues singer and one of the first U.S. musicians to play what later became known as rock ‘n’ roll (she recorded the first version of “Hound Dog” in 1952). In operation since 2005, it now trains more than 200 girls a year, 170 in two one-week intensive, 45-hour summer sessions, and approximately 40 during the September to June academic year. The camp is a member of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an international body that includes 29 single-sex music education programs throughout the U.S. and nearly a dozen more in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Iceland, and Sweden.

 Karla Schickele, the Brooklyn group’s executive director and founder, says that she first heard about rock camps on a public radio program in 2003. “I play the bass and am a songwriter—I was in a group called IDA—and when I heard that women in Portland, Oregon, had started a camp for girls in 1999 I used my vacation time from work and flew out there to see it for myself,” she begins. “I did that a few times and then decided I wanted to start a camp here in New York. I pulled together a working group of 12 women and we started to meet in Starbuck’s or some random café to do our planning.” A decade later, they have made Big Mama proud.

Initially a one-week summer program for 66 girls aged 8 to 18, in 2005 Camp opened its doors to kids eager for musical instruction, novice to master level, in drumming, keyboard, guitar, and vocals. The teachers were, and remain, unpaid volunteers. While Camp has more than doubled in size since its first year, the format has not changed: In addition to one-on-one instruction from a skilled professional, participants are arbitrarily assigned to a group. These groups coalesce into bands that not only write original music, but also perform on the final day—and sometimes continue to play together far beyond the week-long program.

Schickele says that the mix of kids in each group is key. “The girls collaborate with people they might otherwise not meet in their home communities. You also get a range of experience levels which often makes for much more interesting music. There are those who have not only not played an instrument before, but who go to schools where arts’ funding has been decimated. They get to play alongside girls who are considered guitar heroes. When I see the impact this has on the campers, how it pulls them out of their shells and literally helps them find their voices, it makes me want to open a rock ‘n’ roll high school or do a lot more after-school programming.”

For a few minutes, Schickele seems lost in fantasy, then quickly comes back to the here-and-now of the camp’s tuition policy. Like all Camp programs, she says, students pay what they can, $0 to $525 for the week, including their instrument. More than half of the camp’s attendees receive a scholarship, something Schickele calls a “New York miracle.”

Now based in the Co-op School, a private Bed-Stuy preschool, Camp boasts a $400,000 annual budget, a sum that is raised through contributions from individual donors, fundraising events, foundation grants, and fee-for-service tutorials for those with the resources to pay for them. Among its patrons: The Brooklyn Community Foundation, Eileen Fisher, the Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts. What’s more, female musicians including Tori Amos, Jean Grae, Deborah Harry, Joan Jett, Amy Ray, and Martha Wainwright have donated items for auction, performed at a show, or contributed funds. “We’d love to bring more world-famous musicians who are based in New York to Camp so they can see what we’re doing, but we’ve been very lucky in that the musicians we’ve had come and visit have all been amazing,” Schickele gushes. “Of course, we’d still like more of them to get involved.”

As Schickele speaks, her passion for both music and the education of girls is apparent. “It’s so important for girls to have a space to build community,” she says. “It empowers them as individuals and it empowers them collectively. There are still a lot of messages telling young females that they can’t do things in the world. We believe that providing them with a space to discover the power of music-making, a place that lets them see how much they can do, is very powerful.”

In addition to musical instruction, staff members teach participants about the contributions of women musicians, not only to popular culture and entertainment, but to movements for social justice. It’s an essential lesson for all young people which is why the group piloted a Martin Luther King Day all-gender Drum Camp last month. Open to boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 16, the day-long program gave instructors a forum not only to teach their craft, but to address the place of drumming in protest movements throughout U.S. history. “We are always concerned with how music can be used to promote equality and justice,” Schickele adds.

That said, the importance of music in individual development undergirds all Rock Camp programming. A 2007 article in the Journal for Research in Music Education explains the rationale: Students who learn to play a musical instrument score higher on standardized English and math exams than those who do not. And, tests aside, there is now a mountain of evidence suggesting that the study of music improves memory and trains the brain to multi-task, leading to better, more-sustained, focus, creativity, discipline, and problem-solving ability.

These gains, of course, are not what attract kids to the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. Haley, a 13-year-old eighth grader who has attended Camp for five years—first to study drumming and now to study guitar—comes to the program’s after-school Clubhouse most afternoons to hang out with her friends and take classes. “Music puts me in a good mood, no matter what else happened that day,” she says. “You can just pick up a guitar and start making sounds and create your own set of rhythms. It’s really cool and it always makes me happy.” 


The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls also runs a twice-yearly three-day Ladies Rock Camp for adult women interested in studying bass, drums, guitar, or vocals. For more information go to williemaerockcamp.org. The site also provides information about the summer camp and after-school programs.

Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader

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