Ten years ago, after moving back to Austin from New York City and finding herself broke and unable to find a job, Girl Guitar founder and local singer-songwriter Mandy Rowden saw an opportunity to capitalize on a market that has very much been left untapped: female-only music lessons. She had previously taught at the Austin School of Music, and while there, she “noticed there’s a hole there – no one’s teaching a class just for women.”
So, Rowden did what any musician in 2007 would do – she created a Myspace profile. She called her page “Girl Guitar” – a name that people at the Austin School of Music had called the hypothetical women’s lessons that had never materialized. Rowden gathered up eight women she met through Myspace to sign up for her guitar lessons. “I owe it all to Myspace,” she says, laughing. “It got me where I am today.”
At first, the lessons were just something to pay the bills. However, as the number of students began growing, Girl Guitar branched out. Rowden says they currently have “guitar, drums, bass, keys, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, banjo, vocals, you name it.” Now, Girl Guitar is a large operation; beyond the lessons, there are also bands of various genres that women can sign up to join. After six weeks of rehearsal, these bands actually get to perform a live show, often at Antone’s, or similar prestigious Austin live music institutions.
No boys allowed
Rowden points out that Girl Guitar is about more than just filling a niche – it’s about creating a community. The world of music is very harsh, especially towards women. Girl Guitar not only helps women learn new musical skills, but it also creates a framework of support, making the music world a bit less frightening. It gives women the ability to learn music comfortably, without the pressure and competitiveness of classes with men. On the gender dynamics in music, Rowden says, “Music is still kind of a man’s world… guitar specifically. There’s something kind of special and nonthreatening and just really chill [about Girl Guitar] because it is all women. It lacks a lot of the competitiveness you could get in a lot of other situations. I don’t think this would stay the same if guys were involved.”
Finding fulfillment through music
However, many of the women take lessons with Girl Guitar for reasons not related to the music industry. Rowden says many take lessons just because they want to play for their children and families; they want to be able to take their guitar on a camping trip and gather around, playing songs for others. Many of the people who are part of Girl Guitar are not looking to better their skills to create a band or become a breakout success; they’re looking for fulfillment.
This isn’t to say that women who want to break out into the scene are unwelcome. Rowden emphasized that everyone is welcome to join Girl Guitar, and for any reason. “Any of that, and anything in between, is a great reason to do it. I don’t measure success in album sales and tickets sold. It’s just about doing something you love.”
Girl Guitar makes female musicians normal – not niche
In a city whose cultural capital stems almost entirely from music, there is a surprising lack of music spaces in Austin that are solely for women. Even ten years after it was started, Girl Guitar remains one of the few, if not the only, place in Austin to offer music lessons solely to women.
Austin isn’t alone in their lack of female-friendly spaces, however. Rowden has now expanded Girl Guitar into Nashville and is doing pop-up work in many other cities around the country. Slowly, her work with Girl Guitar is distancing women-only lessons from the “niche” label and making women in music the mainstream.
Most importantly, Girl Guitar is giving women a valuable network of friends, family, community, and comfortable spaces, while teaching them music skills that change their lives. “I hope there comes a time when female musicians are just called musicians,” Rowden says. “If Girl Guitar plays any part in that, then that’s something to be proud of.”