Local Current Blog

From rock to hip-hop: Discovering the wealth of Twin Cities summer music camps

Campers performing at O'Gara's in St. Paul. Photo by Emmerlee Sherman via She Rock She Rock.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to learn the drums. I would tap along to music on any surface available, read drumming blogs, and replay the breakdown of John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane” more times than I can remember. But my family couldn’t afford a kit, and my grandparents wouldn’t pay for lessons the way they did for piano—and wasn’t piano more ladylike anyway?

If I’d known about the Twin Cities’ summer music camps, I would’ve taken destiny into my own hands and signed up for a class. As it turns out, the metro area is full of places to try out new instruments, especially in a short-term camp context. Several organizations around town offer sliding tuition rates, artistic flexibility, and smart, compassionate teaching to kids of all experience levels.

School of Rock, a global company with locations in St. Paul and Eden Prairie, offers after-school lessons in guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and vocals. Although they do have an adult program, they focus on teaching music to kids. Age ranges differ by individual programs, but the organization generally serves children from ages 6–18.

Danielle Cusack, Bruise Violet’s drummer and Tony Peachka’s bassist, studied at School of Rock from ages 14–18. Now, the 19-year-old Hamline University student is back as a drum teacher, juggling textbooks, lessons, and drum sticks in her busy schedule.

During summers, Cusack also teaches at She Rock She Rock, a Minnesota-based non-profit music organization specifically dedicated to girls. Founded in 2005, She Rock offers several kinds of classes, but a definite highlight of their calendar is the Girls Rock n Roll Retreat (GRRR). This year, three GRRR sessions will take place in July: two at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, and one at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins.

“Within a week,” Cusack explains, “we put [girls] into bands and teach them how to play their instruments. They learn to play some covers, and they also learn how to write original songs with their bands.” Cusack’s favorite cover? “Rebel Girl,” by Bikini Kill. “[It’s] the cover that always stays, which makes my heart so warm,” she says. “We have these young girls just screaming ‘Rebel Girl.’ Honestly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

Girls ages 8–16 are welcome to sign up for GRRR and don’t need to own instruments to attend; She Rock has drums, guitar, bass, and keyboards available for campers to use. Making the camp accessible is important to Cusack, and she emphasizes that there’s a particular need for girl-centered music education. “Girls don’t really get the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “If you don’t know to do [something], you must be dumb. You don’t know what you’re doing. So, you’re scared to ask.”

While music is the cornerstone of She Rock’s programs, GRRR also teaches students about feminism and women’s rights. “It’s really inspiring to see these young girls get heated about the way women are represented in media,” Cusack says. Of her co-workers: “It’s nice to be around all these powerful women who know what they want and will get it.“You can tell that these girls really look up to you,” she continues, adding that the appreciation is “really nice to have, because there’s so much doubt in playing music.” The thank-you notes, positive energy, and hugs help Cusack remember that while society might not always see music as a “real job,” it’s her community of musicians and appreciative students at School of Rock and She Rock She Rock that make the effort rewarding and worthwhile.

Rock camps are by far the most common music camps in the Twin Cities, offered through School of Rock, She Rock She Rock, Minneapolis’s House of Music, Twin Town Guitars, and other organizations, but there are several camps for non-rock music genres, too. McNally Smith, Twin Cities Jazz Workshop, and Minneapolis Public Schools offer jazz programs during the summer. And at Intermedia Arts, teenagers can attend the Summer Hip-Hop Institute, which is taught by scene veterans.

Desdamona, a local emcee and poet, helped start the hip-hop institute, and she’s co-taught it for years. It began as a girls-only camp, but due to limited opportunities in the Twin Cities for boys to learn hip-hop, the program has expanded to include them, too. Currently, Desdamona teaches alongside Carnage the Executioner (beatboxing, rapping), DJ Kool Akiem (producer/DJ), Medium Zach (producer), Bryce Davidson (B-boy), and Joy Spika (visual arts).

The Summer Hip-Hop Institute lasts four days and runs students through all the elements of the genre: writing, beatboxing, dancing, producing, and emceeing. “The point is to let them experience all of the base elements of hip-hop and just see what they like,” Desdamona explains, adding that students of all skill levels are welcome. “It totally varies, from kids who are super, super into it already and maybe already perform,” she continues, “or they might be in-depth in one element, like beatboxing or emceeing. And then there are kids who are like, ‘I don’t know very much about hip-hop, but I like to draw,’ or ‘I like to write.’”

At the end of the week, students perform at Intermedia Arts’ theater space on Lyndale Avenue. The showcase is largely planned by the students, who get to choose the presentation’s content and format. “I get something from being around these young people who are just beginning because it reminds me of how I was,” Desdamona says, noting that the path to expertise has changed since then. “Most of us from my generation taught ourselves. We learned through TV and videos and records, and we just stumbled on through it.” These days, there are more defined channels to progress through, history to consult, and leaders to learn from.

Beyond teaching kids about music, summer music camps also allow students to discover new interests, find role models, and make new friends. Most importantly, kids strengthen their creative skills, finding new and better ways to express themselves. According to Cusack, camps are “definitely the best weeks of the summer.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the June edition of The Growler.