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‘I can express myself here’: Girls Rock Camp Madison builds community through music

The camp for elementary and teen girls teaches participants how to play instruments, perform a song and build self-confidence

A student holds a large electric guitar in a classroom as teachers encourage her off to the side.
Eight-year-old Shoshanna Arendas plays the guitar while practicing with the band The Pet Rocks on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Alice Hartsfield has dreamed of playing drums her whole life.

The 13-year-old wears purple-streaked hair and peace-sign earrings. She started playing guitar at age 10, but until now, she hasn’t had a chance to try drumming, the instrument her dad used to play.

“I’ve always wanted to play drums, but I never had the opportunity because we didn’t have the money or the space,” she said. “This camp gave me that opportunity.”

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Alice is participating in Girls Rock Camp Madison, a weeklong day camp for girls, transgender and nonbinary youth ages 8 to 18. On a Wednesday afternoon in July, she’s one of 45 campers practicing in nine rock bands. The sounds of guitars, basses, keyboards and drums echo through the halls of Westminster Presbyterian Church, where they practice each day.

The bands had just five days to learn a new instrument, write and perfect their original songs before the camp concluded with a live performance at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, July 22.

The camp’s attendees experience what its website calls “a safe space where ALL can rock.” The nonprofit, founded in 2009, began with just 32 campers rocking out in a vacated music store near the Barrymore Theatre. This summer, it hosted about 150 campers during three weeklong sessions.

A girl plays the keyboard. A drummer is seen behind her.
A member of the band 1206 practices the keyboard Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Music director and cofounder Beth Kille wears black-and-white earrings in the shape of a guitar pick that say “Girls Rock Camp.” She stands on the stage in an expansive room on the lower floor of the church, giving the campers a rundown of how Saturday will work — and tips on how to manage nerves.

To Kille, whose parents were both in the arts, music became a way to make a difference in the world, she said. Over the course of her more than two-decade music career, she has released 18 albums. She performs with the Beth Kille Band and is a member of the trio Gin, Chocolate & Bottle Rockets and the band Kerosene Kites.

In 2009, a woman named Halle Pollay was trying to get her daughter into Girls Rock Camp in Chicago, but she kept getting placed on the waiting list, Kille said. Pollay started a small version of the camp in Viroqua. Scott Meskin, another parent and a musician, approached Kille, and the three started the camp in Madison in 2010.

“It really solidified for me what I wanted to be doing,” Kille said. She wanted to do “things that filled up my heart but also were good for the world.”

The camp’s Madison chapter is part of the national collaborative Girls Rock Camp Alliance. There’s also one in Milwaukee.

“Music is the vehicle,” Kille said, “but the mission is to learn how to support each other, learn how to build each other up, listen to each other. And let’s rock.”

Lyrics, including the refrain
Lyrics to The Pet Rocks’ song “Gonna Be A Rockstar” are hung on the wall during rehearsal Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Those goals are important to Jordan Bufford, 11, who wanted to find a fun music program. She said at Girls Rock Camp Madison, she feels free to be herself — without judgment — and challenged herself learning to play the drums.

“I can express myself here without somebody always correcting me on like really, really small stuff,” Jordan said.

Even three days into camp, Jordan had become friends with girls in other bands.

“Lifting other girls up,” she said, “it brings out that sisterhood in you.”

Camp offers girls a place in the often male-dominated world of rock

Women remain underrepresented in the music industry. In 2022, women only made up 14 percent of all songwriters on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart, according to a recent report from USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Of the artists on that chart, just 30 percent were women. And that marked progress over 2021’s 23.3 percent. Only 65 of the more than 700 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s inductees are women.

“We need equity and representation everywhere these days,” Kille said. “The world benefits from all these different perspectives in whatever industry it is. And so we want people to have opportunities, regardless of their gender, the color of their skin, their age, whatever it is.”

Research shows girls can benefit from participating in girls-only activities. Girls’ school graduates are more academically engaged and express stronger community involvement than co-ed graduates, according to a 2018 study from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

And girls value “safe spaces” where they “can confide in trusting adults and other girls,” according to the Girl Scout Research Institute.

Most of the campers at the first camp session are elementary-age. Some were in tie-dye, others in rainbow-inspired clothes and many wore pins with their preferred pronouns.

Two leaders stand at the front of a classroom during rehearsal.
Teresa Marie, the lead singer in the rock, rhythm and soul People Brothers Band, right, leads a rehearsal Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Campers learn a variety of instruments, the foundations of songwriting and how to work together.

Before the first day, the campers indicate their top three instrument choices and are placed in bands based on their ages.

By mid-morning, it’s “movement time.” Campers color and make friendship bracelets, some dance and others head to the playground.

Then during lunchtime, some coaches like Jennifer Hedstrom perform their own original songs. Sitting down at the piano, Hedstrom told the group she would sing a song called “Prairie.”

