Upon moving back to Austin from New York City six years ago, local singer-songwriter Mandy Rowden found herself broke and unable to pay her cell phone bill. She thought teaching music might put her back on her feet, so she started offering weekly guitar lessons to women. Little did she know that her small six-week class would turn into a full-time program that offers everything from bass lessons and songwriting mentorship, to full band classes and almost everything in between.
“I never masterminded this huge music school ever happening,” Rowden said. “Turns out it was the best accidental decision I ever made.”
Girl Guitar, Austin’s all-women music school, has certainly grown over the years, with the student population rising consistently since the school’s foundation and new classes being created every few months. Rowden credits her enthusiasm for playing guitar and performing as the main motivation for the school’s continued success.
“Let’s be honest, I get to play guitar for a job with fun, beautiful, inspiring people,” Rowden said. “In my opinion, I have the greatest job ever.”
Since Girl Guitar opened, Rowden has decided to keep the classes all-women purely for the reason that women kept telling her that they want to learn from a woman because it fosters a more comfortable environment. The program caters to a diverse group of female students from all backgrounds, with ages ranging from 21 years old to Girl Guitar’s oldest student, 79-year-old Ruth Brown.
Brown was inspired to join Girl Guitar after seeing her daughter, Suzanne Brown VanRandwyk, perform at one of the program’s monthly showcases at Antone’s. However, due to the arthritis in her fingers, Brown was unable to play guitar, and considered other options.
“As a joke I said that probably drums would be the only thing I would be able to do,” Brown said. “Their reaction was, ‘So why don’t you?’ And my answer was, ‘Why not?’”
With the encouragement of Rowden, Brown began taking lessons at the age of 78. After just a few months of lessons, she joined one of the full band classes and started making music with five other women. Wanting to challenge herself even more, Brown joined the Swing Band class, further improving her drumming abilities.
“I have no ambition to be a professional drummer, but it has given me a big lift that I could even do it at all,” Brown said.
While some women join the program to learn how to play instruments for fun, others have more professional goals in mind. The majority of students use their Girl Guitar education to write their own music, record in studios, tour, join bands and gig around town. Such students include Susan Stockton, a regular at many of Rowden’s classes.
Stockton credits Rowden for helping her find her artistic voice and encouraging her to get her music career started. Stockton also recognizes the incredible community facilitated throughout the program, as the women involved become friends and start collaborating on music together.
“I’m now writing my own songs and singing with my own band,” Stockton said. “During [South By Southwest] I got to help put on a metal festival. Mandy helped me learn how to be fearless and put my whole body into the music.”
Not only has Rowden built a place where women can learn to play an instrument, she has built a community as well.
“Besides music, tons of new friendships are being made,” Rowden said. “It’s good to see all these connections happening and getting to know I was a tiny part of it.”