August 23, 2019

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Writers fulfil musical dreams at rock camp; little did they know how difficult, tiring and rewarding the process would be

Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/2/2019 (182 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries... learning to play the drums.

Last Friday night, I sat behind a drum kit for the first time. Roughly 48 hours later, I was drumming live in a band onstage at the Park Theatre.

So goes the wild ride that is Adult Rock Camp, presented by Girls Rock Winnipeg and the West End Cultural Centre — a weekend-long intensive rock ‘n’ roll boot camp in which women, non-binary and trans participants learn a new instrument, form a band, write an original song, and perform it live. It’s the grown-up, abbreviated version of the six-day camp for girls, non-binary and trans kids that takes place in the summer.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/2/2019 (182 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Welcome to Jen Tries, a semi-regular feature in which Free Press columnist Jen Zoratti will try something new and report back. In this instalment, Jen Tries... learning to play the drums.

 

Band boot camp offers new perspective

Erin Lebar at Girls Rock Adult Camp at the Park Theatre. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Erin Lebar at Girls Rock Adult Camp at the Park Theatre. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

As a music journalist, I have spent thousands of hours at hundreds of shows. I’ve written about jazz, classical, country, rock, pop, electronic and everything else in between; I’ve judged musicians on vocal technique and performance quality; I’ve gotten in an argument with Boy George on Twitter after he disagreed with my review of Culture Club’s 2016 Winnipeg show.

I have done all of these things, but I have never once actually been in a band.

I mean, I was in concert band in high school, rippin’ on the flute like nobody’s business, and I can play piano, but I’ve never been in a drafty garage in the middle of January for a jam session with my buddies.

So, when I was approached by columnist (and Bury the Lede co-host) Jen Zoratti to join her in taking part in Adult Rock Camp — a weekend-long intensive hosted by the Girls Rock Camp team and the West End Cultural Centre — it seemed like a good opportunity to put myself on the other side of the stage for the first time.

As a music journalist, I have spent thousands of hours at hundreds of shows. I’ve written about jazz, classical, country, rock, pop, electronic and everything else in between; I’ve judged musicians on vocal technique and performance quality; I’ve gotten in an argument with Boy George on Twitter after he disagreed with my review of Culture Club’s 2016 Winnipeg show.

I have done all of these things, but I have never once actually been in a band.

I mean, I was in concert band in high school, rippin’ on the flute like nobody’s business, and I can play piano, but I’ve never been in a drafty garage in the middle of January for a jam session with my buddies.

So, when I was approached by columnist (and Bury the Lede co-host) Jen Zoratti to join her in taking part in Adult Rock Camp — a weekend-long intensive hosted by the Girls Rock Camp team and the West End Cultural Centre — it seemed like a good opportunity to put myself on the other side of the stage for the first time.

The thing that appealed to me most about this program was the idea that it was a safe space for women, trans and non-binary folk to learn; as someone who actively fears making a fool of herself, having like-minded and equally-skilled women encouraging me felt like the best-case scenario for tackling something new.

This did turn out to be true, but did not relieve as much of the panic and anxiety as I had hoped. Turns out learning a new instrument, forming a band, writing a song and performing it in less than three days is kind of stressful.

And there were a few other obstacles along the way that definitely did not aide the process; the poor old WECC was having major heating issues which resulted in frozen extremities, endless shivers and many campers deciding to don their parkas and hats for much of the weekend. When your body is thinking so hard about staying warm, it’s hard to absorb the details of a C major scale.

My band also lost a member on Day 2, possibly because she froze to death. The largest con was she was our guitarist and singer and helpful in the early composition process, however one big pro was her departure inspired our band name, Down 1.

Bass coach Ashley Au (left) teaches some of the finer points of the instrument to Lebar. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Bass coach Ashley Au (left) teaches some of the finer points of the instrument to Lebar. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Thankfully, our keys player took one for the team and switched to guitars and vocals, and our band coach, Kelly Campbell of local trio Mulligrub, gave us some inadvertent inspiration for a catchy chorus. And thus, our new hit single, Depression is my Landlord, was born.

Even with the mild hypothermia (and what felt like the tightest deadline in the universe looming over our heads), the overwhelming feeling at Adult Rock Camp was one of warmth. Fast friendships developed during meal-time chats about musical influences while running through the weekend’s other struggles and successes. Self-deprecation was not allowed, no matter how many mistakes you made, and even more than that, the support from other campers and coaches was not only endless, but genuine.

And then there was the pin ceremony.

