In this installment of our blog series focusing on extraordinary audio visual experiences in the wider Portland community, we sat down with Kristi Balzer, Executive Director of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls is a nonprofit organization founded in 2001, by Misty McElroy, as a senior capstone project at Portland State University. Since then, the concept has expanded to approximately 100 independent locations around the world. Biamp has been an active sponsor of Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls for several years. We were curious about the extraordinary audio visual experiences that happen at each Rock Camp session, and what the program means to the kids who participate.

Caitlin Lilly: Biamp has been a sponsor of Rock Camp for a long time, so I wanted to get your perspective on some of the extraordinary experiences that happen there.

Kristi Balzer: That’s such a big, open question. There are so many things that happen at camp that are remarkable; it would be hard to fit it all into one answer. Just to give you the quick and easy version: a week of camp is sixty-five girls, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth, coming together. Most of them have never met and have never picked up an instrument. They come in on Monday, meet for the first time, and are assigned an instrument. They don’t know which instrument they’re going to get until the first day. They break into groups for instrument instruction for two hours, then in the afternoon we form bands and then they split off into band practice and/or a series of workshops.

In band practice every day, they work on writing their own song. It’s an amazing process when you think about it: these campers have no instrument training and have never written a song, and we group them into a band with kids that they wouldn’t have otherwise picked and ask them to write their own music. It’s a really monumental task and we’ve manage to do it every summer for 17 years. The intimidation and the nervousness on Monday when they walk into the assembly room gets transformed by Saturday afternoon when they take the stage at the Albert Abbey Theatre and just blow it up. That’s what we do, and every step along the way is pretty remarkable.

We often have kids who struggle throughout the process. Then at some point in the week something clicks and everything goes smoothly after that. About half of our campers come back year after year. They started coming when they were eight and they’re still coming back at 15 and 16. Those kids look forward to camp all year long – to being with their friends and going through that process again, making a new band, learning a new instrument, and just doing it all over again. There’s something about what we do that really sinks in with people to make them want to be a part of it and come back to it year after year. Music is a really powerful tool for empowering youth and inspiring people.

CL: It’s interesting that they don’t choose their instruments. Is that always how it’s been, or is that a newer policy?

KB: No, the campers have always given us their top three choices out of four or five possible options. Probably 95 percent of the time they get their first choice, and if not, their second choice. We also have to be able to balance out instrumentation with the number of kids in each age bracket. We just don’t want to make promises and disappoint anyone. There’s also something fun about that reveal on the first day of camp when they walk up to the check in table and they find their badge for the first time and it has their instrument on it. The kids get really excited.

CL: That makes sense. Let’s talk about how the concept has spread. I know that Portland was the first Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and now there are tons of them everywhere.

KB: There are about 100 camps now worldwide. In fact, there’s a camp opening in Mozambique soon, which will be the first Rock Camp in Africa, so now there will be camps on every continent. I think there is a camp almost in every state in the U.S. While each camp operates independently, there’s the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, which formed out of the Portland camp as an organization to keep track of and support all the camps. The Girls Rock Camp Alliance helps with resources when a new camp is started, and then they organize a conference annually. At the conference, staff members from all camps come together and share information and talk about best practices. So, all the camps are loosely connected.

CL: Do you get a lot of feedback from the kids about Rock Camp functioning as a safe space for them? I know kids that age are really quiet and are maybe not going to be forthcoming with something like that.

KB: We don’t get really specific feedback from them. I think the feedback you get is that they want to come back year after year. We have about a 50 percent return rate on campers who come back to us. Once they turn 15, if they’ve been to camp at least twice, they can apply to be part of our intern program. The interns do workshops throughout the year for leadership skill building, then they come help us run camp during the summer.  We never have any trouble getting interns for the program, which I think is a testament to what we do and how they feel about being there. After they turn 17, they matriculate out of the internship program and become adult volunteers. Then they keep coming back every summer. Our most recent past board chair started as a camper and progressed to an intern, a volunteer, and a staff member. She basically grew up at Rock Camp. That’s evidence of the lifelong impact.

Parents are very vocal about whether or not their kids are having a good experience. We hear from so many parents who make comments like, “My kid blossomed after coming to your program,” or “This was the most fun thing they did all summer. They want to come back next year.” I’ve heard, “It was transformative for me to watch my kid go through that process and to see them up on the stage.” So, we get really good, warm feedback from parents.

CL: Especially if their kids have been going through a tough time, dealing with the process of being a kid, to see them feel free to be themselves must be amazing.

KB: It is. Even watching my own daughter the first time she went through camp was such an incredible experience. Just to watch her be a self-advocate and to pick up vocals. She went from, “oh I’m just going to wing it on stage, I’m just gonna sing whatever.” To “No, I’d better write some actual lyrics,” and committing to that and cooperating with her band, and all of them working together to create a song.

To me, there’s such a big difference between teaching a kid a song and having them regurgitate it onstage, compared to saying “I’m going to teach you just a few chords and you’re going to come up with your own chord progression for this song, and you’re going to help come up with the lyrics. What do you want to say in your song?” I think that’s something really powerful.

Learning music is very powerful for everyone, but there’s that next level of empowerment that comes from the songs being your own. That’s true for the Ladies Rock Camp program too, I think. A lot of the women who go through that program say, “I wish this had been around when I was a kid.” The bonding that happens even in the short and intense Ladies Rock Camp weekend is so powerful. There are a lot of wonderful connections that get made during that program.

CL: It’s not something that adults get to access very often. That’s something that is really lost after you get out of college. You don’t have a bunch of people who all have similar interests jammed in a room together ever again. So that and the friendships that form I think are really magical.

KB: Totally.

CL: A lot of the time when I talk to people about Rock Camp, their first question is “why no boys?” I’m sure you hear that all the time. What is your typical response to that?

KB: We do get that question a lot. Our typical response to that is that the entire music industry is for boys and so it’s okay to have a place that’s just for girls. If you would like to start a Boys Rock Camp, go right ahead, but that’s not what we do. There are lots of places for boys to go and play music and to write their own music. There is not a lack of male musicians in the music industry at all. The last time I looked at the lineup for one of the big music festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo, out of the 60 to 70 bands that are performing, maybe a handful of them are female led, and even fewer have all women in their band. So yeah, it’s okay that we’re gonna take up some space.

CL: Before we conclude, is there anything else you’d like to add?

KB: We do fun activities throughout the year that help raise funds for tuition assistance. One of our main tenets is that we never turn a camper away due to lack of funds. We spend most of the year raising money so we can provide tuition assistance for our campers who need help. We have a karaoke contest every spring, and a women’s arm-wrestling tournament in the early part of the year. In the fall we have our big gala fundraiser, where we’re honoring Laura Veirs, who just put out a new album. The gala is such a fun event. I would definitely encourage people to attend.

I would also encourage everyone to come out to the showcases this summer. Especially folks at Biamp, because you’re a sponsor. We would love for you to come and see what your funding contributes to. Showcase information is listed on our website, and the next one is scheduled for this Saturday, August 18th, at 3:00 p.m. at the Alberta Abbey. I think that it really hits home for people when they come to the showcase and they see the campers perform their original songs. It’s a heart wrenchingly cool experience, and also very loud, so bring your ear plugs


*This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.