“If you don’t know already, prairies need fire to grow,” she said. “This is about how sometimes when you feel like everything is at zero, and you feel like you’re totally starting over, if you still have your roots, you still have support. And when you rebuild from that, it will be even more beautiful than before.”

At the end of the day, some of the 45 campers run to the wide room and sit on the floor, ready to hear staff play music. As they groove along, they shift in their seats, watching as staff read their “shoutouts” on slips of paper by the kids. Then, they clap, dance and sing the camp song, “GIRLS ROCK, GIRLS ROCK!

A few years after Girls Rock Camp Madison took off, the nonprofit introduced a “Ladies Rock Camp,” something executive director Beth Dohrn said shares the same mission: to rock out, have fun and build self-confidence. That camp is held three times a year, and adults learn how to play an instrument in a shorter time frame — on the weekend.

In 2010, Dohrn’s daughter, then a singer, attended the first Girls Rock Camp in Madison. When Dohrn dropped her off, she met Beth Kille. As a special education teacher, Dohrn was drawn to the camp’s goals to empower kids and be inclusive. Dohrn said she volunteered and became the “girl power coach” at the first camp, helping any campers who were struggling.

And she stuck with it. In 2015, when one of the founders left, she became the camp’s director.

Dohrn, 63, who has no musical experience, even learned to play bass at Ladies Rock Camp, a spinoff of Girls Rock that’s open to adults.

“I never, never thought I’d be here,” she said. “But I got so inspired by watching the campers and thinking, ‘Well, I could do that.’”

A camper plays the keyboard with other musicians.
Ray Ehrhardt plays the keyboard during rehearsal with the band Cloudy 9 on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Campers build each other up

For Alice, learning to play drums at camp has been absolutely liberating.

“I really get into the beat,” she said. “I like the noises it makes, and I can, like, take my anger out on the drums.”

She also spoke highly of her band manager.

“She doesn’t judge us if we make mistakes. And I really appreciate that, because I’m the type of person who overthinks a lot,” Alice said.

In many ways, leading the bands has helped Kille in her personal and professional life.

“When I was a younger musician, I kind of felt like, ‘Well, if I don’t make tons of money making music, then I haven’t made it.’ And that’s so not true,” she said. “I have helped create this organization and helped teach these kids how to write songs and how to work together and I feel like that’s really my life’s mission.”

Kille then pointed to a tattoo on her forearm with the word “inspire.” It’s her reminder, she said, that she wants campers to end the week “feeling like they can conquer the world.”

“I love that I get to see all the music that they’ve created,” Kille said. “And just that they let their creativity flow and they let their light shine, and that’s the reward for me.”

This is the third year Teresa Marie, the lead singer in the rock, rhythm and soul People Brothers Band, joined the camp as a coach and band manager. She said music has always been a part of her life, and she hopes to touch other lives through it.

Teresa Marie is the only woman in her band.

“While I had amazing women influences in my life, my life wasn’t like, ‘girl power,’” she said. “I don’t think I fully grasped the meaning of it until Girls Rock Camp. … This is teaching women to empower women, and in turn to empower humans, which is what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Teresa Marie said at Girls Rock Camp, she gets to work alongside women she’s admired for years.

“This is your moment to shine as bright as you can,” she tells campers. “There is no wrong way to be. You are you, and that’s what we want to see up there.”

A camper stands at a microphone to sing with other musicians.
Juniper Liberatore sings during rehearsal with her band, Cloudy 9, on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

At the bands’ showcase, nerves and excitement

Before the showcase began, the bands arrived early for sound check.

Around midday, roughly 75 family and friends filed into High Noon Saloon, the room packed with many eager to snap photos of their loved ones. Jordan’s group played their original song, “Challenge Accepted.”

Later, Alice’s band, Cloudy 9, took the stage. Alice was in pigtails, with red glitter on her cheeks and a gray-blue guitar pick necklace she made, dressed in a black floral dress with combat boots. She said the band members coordinated outfits to all wear black to go along with their so-called dark, spooky music vibe.

During their moody song “Just a Mystery,” the guitarist strummed in windmill style, dropped to her knees and flung her guitar pick into the crowd. And Alice stood to her feet, tapped her drumsticks in the air and threw her hands up.

For each performance, the band managers stood in front of the stage, guiding the campers. Then they gave each of them a high-five. Finally, the campers all ascended the stage to rock out one last time to the “GIRLS ROCK, GIRLS ROCK” anthem.

Alice’s hands were red from clapping too hard in the spirit of the song. She said she may want to stick with the drums, but she’s interested in learning bass — maybe at next year’s camp.

“I didn’t really have a whole bunch of nerves to begin with. I was just excited to be here,” Alice said. “I can’t wait to come back.”

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