School of rock

for The Brooklyn Paper
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No matter how high the mercury gets this summer, inside Downtown Brooklyn’s Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, things couldn’t be cooler.

You won’t find any lanyard making or ping pong playing at this camp, named after blues singer and rock pioneer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Campers here are more likely to be stringing guitars than friendship bracelets, and identify with Thornton, who played harmonica and drums and sang “Hound Dog” long before it was covered by Elvis.

Many of the girls, who range in age from 8-18, have little or no musical training, but by the end of the two one-week sessions, they can play chord changes, maintain a rhythm and, most importantly, rock out.

Girls who do have more experience often lend their expertise, helping to write songs and lead the less-experienced campers along. During the course of an action-packed session, campers form a band, write an original song and get it ready to perform. The Saturday after a session ends, they take the stage to perform for a rabid audience of family and friends.

As with most rock bands, plenty of the credit belongs to the behind-the-scenes crew. It isn’t agents or managers who are pulling the strings here, but a team of devoted counselors. These unpaid rockers make sure their girls can hold a tune, but also want to ensure that they hold their heads up high.

“It’s about the music,” said camp organizer Connie Wohn. “But it’s really all about self-esteem and empowerment for these young women.”

In addition to learning rock on their own, these budding superstars meet professional rockers who share their own stories and songs each day at lunch. Beyond being just another activity, the visitors show campers that making music can be a full-time gig.

Guests like Rasputina, blues legend Ann Rabson, too-famous-for-a-last-name cellist Martiri and post-punk band Boyskout play for the kids, but also answer pressing questions like “What should we name our band,” and “Do they make clip-on nose rings?”

“These musicians rock,” said Rachel Tallant, 14, before popping in her earplugs.

While all the counselors are donating their time, some are also utilizing their musical talent. Band coach Jessie Nelson, for example, has a degree in music and is a working jazz drummer. “The staff is a mix of people,” said Nelson, an Arizona resident who came to Brooklyn specifically to work at the camp. “Some play lots of instruments, other specialize in one, like me.”

These specialties are on display as the kids take classes like “Band Merchandis­ing,” where they learn to silkscreen t-shirts, make buttons and design album covers. In the “History of Women Who Rock” class, they discuss leading ladies of music from Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline to Debbie Harry and Missy Elliot. Other classes teach songwriting, instrument building and self-defense.

After lunch, it’s all about the band as the girls work with their coaches to sharpen their original lyrics and guitar licks. The 86 girls are grouped by age, forming 15 bands with names like “The Sour Sugar” and “The Distortions.”

“Band practice is fun, but it’s really hard,” said camper Athena Foster, 8. “It’s not just about you playing, because sometimes your bandmates mess up.” And no one can sit out. Everyone contributes, either by playing an instrument, singing or, in the case of the electronically inclined, DJing.

“The Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls” showcase is Aug. 25 at 11:30 am at the Highline Ballroom (431 West 16th St. at 10th Avenue in Manhattan). Tickets are $6. For more information, call (212) 777-1323.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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