“You can’t be as good as the guys; you have to be better.” – Mandy Rowden*
Girl Guitar Austin is a women-only music school in Austin, Texas.
It is the brainchild of singer/songwriter/teacher Mandy Rowden who, after teaching privately for ten years, combined her love of teaching, playing, wine and good old-fashioned fun to form Girl Guitar in 2007.
Polly Trenow sat down with Rowden to find out more.
Tell me about the birth of Girl Guitar.
I used to teach at the Austin School of Music and I’d always thought it would be fun to have a girl guitar class but I’d never had any luck starting it.
I came back from New York and didn’t want to teach private lessons anymore but I was super broke and so the Austin School of Music let me try to put a class together. At that time I guess I was just broke enough that I was really motivated to try to make it happen.
I managed to get enough people for a full class so I thought I would just do one six-week class, get my cell phone turned back on and that would be that. But we had such a good time that they all wanted to sign up again. Then random strangers started calling me wanting to do a class and it started getting too big for the space available at the school of music so I moved it.
I never planned on it being a full-time job but we just kept having fun and getting all this attention so I thought “OK, let’s keep doing this.” After about two and half years I was able to quit waiting tables and just do Girl Guitar full time.
What was the motivation behind the girls-only aspect of Girl Guitar?
I’ve never been a big feminist, it just sort of happened.
It’s kind of boys-club playing guitar and there are so many women that want to learn but for some it’s like going to a gym – some women just feel more comfortable without dudes there.
I had wondered whether a girl-only class would make a difference and when we tried it, it was so much fun. Someone brought a bottle of wine and it turned into our own girl’s club. That sounds cheesy when I say it, but the women did seem to respond well. A lot of people told me that they wouldn’t have felt as comfortable if there were guys there.
What was the atmosphere like in your first class?
It was so fun, we laughed so much. You know there is a lot about guitar that when when you talk about it it sounds kind of sexual so we just ran with that and laughed our asses off. Everyone has improved and it’s been great watching the girls become friends.
At the end of the course there is a showcase and we have huge crowds at our showcases and everyone is so supportive. I don’t know if they’re more supportive because we’re chicks or just because these women are trying to learn something new, but they’re supportive anyway.
What do your students say?
They seem to love it. A lot of them tell me they wouldn’t feel as comfortable if there was guys there. I don’t know why. Maybe we think that guys would make fun of us or make us feel bad or maybe we assume that guys know more than us.
Girl Guitar has grown to provide classes for songwriting, soloing, bass and more. Are there further plans for growth?
It’s something I’ve been wrestling with lately — the need to make money versus the need to keep Girl Guitar special. I could do more classes and spread myself thin but I wouldn’t know the women as well and it wouldn’t be as cool.
People tell me I need to franchise it, but if I start franchising it and I travel all over then I don’t get to do the job I like, getting to know the people and watching them grow.
Perhaps I could just be content as it is? Or maybe that’s horrible business logic. But when you’re a teacher and you’re burnt out then it shows, your students can tell and no-one wins. It’s getting so big now, almost to the point where I don’t know some of the students. I know they have good relations with their individual teachers but it sucks for me.
I’m proud of it growing but I’m sad about it being less personal.
Did you have male teachers when you were young, and if so, how did that change your approach to teaching?
I have had a few but I was always more comfortable with women. I was always quite shy and so I gravitated to women teachers. I had male teachers in college but I think men take a different approach. They can be a bit more cut and dry and less nurturing – to speak in general terms.
I suppose that does influence my teaching style. I’ve been told I’m very nurturing so maybe that’s the reason.
Why is the music scene so male dominated?
No matter what field you’re in there are always women who just opt for wanting to raise kids so I think that has a lot to do with it. It’s not the whole thing, but it makes sense when you see fewer women — because women are having children.
But are there are also fewer young women around on the Austin music scene?
I wonder if a lot of women aren’t encouraged as much as boys to go into music or there aren’t enough resources for them. I’m not sure but I do think it’s going to take a long time before it becomes equal. Leveling the playing field sounds great but there will also be fewer opportunities for us women now, so maybe being in the minority works to our advantage sometimes?
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