These Girls Rock

A rock ’n’ roll retreat empowers girls on and off stage.
Carly Neville

For as long as St. Louis Park resident Jenny Case can remember, music has been in her life. Piano lessons as a kid turned to guitar lessons, and in high school she formed an all-girl band. She started teaching guitar and piano lessons at the age of 16, and has been teaching and playing in bands ever since.

It was while she was giving guitar lessons to a 12-year-old girl that Case started brainstorming. “She reminded me of myself,” Case says. “I saw her trying to form an all-girl band and it just wasn’t working. I just saw how passionate she was about it and I wanted to help her somehow.”

At the same time she was teaching at a co-ed rock camp, and one of the seminars they were teaching was on women in rock history. One of the first weeks, the boys and girls were together in the seminar, “and the boys were kind of disrespectful and laughing, saying, ‘Joan Jett, how lame,’” Case recalls. “So the girls were just not participating at all. We tried to get the girls up on stage and try different instruments, and no one wanted to participate.”

The next week, they separated the boys and girls for the seminar, “and it was completely different. [The girls] were enthusiastic—they were excited!”

Case had just read an article on girls’ rock camps starting in Portland and realized this was how she could help girls in the Twin Cities live their rock dreams, and do it without fear of judgement.

On the drums: Meredith Reise. guitars: Carly Neville (left) and Ruby Viot (right). bass: Svea Bleske.

Camp of Dreams

Case gathered a group of women to get it started, and in the summer of 2007, the first week-long Girls’ Rock and Roll Retreat (GRRR) took place in Golden Valley.

It’s grown since then—now under the umbrella of nonprofit She Rock She Rock, taking place every summer for one week at Mainstreet School of Performing Arts in Hopkins, and two weeks at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul. Girls ages 8 to 16 can sign up for one week every summer, and there is no musical experience necessary.

The first day begins with ice-breakers, Case says, and the girls meet with the instrument group they signed up for. The teachers of each group (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) ask questions to figure out the experience level and musical tastes of each girl, and to assess personalities so they can be placed in a band. “Because the worst thing you can do is put five introverts [or extroverts] in a band together,” Case says. “But some of it’s a guessing game.”

The first band rehearsal is mostly the girls making rules for the group, “like band agreements,” Case says. The band rehearsals throughout the rest of the week are for the girls to write songs. They have band “coaches” helping them, but they don’t write the songs for the girls; “they help facilitate the process.” During that time, the girls learn their instrument, or learn how to play their song. On Friday, everyone gets on a bus and goes to O’Gara’s in St. Paul to perform their songs on stage in front of friends and family.

Ruby Viot and Svea Bleske

More Than Just Music

While the girls are going from zero to rock star in a week, they’re also learning about women’s empowerment.

The teachers go through the rules of camp on day one, performed in skits, and “one of the rules is you’re not allowed to apologize,” Case says. “You say, ‘I rock!’ ” Messing up a chord or hitting the wrong note is OK, so the hope is to get out of the habit of saying sorry unnecessarily.

Another rule is to avoid comments on appearance. Rather than comment on a cute shirt, compliment the lyrics someone wrote, or on the great job that they did during rehearsal.

Throughout the week, couselors bring up a “topic of the day” during morning skits, and workshops in the afternoon delve into the topic. Gender identity is one topic, self-defense another, with self-defense skills taught in the afternoon.

“We [also] do a lot of media literacy,” Case says. With young girls, they talk about Disney movies and Barbie, and “how in most of the Disney movies the princesses are saved by the men and how unrealistic [Barbie dolls] are,” she says. The older girls get lessons on Photoshop, and how the women in magazines and on TV aren’t always “real.”

“I’d say we’re half music and half activism,” Case says. Though having feminist lyrics isn’t required at the camp, at the end of the week many of the songs carry that theme. A group of under-10-year-olds once had a chorus that screamed, “Forty-four presidents and none of them are girls!” Case recalls. “And they were little girls and they were [mad]!”

John Ekman, dad of rockers Katherine, 13, and Lizzy, 10, says “They’re teaching empowerment, advocacy and strength. All the things you want to see as a dad of two girls.”

The Ekman sisters first went to GRRR two years ago because Katherine wanted to start a band. Since then, they have both learned guitar and a whole lot more. “It generally teaches us how to get along with people because we have to listen to other people’s ideas as well as our own,” says Lizzy.

Her sister agrees. “I think that making a band is also more about finding yourself within other people, too. Like all of you coming together, sharing ideas in a little community,” Katherine says.

Jenny Case. Photo by Emily J. Davis

Hannah Myers was 7 when she started playing guitar. According to her mom, Niki Myers, when she switched to taking lessons with Case, “they just hit it off.”

Now 13, Hannah has gone to GRRR the past three years; it helped an already independent girl become “even more empowered,” Niki Myers says. GRRR “just slashes all stereotypes. You’ve got a whole spectrum of women out there encouraging young girls to play.”

Evelyn Speers has been going to GRRR since she was 11. When she started, she only played the viola. Today, at 15, she also plays the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboard, cello and is learning how to play the ukulele.

She learned new instruments and discovered a passion for music, but it goes beyond that, she says. “I learned that it’s OK to be a woman. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it, even though the media makes it seem like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman and you’re not capable of doing so and so.’ But then you see all these [GRRR teachers] in all these amazing bands and playing the guitar like it’s nothing, and it’s awesome.”

And that learning doesn’t stop. “I still continue to see a jump, a leap, a boost in her morale, her self-confidence,” says Evelyn’s mom, Ebony. It has changed how Evelyn feels about herself “and how she relates to people.”

Case says they change the workshops every summer at GRRR, so girls can return year after year and always learn something new. And the rest of the year they can participate in other programs under the She Rock She Rock nonprofit, founded in 2009.

There are also afterschool programs at Lake Harriet House of Music and Teen Girls Recording Camp for girls 14 to 18. Then there’s Ladies’ Rock Camp for women 19 and up, and open mic nights in various locations.

She Rock She Rock is always changing and adding new events, and the goal is to keep spreading throughout the Twin Cities and beyond, with Case leading the way.

“Some people give us [a hard time] about, well, why does it have to be all girls?” Case says. “Well I’ve seen it—it’s been black and white for me.” And with GRRR, these girls rock.


She Rock She Rock
Girls Rock n’ Roll Retreat