There's only two weeks left until the big show at the Top Hat and the Painted Arrows, a fledgling Missoula rock band, are getting some pointers from their mentors in music.

"It's a passionate song," said Andrea Harsell, a longtime Missoula musician and an instructor at the Girls Rock music camp. It needs to have the right level of energy, she said.

Kia Liszak, a veteran lead singer for Missoula rock bands and an instructor as well, suggested the performance should reflect the sadness of the lyrics.

After a bit more discussion, the quartet launched into their tune, a sad but stoic anti-bullying song written by Madi Nelson, a sixth-grader at Washington Middle School.

Nelson sang backup and set the rhythm at the drum kit – it's her instrument of choice because it's the "heartbeat of the song."

Up front on the little stage in the Zootown Arts Community Center's basement, guitarist and lead singer Leia Behunin, a Hellgate Elementary eighth-grader, sang Nelson's lyrics:

***

There will always be people like that

The kind that shoot black arrows of pain

Well that's insane

Spread only love, let it be your fate

Give up the hate

***

Helping fill out the sound were keyboardist Lucie Parson, who bobbed her head in time, and additional vocals and percussion from Pepper Tenenbaum.

The other girls ages 7 to 13 enrolled in the 14-strong ZACC camp were in the audience. Some clapped, some danced, some bounced in their chairs. Some occasionally did a cartwheel.

Soon the other two bands, the Detectives and the Zipperz, would take their turns rehearsing an original song in preparation for their show Dec. 5.

It's the culmination of 12 weeks learning to play instruments, write tunes, work as a team and, most importantly, learn to express themselves and build their self-esteem.

And, of course, they learn to rock.

*** 

This fall's camp is the second of its kind put on by the ZACC and the only one in Missoula.

The first, held in August, was a weeklong intensive, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. Its most simple goal was to have the kids form a band and perform live by the end, said Liszak, the executive director of the nonprofit center.

She's been thinking about having a program like this for 10 years.

She said playing music was a "journey to self-empowerment" for her growing up, despite the obstacles of a male-dominant scene and its overt or hidden message that a talented woman is still only "good for a girl."

After consulting with people who run similar camps elsewhere around the country, she and Cindy Laundrie Marshall, half of Missoula rock duo Vera, developed a curriculum and recruited more instructors and guest speakers.

The response from students and parents was so positive the organizers modified it for a 12-week after-school program that began in September.

Some girls, like Maddie Shulund, enjoyed themselves so much they signed up again – this time with her own bass guitar. (Marshall said the Lolo Elementary seventh-grader's progress "blew her parents out of the water" last time.)

Helping lead the camp are fellow instructors Rachel Patrie of local group J. Sherri, and Sasha Bell, whose resume includes New York bands Ladybug Transistor and Essex Green.

***

Each student receives instruction in the basic rock instruments – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and vocals.

They learn to write their own songs, a process that requires some rock history.

They get a primer on female heavy-hitters in the genre and listen to a slate of popular rock songs to help the students see how far they can go with "three chords and a dream," as Marshall put it.

Each girl lists her preferences on instruments from one to three. After the girls are divided into bands, the instructors triangulate the lineups based on their choices and what will work as a group.

And each girl writes her own song – Liszak and Marshall said it's inspiring to see how quickly they crank them out – and the bands draw a name from a hat to determine which tune they'll develop for the camp finale concert.

Regarding the name, Girls Rock is more of an exclamation than a genre description.

"We're interested in them discovering their own voices," Liszak said.

They also get advice on stage presence and learn the basics of being in a band – how to design a logo, screen-print T-shirts and make fliers to distribute around town.

Bell said the most interesting and gratifying parts of the camp are "watching the kids evolve and watching the music go from zero to 100."

Patrie said she expected a lot of chaos and a little bit of music, but instead saw a "total transformation in the kids" in both their musical and social abilities.

Which leads to the non-musical part of the curriculum: team-building and self-empowerment.

Ages 8 to 15 can be a competitive time for girls, Liszak said. So they take time to talk about issues, bond and make friends in an accepting space outside of their schools and free from the presence of boys.

Behunin, for instance, is the oldest girl at the camp and has taken a leadership role at the camp. She also plays drums in the Detectives.

"It's cool to see how much these guys can learn after just a couple of times playing together," she said.

***

Up next on the bill at the penultimate practice were the Detectives, who set to work on their foot-stomping tune.

The lead vocal team of Bella Cundy, a fourth–grader at Franklin School, and Metika Begleiter, a Paxson fifth-grader, sang the catchy, melodic lyrics about flying pigs, while Claire Kinderwater, a third-grader at Missoula International School, held down the two-chord groove on guitar, sometimes adding a fast strumming flourish.

The 8-year-old fan of Weezer and Green Day said joining rock camp gave her the chance to write songs. The Detectives' tune, in fact, originated with Kinderwater and the group then worked on it together.

Cundy and Begleiter said they've learned to work with other people through the challenging moments all bands face, such as an off-key line.

Cundy said she's less shy and more confident. Begleiter, meanwhile, said the Tuesday sessions are a place for positive expression.

"I like it here because it's one of the many ways to express your feelings without yelling or getting mad or anything," she said.

Nelson, the drummer for the Painted Arrows, concurred.

"Sometimes when I have a bad day, I'm either like, 'Yes, it's Tuesday,' or 'Oh, I wish was it was Tuesday,' " she said.

***

Liszak said watching them rock out in front of 300 people at the end of last year's camp was "a pretty powerful, incredible experience."

Once this camp winds down, the ZACC is planning two more in the summer and hopes to expand with a "Golden Rock Camp" for women older than 60 in the near future.

Interest in Girls Rock hasn't been a problem, but the ZACC is looking to buy instruments – it's currently using a host of borrowed and secondhand gear. (Not counting the supply of ear plugs for students and guests, although the practices are at a safe volume.)

At the Dec. 5 concert, donations for gear will be accepted. The 2015 Rock Lotto, in which local musicians are divided up into new groups for a one-night only concert, also will benefit the program. For more information, visit crowdrise.com/missoularocklotto.

***

The final act of the practice was the Zipperz. Their team of vocalists belted a soul/R&B melody, complete with sustained organ chords. Phoenix Marshall, 9, sang lead and played guitar, employing tricks and tips learned from her mother, Cindy Marshall.

Marshall said she feels like there's a "little renaissance" happening. The Missoula music scene isn't as dominated by men as it once was, and perhaps this next generation will further balance the genders in rock music.

She'd never taught music prior to the first camp, and it required her to examine the process in way she hadn't done before.

But, she said, "we teach best what we want to learn most."

After the practice was over, the girls began scampering away. The instructors called after them, reminding the beginners of a crucial part of being in a band:

Helping pack up the gear.

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