Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls


Discovering their inner musician, New York girls

and young women find a whole new way to look at life.

By Mary Eisenhart

“We’ve found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. – Karla Schickele

For the last two summers in New York City, the Willie Mae Rock Camp has given girls and young woman — mostly local, some from around the U.S. and beyond — a week of total immersion in music. And, quite often, a life-changing experience.

“Rock camp,” says the camp’s Web site, “is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. The program is founded on the proposition that music can serve as a powerful tool of self-expression and self-esteem-building for girls and young women, and can help combat racism and stereotypes by building bridges of communication and shared experience among girls from diverse communities.”

Also, it’s a lot of fun.

All Photos by Kate Milford

The Willie Mae Rock Camp (named after blues legend Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton) got its start in 2004 after alt-rocker Karla Schickele spent a couple of summers as a volunteer bass teacher at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Oregon.

“It absolutely changed my life,” says Schickele, who, as a proud native of Brooklyn, quickly decided NYC needed its own version. “So I reached out to some other women musicians here, and we spent about a year getting together at coffee shops, planning and working. We did the first rock camp in summer of 2005.

Schickele, a founding director, also had the idea to name the New York camp after the blues legend. “We like to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. We thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock ‘n’ roll, Big Mama Thornton.”

Determined from the beginning to draw a diverse cross-section of girls from one of the world’s most diverse cities, the founders planned to offer full or partial scholarships to at least half the campers at each session. Then, they cast their net.

“We used the powerful tool of word of mouth,” Schickele recalls. “Our volunteers who were teachers put the word out to their students. Then we also had volunteers on bikes going around to various New York City neighborhoods. Particularly we wanted to target low-income and under-serviced communities in New York, where there are a lot of kids who don’t have access to summer programs the way kids do in affluent communities. So we had volunteers going out on bikes, bringing flyers and posters to community centers and schools and shops and just talking to people on the street.

“We were going up to girls on the street and saying, ‘Hey, are you into music?'” she laughs.

At the beginning of the weeklong day camp, girls form bands, with whom they’ll practice, write songs, and perform in a concert at the end of the week. They’ll get lessons in their chosen instrument from a pro. Along the way, they’ll get a crash course in other practical realities of band life, e.g. making custom T-shirts and posters. And working together.

The rest of the year, the founders and a host of others in this almost all-volunteer organization (the only employee is a part-time office staffer to keep things running smoothly) work ceaselessly to gather support from parents, the community, industry and beyond. An online list of Willie Mae’s supporters reveals a multi-generational, multi-genre roster of artists: Fiona Apple. Neko Case. Ani DiFranco. The Donnas. Deborah Harry. Natalie Merchant.

Probably the most popular fundraiser of the year is the annual Ladies’ Rock Camp, which raises money for the scholarship fund. Says Schickele, “Once a year we do a mini rock camp — it’s a three-day program for about 50 women who pay tuition. We get volunteers to work at that event as well, so all the proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

“It’s an incredibly powerful and moving experience. A lot of the women who sign up for it haven’t played music before, and just always thought it would be fun to be in a band. And the transformation they go through in three days is really extraordinary.”

The Willie Mae Rock Camp received a grant of $2,500 from the Rex Foundation in 2006. Says Schickele, “We’re very grateful to the Rex Foundation for its support, which is really helping us out this year.”

We were recently able to spends some time talking with Schickele about the Rock Camp’s work, how it helps participants elsewhere in their lives, and where the founders would like to take it from here.

Rex Foundation: An undertaking the size of this camp, with all its space and equipment requirements, isn’t cheap. Where does your funding come from?

Karla Schickele, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls: We do fundraising year round to make the one-week program happen. We solicit musical instrument manufacturers for gear donations; some of them have been quite generous, and given us guitars, drums and amps. We try to reach out to foundations and raise a lot of individual contributions. We hold fundraising events throughout the year to raise the cash we need to buy gear we can’t get donated, and to help pay the rent and our other costs.

Rex: How do your teachers hear about you and get involved?

Willie Mae: As with the campers, it’s a combination of word of mouth and concerted outreach efforts on our part. We strive to have our campers and our volunteers reflect the diversity of New York City, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world, racially and ethnically. So we really wanted camp to be a place where people from different backgrounds and different communities can come together and make music together.

From the get-go we found it fairly easy to attract a diverse camper group, but our volunteer group in the first year was overwhelmingly white. So we’ve been working to reach out to musicians, women of color who are musicians, and also groups that provide leadership, like the Black Rock Coalition, to try and diversify our volunteer group. It’s going great.

