For a couple of weeks in the summer, the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art in Brooklyn, New York, is turned into one big rehearsal space. Amps, guitars and drum kits are lugged through the hallways as the cafeteria is readied for a rock show, and a peek inside a classroom reveals a group of preteen girls standing on chairs, belting out the words to Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend."
This is the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a program that's cultivating a new wave of female rockers. Not only do girls between the ages of 8 and 18 learn to play instruments — campers can choose between guitar, drums, bass, keyboards, turntables and vocals — they also participate in music-related workshops.
"We are always interested in any kind of workshop that is empowering and will encourage girls to feel like they can do anything," said Executive Director Karla Schickele, who's spent her own time onstage in folk-pop band Ida. "They can create their own environment and be creative in the risks that they take."
The first such program started in 2000 with Portland, Oregon's Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, which was featured in the recent documentary "Girls Rock!" The trend has since spread across the country, and even around the world. New York got its own version in 2004.
Over the course of a week at Willie Mae, each girl is placed in a band where she and her mates write their own lyrics and put a song together — all leading up to a grand performance on Saturday.
"If you can find other girls to play with, it's not just a bonding experience, it's not just about the music — it's sort of this big empowerment thing," said Mates of State's Kori Gardner, who performed during the camp's lunch break one day. "It's a confidence builder. You're playing and you're jelling together on a stage in front of people who are pumping you up, and it's just a really big empowerment and confidence booster."
When not in band practice, the campers go to workshops in rooms named after icons like Björk and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, learning everything from self-defense — because every rocker needs to be prepared for rowdy crowds — and how women are portrayed in the media to songwriting and T-shirt silk-screening.
As if that weren't enough, they also put together an image for their band, from picking names to designing logos. "We actually put a bunch of names in a little baggy and drew out four or five random words and put them together, and we wrote down about 40 different possible names," 15-year-old bassist Stephanie Child said. "We were down to Finding Nowhere and Broken Media, and we all voted for Broken Media."
Then there's the little matter of songwriting. For the older girls, the songs might be about love and heartbreak. For the younger girls, it's all about fun and joking about what they know — other girls.
" 'Total Teenage Drama,' it's like us making fun of girls, because we say they are talking on their cell phones, listening to the radio, looking in the mirror and trying to fix their hair," said Soledad Tejada, 9-year-old lead singer for LOL. "We thought we should make it about people who would say, 'LOL.' "
What makes these girls luckier than their elders — and let's face it, we all wish we could have rocked out at camp instead of canoeing — is that a young girl can come in with absolutely no experience on any instrument and feel like a rock star by the end of the week. (Envious adults can sign up for Ladies Rock Camp by visiting Willie Mae's Web site.)
The camp-ending concert gives the bands the chance to perform for hundreds of their friends and family members. This year's concert was held at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, and the scene was just like your average rock show, from a merch table in the front — because who wouldn't want an LOL T-shirt where the "o" is a heart and crossbones? — to nervous musicians waiting backstage.
"The moment at the showcase concert when you see the band on the sideline feeling nervous about going onstage, and then when they first go onstage and they hear the roar of applause, of cheering and love coming from the audience, and that moment right before they launch into their song — I think that maybe that is my favorite moment," Schickele said.