“I get asked a lot why I started GirlsRock, and you know, it started with a statistic,” Jen Baron explained from the stage of the crowded Marjorie Luke Theatre at last week’s GirlsRock Santa Barbara benefit concert, “Push.”
“By the time a girl reaches first grade, her self-esteem begins to decrease while her male peers’ self-esteem either plateaus or increases. When I heard that for the first time, it really moved me.”
Baron is the driving force behind the Santa Barbara nonprofit organization, which runs several after-school programs and an enormously popular summer camp for young girls. At the camp, they learn to play an instrument, form a band with their peers and work together to write music.
“GirlsRock is first and foremost a self-empowerment program,” Baron said. “We use music as our delivery system.”
Although she experienced self-esteem issues when she was younger, she said, learning to play music gave her the self-confidence she needed to start a rapidly growing organization. The experience of recording her first album, Beautiful Mistake, provided “a lot of positive feedback that I really hadn’t experienced before,” Baron said. “I want to show people what this feels like ... to be confident in what you love.”
“I believe music is what’s gonna save the world!” added Jena Douglas, who teaches voice, piano, guitar, drums, bass and songwriting to the girls in the after-school program, as well as through individual lessons.
Douglas is the author of a book called Change the World, Write your Song. In the 1980s, she was also a member of an all-girls rock ’n’ roll group, Wet Paint.
Her students range in age from 8 years old to their mid-40s, but Douglas says that for all of them “music is a vessel for them to be able to get whatever’s inside out.”
The Nameless, one of the groups that formed in the GirlsRock after-school program, performed its original song, “Stand Up,” written about an issue familiar to many junior high students.
“We wrote it during anti-bullying week!” said Emily Vesper, the bassist in the band that includes vocalist Jade Burlew and drummer Shaye Grant.
When asked about the origins of their band name, they replied in perfect unison, “We couldn’t figure out a name!”
“It’s a really beautiful song that they wrote about a powerful social message,” said Jess Sherwyn, head of development for GirlsRock.
Sherwyn says she is impressed by the transformation she has seen girls undergo in the program.
“Of course, when they first start the program some of them are a little bit timid,” she explained. “But at the end, they’re all best friends, they want to write songs together and make sure everybody has a say.”
She said she is also impressed by the confidence they display.
“Some of them, they just rock the stage,” she said. “They own it.”
The concert also featured a myriad of other performers who donated their time and artistry to support GirlsRock. Many of them were personal connections of Baron, who grew up dancing and playing music in Santa Barbara.
Most of the performances presented creative juxtapositions of live music and dance. Aerial ballet and contemporary dance performances were synchronized with live music from bands that included Stolen Thunder, The Fire Department and Anchor and Bear, and performances by singer-songwriters Jamey Geston, Brandi Letini, Kate Graves and Sophie Rose.
Most of the dance groups and musicians had never met before the event.
“I had particular people that I wanted to pair together,” Baron said. “I gave them a basic concept and let them run with it.”
The dancers, aerial artists and musicians coordinated via email before finally meeting at a dress rehearsal.
Describing her artistic vision for these blended performances, Baron remarked, “I like ... going against the grain in art, making something beautiful out of things that wouldn’t necessarily be paired together.”
The show ended with an act called “Live out Loud,” which knit together aerial ballet, music by cellist Laura Kravetz Mihalka, and a spoken word reading by local poet Dan LaBellarte.
About his poem, “Writer’s Block,” LaBellarte said that he “really wanted to incorporate that theme, of pushing beyond your doubts and fears and making something special, of believing in yourself, pushing beyond whatever limits you think you have, and just going a little bit further.”
The money raised from ticket sales, a silent auction held before the concert, and via a text-to-donate platform that went live during the event all went toward GirlsRock’s scholarship fund, the development of new programs and musical equipment.
Baron has big visions for the future of GirlsRock.
“Ideally, I want us to have our own space and have a full recording studio in it,” she said.
She also expressed the hope that girls who had been affected by GirlsRock at a young age would be able to come back and work for the program as a musician or engineer for a potential all-girls record label.