Each band coach had two pins per day to dole out to campers who stood out for any number of reasons. At the end of the first night, with all the campers seated in a circle in the WECC’s main theatre, Campbell gave me the first pin even after I felt like I had been struggling immensely and was not able to pull my weight as the band’s bass player. They said some kind and reassuring words, handed me a little black button that said “I Rock” on it, which I promptly pinned to my supplied lanyard.

All the other campers, whom I had just met a few hours ago, cheered and clapped as though we were family, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt prouder of myself; it was surprisingly emotional.

I’m not sure going through this process will make me more sympathetic to musicians, which is what I anticipated the outcome of this weekend to be; if anything, I will just be more critical now that I understand the technical aspect a bit better (sorry, every tour that plays Bell MTS Place).

But the process was valuable far beyond the music. It was about building confidence, supporting others unconditionally and, as cheesy as it sounds, understanding that few things in life are truly impossible to accomplish, no matter how much you believe that to be true.

Minor Inconvenience: Nicole Thomas (left) and Veronica Sayese. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Minor Inconvenience: Nicole Thomas (left) and Veronica Sayese. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Last Friday night, I sat behind a drum kit for the first time. Roughly 48 hours later, I was drumming live in a band onstage at the Park Theatre.

So goes the wild ride that is Adult Rock Camp, presented by Girls Rock Winnipeg and the West End Cultural Centre — a weekend-long intensive rock ‘n’ roll boot camp in which women, non-binary and trans participants learn a new instrument, form a band, write an original song, and perform it live. It’s the grown-up, abbreviated version of the six-day camp for girls, non-binary and trans kids that takes place in the summer.

The first Girls Rock Camp was held in Portland, Ore., in 2001, an offshoot of founder Misty McElroy’s project as a women’s studies major at Portland State University. The ethos is simple: empowerment through music. Since then, Girls Rock Camp has become a bonafide movement, with youth camps held in cities all over the world — including, as of 2018, Winnipeg, thanks to the tenacity of Girls Rock Winnipeg founder Brandi Olenick and her co-director, WECC community outreach co-ordinator Jessee Havey. The first Girls Rock Winnipeg youth camp took place in August 2018.

Throughout that week in August, the grown-up volunteers, band coaches and instructors kept repeating the same thing: "I wish something like this existed when I was a kid." And it’s in that spirit that the inaugural Adult Rock Camp in Winnipeg was born.

 

Friday, 5 p.m., 52 hours until showtime

Camp started an hour ago, and we’re already into our first instrument lesson. There are roughly 20 campers, and we’ve been divided up by instrument — guitar, bass, drums, keys. The drum group has assembled in the main hall, rechristened Sheila E., after the inimitable Prince drummer and solo percussionist. Mise en Scene drummer Jodi Dunlop is our instructor; she led the kids through camp in the summer.

Jen Zoratti learns about ‘limb separation.’ (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Jen Zoratti learns about ‘limb separation.’ (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Playing an instrument is not new to me: I took piano lessons every Wednesday night from the age of five until 18. I also had a brief but mostly disastrous fling with the electric guitar in high school (though I can play most of Green Day’s oeuvre). And while drums have always called to me, my reliance on a metronome throughout piano — and my tendency to accelerate when excited — convinced me that I couldn’t possibly keep time, especially for other people.

So, naturally, I picked the instrument furthest out of my comfort zone.

All five of our kits are pointed at Dunlop, who leads us in our first lesson. It’s a baptism by fire. But here’s the thing about basic drumming: if you know the standard eighth-note rock beat — which implements the kick, snare, and hi-hat — you’re golden. This is the foundation upon which the house of rock is built. That, and what we dub the We Will Rock You beat. If you’ve attended a sporting event — or, like, have heard music before — you know this one.

That said, perfecting your rock beat requires limb separation (which would be a good band name, by the way). Basically, your legs and arms are keeping different time. I find this incredibly frustrating at first. We drum along to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Gold Lion (which has the We Will Rock You beat).

Observation: rock camp has a way of bringing out both your positive personality traits and your negative ones. My negative trait is a perfectionist streak and the tendency to abandon things at which I do not immediately excel. Drumming challenges both.

 

Friday, 8 p.m., 49 hours until showtime

Bass coach Ashley Au (left) and Mandy Fraser. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Bass coach Ashley Au (left) and Mandy Fraser. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Our four-piece band assembles for the first time. We immediately start jamming and you know what? We don’t suck. Our band coach, local guitarist Ava Glendinning, is impressed. "You don’t even need me!" she says.