Rex: At least half your campers are on scholarship, and some of them come from all over the world. How do you do outreach outside of New York, and how do you ensure that all this diversity doesn’t simply lead to conflict and bad vibes?

Willie Mae: We don’t do outreach outside of New York. Our mission is to serve girls in New York City. We are open to girls from anywhere, but that’s not part of our outreach program. Any girls who find us out there in the world have just come upon us — we get a fair amount of media coverage, and people find us on the Internet.

The question of bringing people together — what we’ve found, and this is no big news, is that music really brings out the best in people. We’ve found that girls who might not have ever met in their home communities in New York can come together and share a love of music, start working together and bring their ideas together — and it works. There’s something magic that happens when people play music together. It creates lines of communication and builds bridges in ways that I think are unique to music.

It’s not that there isn’t conflict, because in any band there is conflict (laughs). One of the things we do is provide a band coach to every band. The band coach is an adult, an experienced woman musician who helps the girls find a working process. Like if someone has an idea for a lyric and one of the girls says, “Oh, that’s so stupid,” the band coach is there to say, “Hey, is there a different way we could talk about this?” So it becomes a weeklong exercise in communication, both through music and also through the working process of writing music.

Rex: You talk about how they form bands on the first day of camp — how does that work, and how do you avoid having it turn into nasty clique behavior?

Willie Mae: Good question.

At the Portland camp originally, they just had the names of different kinds of genres on the wall, and the girls would go to the kind of music they wanted to play, and then just sort themselves into groups, in a way that, as a volunteer, I found very traumatic to watch. It was a little like picking sports teams in school, and didn’t seem to really serve the process. So one of the changes we made in New York was to overhaul that system.

Our system is based on speed dating (laughs). All the girls are given packets that have the name of every other girl in the camp, and a couple of questions. Like, if you could be any animal, what would you want to be? And maybe also some music-related questions. But in my experience, a lot of bands get formed not because of a shared musical sensibility — that can be part of it, but a shared broader sensibility can often be a really good foundation.

And also I have a personal aversion to the use of musical genres as a limitation. I don’t think anyone should have to choose whether they want to play this kind of music or that kind of music. I’m much more interested in girls inventing entirely new genres of music.

So for these reasons, we do this exercise that involves each girl interviewing every other girl at camp for a few minutes. It’s a big, joyous, loud exercise, all the girls talking to each other at the same time — and then after a few minutes they switch. So at the end of the exercise every girl has talked to everyone else. And then they sit down and they write down the names of a bunch of girls they would like to be in a band with.

They hand them to us and go off and do a workshop, and we go into a back room and form bands, based on their requests, but also making sure that no girl is left out, and no girl knows what the other girl had asked for.

We then announce the bands, and they immediately go off and start working. We don’t really allow any time for “Oh, I really wanted to be with her…,” that kind of thing. Life is too short.

Rex: Why did you decide to name the camp after Big Mama Thornton?

Willie Mae: I like the idea that we really try to pay respect to the early women of rock. We’re not limited to rock music at our camp, but we do like to try to educate the girls about all the women who played music before them. So we thought one way to do that would be to name the camp after one of the seminal women of rock ‘n’ roll, Big Mama Thornton.

We also name the rooms: the bass room is named the Carol Kaye room after the bass player, and the piano room is the Nina room after Nina Simone. We also have little bios of those artists up in the rooms so the girls can learn more about different women. We also have a workshop on the history of women in music. We try to get that information in a couple of different ways.

Rex: You’ve only been doing this for a couple of years, so you don’t have a really long-term perspective, but do you see the same girls coming back more than once?

Willie Mae: Oh yeah!

Rex: What benefits do you see from kids going to the camp?

Willie Mae: We’ve heard from parents about the incredible increase in self-confidence that they’ve seen in their daughters. There have been girls who were having trouble in school and were incredibly shy, and who only played music alone in their rooms. Or talked about music but said, “I don’t know how to write a song.” And then we hear about how they say, “I wrote a song!”

A lot of them find ways to play music. Some of them don’t play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp and they carry that with them when they go back to school.

Rex: What would you do if you had more resources? What’s your wish list, and how do people like Rex help with all of that?

Willie Mae: Support from foundations like Rex is absolutely key to the success of our program and our ability to keep doing it. It’s really through foundation support that we’ve been able to have our part-time staff member, which has allowed us to streamline operations and do a better job.

Our goals are to start an after-school program. There are schools that have expressed an interest in having us come in, and the girls themselves are just dying for the opportunity to do this program year round. So that’s high on our wish list.

“A lot of them find ways to play music (after camp). Some of them don’t play music during the year, but we find that they feel really good about themselves coming out of rock camp, and they carry that with them when they go back to school.” – Karla Schickele