According to Doug Flavelle, “there are a lot of women with guitars in their closets.” His studio, Guitar Girl, aims to get them out.
The studio, which opened its doors in a loft-like space at Queen and Greenwood in September 2006, offers guitar lessons solely for girls and women. The focus is on six-week group courses, though they do some private lessons and have held Rock ‘n’ Roll camps during March Break and summer holidays.
The idea came to Flavelle when his daughters, now 12 and 15, began shopping for musical instruments. “The overall vibe was male,” he says. A lot of the stores “had a guy’s basement kind of feel. It became obvious to me that there was room to improve service for girls and women.”
Heather Perkins, a sound designer with a graduate degree in electronic music and recording, is one of many female musicians who would agree. Once, on a trip to buy a new mixer, she ended up leaving the store and ordering from a catalogue after the staff paid her no attention, but “fell over themselves” to help three teenaged boys. Another of her pet peeves is being asked if she’s looking for something for her boyfriend, “which is annoying on so many levels,” she says.
It was because of these kinds of experiences that Flavelle’s initial intent was to start a female-friendly instrument shop. When his accountant told him that idea would be financially on par with opening “a high-risk restaurant, at best,” he hit on the concept of female-only lessons. Guitar Girl combines Flavelle’s background in publicity, marketing and artist management in the music industry with his wife (and Guitar Girl co-owner) Brenda Livingston’s expertise in adult education and workshop programming.
Flavelle says women are often too intimidated to even pick up a guitar because they don’t know the basics and have no one offering to teach them. Describing the thoughts of a new musician he says, “I shouldn’t have to know what I’m talking about. You should be helping me.”
He mentions that one of the benefits of Guitar Girl is a “collegial learning” atmosphere; students look to others in the class for a shared experience, saying things like, “I can’t play G either! Oh, you can’t get your finger to do that either!” Classes are divided based on experience and skill level, ensuring that students, ranging in age from eight to their late fifties, are playing alongside musicians with similar abilities.
Perkins has taught in music and recording labs at both a co-ed school and an all-female school. She says in the latter, women were “less intimidated and more willing to ask questions.” In the co-ed classes, she noticed “female students are a little reluctant to look stupid, even though they’re all there to learn. If you knew it all, you wouldn’t be there.” She says she also saw a “step aside, little lady—I’ll do that for you,” attitude from some of the male students.
She stresses she’s also had plenty of good experiences with male teachers and colleagues, though most were in a one-on-one setting. It’s in all-female groups that “people feel better, and plus, it’s fun.”
Thirty-something Guitar Girl student Jane Unan agrees. “It appealed to me to learn [guitar] in groups. It’s helpful to see how other people learn.” She calls her fellow students her “guitar support group.”
Unan’s path to lessons at the Guitar Girl echoes Flavelle’s assertion about women with guitars collecting dust in hidden corners. “I had a guitar in my basement for about ten years and it was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “I tried to give it away many times and I couldn’t.” It was then that she decided she might as well use it and signed up at Guitar Girl.
While Unan came to Guitar Girl partly because the location was convenient, other students commute from as far away as Richmond Hill and Hamilton. One woman called Flavelle and told him, “If I didn’t live in Kingston, I’d be there in a minute [because] I’ve had such bad experiences here.”
With such devoted students, the popularity of the school’s camps and classes and crowds clamouring to see the Girls Rock! doc at this year’s Hot Docs festival, it’s clear that girls are ready to rock—and now they have a place to help them get started.
Photo courtesy of Doug Flavelle.