Profile: Girls Rock! Chicago

Wouldn’t it have been great to spend a week of your childhood learning to be a rock star? A real, bona fide rock star with the necessary skills to not only play an instrument; but also to record music, promote a show and play a kick a$$ set.

Well luckily for the kids of today, Girls Rock! Chicago, a nonprofit organization, is offering just that with a variety of programs for girls, transgender and gender nonconforming youth.

The core of Girls Rock! Chicago is a weeklong summer camp open to girls, transgender and gender nonconforming youth between the ages of eight and 16.Unlike most youth-oriented music programs with a heavy focus on proper instrumental techniques and music theory, the Girls Rock! Chicago camp gears its instruction toward show production, performance and basic musicianship.

“Music is our vessel,” says Jess LeMaster, program coordinator at Girls Rock! Chicago. “We want to teach them empowerment. It’s about instilling a creative expression for them and making sure they feel comfortable letting that out.”

The mission behind the camp, and all of the programs at Girls Rock! Chicago, is to teach young women and transgender youth the importance of self-expression and self-worth, especially when pursuing a passion or career in a male-dominated industry such as music.

Participation in the summer camp means a full week of music immersion. It starts with campers receiving an instrument in the form of a guitar, bass, drums or keys. They’ll learn to play, form a band and write an original song. At the end of the week, camp bands record their music and perform their songs at a professional venue. Past venues include Thalia Hall, Metro and Bottom Lounge. Campers are also treated to daily performances of working Chicago bands; a display of something for them to aspire to.

The staff of Girls Rock! Chicago emphasizes there is no need for prior music experience. While group sessions in basic instrumentation are held everyday for about two hours, the ultimate goal for the campers is to evolve.

“A lot of the kids will come to us in the beginning and be scared or not know what to expect,” explains Kit Curl, Girls Rock! Chicago’s operations manager. “A couple of years ago we had one kid who was  having a rough time in the beginning. She was very small, her [bass]was very big. There were some tears. Toward the end, at the showcase, as her volunteer band coach was helping her get ready to go on stage, she puts the bass on [and] goes “I feel cool”, then goes out to perform her original song,” say Curl. Basically exhibiting her rock star potential.

“We see a lot of change over a week because it’s so intensive. We create the environment for them for seven days,” says LeMaster. “You’ll see these kids come in, and they’re just so shy, but by the end of it they’re amazing rock stars.”

In addition to the basic rock star sediment, campers also partake in workshops focused on social justice.

“Our inclusion policy [states] we will accept anyone on any level of participation who identifies as a woman or identifies as trans or gender non-conforming. We do a lot of work in that realm so everybody at camp feels safe and has a place to share their voice,” says LeMaster.

In addition to their popular summer program, Girls Rock! Chicago now offers ShredShop, a full day of workshops for girls and transgender youth held at Josephinum Academy in Wicker Park. The Saturday or Sunday event launched January 21, 2017 and covers topics such as DIY recording, instrumental instruction and live sound setup. Similar events will be held on Saturday, April 22 and Sunday, May 14 at Josephinum Academy.

Also held at Josephinum Academy is JAM Club, an after school club for high school students of the academy. Like the summer camp, students are taught how to play an assortment of rock instruments and are encouraged to write an original piece to be recorded and performed at a professional venue.

For now, the after school program is only implemented in one school, but LeMaster says a future goal would be to work with a number of schools on Chicago’s west and south sides. Girls Rock! Chicago would also like to have an official location one day, possibly even become a fulltime afterschool program.

Of course, in order to start new programs and successfully run existing ones, Girls Rock! Chicago depends on generous donations and volunteers. For those looking to get involved, volunteer positions are available for the week-long summer program as well as for year-round opportunities assisting on various events. Girls Rock! Chicago also accepts monetary donations as wells as music gear, t-shirts and art supplies.

The organization also holds a number of fundraisers in the form of concerts and other events. This March, Girls Rock! Chicago put together a show at The Empty Bottle where musical acts such as Sports Boyfriend and The Just Luckies performed to raise money for the nonprofit. On April 1st, Impossible Colors presents Frontwoman Fest at Burlington Bar in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The night’s lineup will include great local acts such as The Cell Phones, So Pretty and No Men. Proceeds from the event will benefit Girls Rock! Chicago.

Visit Girls Rock! Chicago online to learn more about volunteering and other ways to get involved.

You can also sign up for the 2017 Summer Camp and other programs online.

Photo Credit: Glitter Guts

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