Like my colleague, co-Bury the Lede host and fellow rock camper Erin Lebar, I have been a longtime music fan. I was a music writer for the better part of a decade. But, save for playing keys in a group with my now-husband for five minutes (RIP The Going Steady!), I have never been in a band before.

Observation: Being in a band requires a fair amount of vulnerability — doubly so when you’ve never met your bandmates before. You’re experimenting, you’re trying new things. It takes guts to say, "I have an idea." Shout out here to my bandmates Lasha, Marie and Merrill for their focus and support.

 

Saturday, 11:30 a.m., 33 hours and 30 minutes until showtime

Zoratti practices getting the beat. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Zoratti practices getting the beat. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

We’re back in the group lessons. Today, they are something of a drum karaoke, and Dunlop is taking requests. We drum along to Toto’s Africa (which is good for learning fills) Wilco’s Heavy Metal Drummer, Sarah McLachlan’s Building a Mystery, Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You and more. I suggest Billy Squier’s The Big Beat, whose beat is a staple sample in hip hop (Run-DMC, Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, you name it, they’ve used it). It’s just as fun to play as it sounds.

I finally relax and really start mastering my rock beat, which makes me feel like maybe I am incredible at drumming? I’m disappointed when the lesson comes to and end.

Observation: Not only is this experience a reminder that it’s never too late to learn a new skill, there’s lots to be gained from mastery — even mastering something small. It’s also OK to just be OK at something. We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to turn our hobbies into side-hustles and our passions into careers, but doing something for the sake of it is not only relaxing, but tremendously personally rewarding.

 

Saturday, 7 p.m., 26 hours until showtime

Meanwhile Lebar practices on her bass guitar. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Meanwhile Lebar practices on her bass guitar. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

We are already in our final band practice before the show, and it’s been a long day. We’re fading. We finally nail down a band name, going with Van Pelt, after Lucy Van Pelt, the bossiest of the Peanuts gang. (Our song has an appropriately bossy, White Stripes-indebted beat, and my right quad feels like it’s going to explode.)

Our song is coming together — but it’s far from finished, and we’re aware of the clock. We play it over and over again, then we break it down into it’s smallest riffs to iron out transitions. Rock camp requires a positive attitude, but it also requires you to let go — of preciousness, of expectations, of all of it. Bandmates are not unlike teammates — we are working together to achieve a goal. By the end, we’re not only listening to each other, but trusting our instincts.

Observation(s): Van Pelt is killer — we rocked so hard we blew a fuse. Also, I have a new appreciation for the stamina of drummers.

 

Sunday, 1 p.m., eight hours until showtime

Girls Rock Camp founder Brandi Olenick. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Girls Rock Camp founder Brandi Olenick. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

It’s the big day. Yesterday was a fun-but-gruelling 12 hours and even though most of us are a little worse for wear, adrenaline has taken over. It’s rehearsal time at the Park Theatre, and we’re all hearing each other’s songs for the first time. I cannot believe how different we all sound, and how well all five songs turned out. I am so proud of everyone for hanging in, rising above very real challenges, and absolutely delivering.

Observation: Few things are more inspiring than watching people who didn’t think they could do the thing, do the thing.

 

Sunday, 9 p.m., showtime

Van Pelt, from left: Merrill Grant (bass), Zoratti (drums), Lasha Mowchun (guitar) and Marie Christian (keys). (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

Van Pelt, from left: Merrill Grant (bass), Zoratti (drums), Lasha Mowchun (guitar) and Marie Christian (keys). (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

We are backstage, and some of us are about to perform for the first time ever. Cate Friesen, who has been an indispensable support all weekend, asks us to join hands in a circle. She tells us to close our eyes, and imagine a space where we’re safe and supported. "Open your eyes," she says. "You’re in that space." (Congratulations to myself for not bawling.)

Being onstage in front of an appreciated crowd was exhilarating. The exhaustion was gone. All five bands left it out on the stage. What a thing to accomplish, to be a part of.

Observation: Lots of bands form but they never make it here, to their first gig. Lots of people want to learn an instrument, but never do. Sometimes, we believe things about ourselves that aren’t true — that we can’t keep time, or write a song, or sing in front of a crowd, or paint, or skate, or learn Russian or any number of things. When those chances to challenge those beliefs about yourself come along, take them. Even if Van Pelt doesn’t live to rock another day, this experience left me renewed.

The audience loves the rookie rockers. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

The audience loves the rookie rockers. (Trevor Hagan / Winnipeg Free Press)

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Saturday, February 23, 2019 at 11:14 AM CST: Typos fixed.

11:19 AM: Typo fixed.

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