Teaching Songwriting at Rock Camp

I had never taught songwriting to anyone, nor had I ever received instruction on how to write songs.  So when the Rock n Roll Camp for Girls asked me to teach songwriting at their summer camp, my first reaction was “how exciting!”  And my second reaction was “I’ve never done this!”

In the weeks before teaching my first songwriting class I did a lot of research on songwriting.  I read articles about it, watched YouTube videos, and even signed up for a songwriting class.  I put together a course agenda outlining what I would talk about.  Then in the last few days before the class, I changed my approach.  I would not talk about songwriting.   I decided that I would show them how I write songs, and right then and there in the class we’d all write songs.  I didn’t know if this approach would work or not.

I started with a few minutes of background info about myself, and then launched into a short discussion asking “what is a song anyway?”   To lubricate our brains we started writing rhyming words on the board.  Just lists and lists of words that kinda rhyme.  We got pencils and paper to write down our lyrics that rhymed, or not.  I walked around with a guitar playing chords and rhythms that the girls might latch on to.   Ten minutes later, I asked for volunteers to come up to the front and read their lyrics.  The girls came up one by one.  I played the guitar and the girls easily fit their lyrics to melodies and rhythms.

Voila!  Dozens of songs were created, right there, easily and effortlessly.   Lots of the songs were funny, like the song about purple cola and ice cream soda.  Some songs were really well-developed.  One young woman wrote an entire composition of several verses and a chorus.  She sang it flawlessly, as if she was the next up-and-coming Pink.  Most of the girls were enthusiastic to share, except for one girl, maybe 8 years old.  She shielded her song from view, even though she had written a full page.  She said her song didn’t rhyme and that she didn’t like it.  I let her know she was fine and there was no pressure to share.

The class was almost over, and nearly everyone had shared, when the little girl raised her hand to indicate that she was now ready.  She came to the front, said her name, and shared her song.  It had lots of sound words in it, like crash and smash, and then words about a bridge and water and something about 99.  It was really emotional.  I listened closely and when she finished sharing I slowly asked her, “were you in a car crash on hwy 99?”  She looked down and said yes, it had just happened recently.   Her song was her way of processing a recent experience that was still on her mind.

I recognized that feeling of songwriting metamorphosis- a song can help us heal and recover from the pain and see it from a different view.  That’s where songs come from.

At Rock Camp the girls don’t learn cover songs, they learn to write their own original songs.  Then they form bands, and by the end of the week, each band performs an original song.   I think the songwriting aspect is really important for the girls.  They express themselves as unique individuals who have something to say.  They don’t copy or try to be someone else.  They use their own words.

It’s what rock music is all about, it’s about sharing experiences and emotions.  It’s about speaking up for what we believe in, it’s about expressing ourselves.  If a girl can speak up, write a song, and perform it in front of audience, she can do anything.

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GRRRL FRONT- April 2013

The first night of four-
I take a seat alone behind the Renegade Roller Derby table, a young woman takes the stage with a cello. She loops a couple cello tracks, places the instrument aside, and begins reading poetry aloud. I hear a bit of the introduction, I think she said the poem is about crying. I’m not really sure exactly what she said, but it sounds like this woman is ready to incite a revolution. And I’m ready to follow. Later I find out the young revolutionary is Kiya Davolt, a beautiful queer belly dancing slam poet music teacher.

I chat it up with the Renegade Roller Derby women- one is a steam punk DJ at PSU, and two are a spiky blonde-haired mother-daughter pair who are difficult to tell apart. Three women with drums, guitar, and bass take the stage. The guitar player, Danielle, seems to be the band leader, though as they crash through a quick set of 90 second songs each of them takes turns singing. They don’t face the front of the stage, they form a triangle and face each other, the audience forms a circle around them. They blast through another song, ending with “that was a cover”. They erupt into laughter without explaining what the cover was, and hurdle into the next barrage of distorted stringed ampage and raw vocal energy. They wrap up and tell us they are called Naam Sain. The band leader repeats the name a couple times, seeming not to be 100% sure that she is pronouncing it correctly.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of Kiya Davolt or Naam Sain, or many of the other artists and bands that play the first night.

The second night it’s my band’s turn. Rocket 3 is not a girl band. We’re a co-ed rock trio, and at first I wasn’t sure if we really qualified to be part of this women’s festival lineup. It’s a familiar feeling, not feeling qualified. We’ve played over 40 gigs in our first year as a band, and nearly every gig we’ve played has been in a lineup of all male bands. I often feel that my jangly guitar-based pop songs, somewhere between punk, pop, and rock, aren’t rough enough tough enough loud enough angry enough. But tonight we lay into song after song and the audience stands, the kids dance, the grins are ear to ear and I feel a sense of belonging. GRRRL FRONT feels so good, I feel it’s the best gig we’ve done.

I’m familiar with the other bands playing on our night. They are well-known. Rocket 3 hasn’t yet had the privilege of playing along side them. But now we’re all here, and feeling like we fit in.

I see one of the wonder woman organizers, Melissa Meszaros, and trade my CD in exchange for her book. Later I read her bio and I’m in awe that this is her fifth book. She’s only 30.

Night 3- I go to a fancy dinner with friends and then to a classy theatre event on the third night. I leave my friends, who excuse themselves citing routines and early bedtimes. I assure them that I’ll be safe as I head off to Slabtown alone. I feel like a teenager sneaking off into the night. My friends have grown up into full-on adults. As I pull away in my car, I feel the strong undertow of judgment, both theirs and mine.

The next day I ask my husband if he thinks that maybe sometimes women are gay not because they are attracted to women, but simply because they dislike men. He thinks yes, entirely possible.

It’s the final and fourth night of GRRRL FRONT and I specifically go to see the comediennes. A friend tells me that he doesn’t usually think women are funny. He says women’s humor is often sharp, biting. I try to understand what that means. I think he and many others experience discomfort with outspoken women- whether they are comediennes or politicians- and I wonder if that’s just another one of those weird double standards.

My 14 year old best friend joins me for the last night, we enjoy the sharp witty insightful comedy. My young friend loves what she experienced in the short time she spends at GRRRL FRONT night 4. As we drive home we agree that we are both going to write more, write a zine or a book.  We agree that there is so much more to do.

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