Piano student launches non-profit “Girls Rock Detroit”

This article first appeared as part of an Innovate Blue blog entry titled “Wolverine Women to Watch in 2016,” published on March 25, 2016.

Although trained as a classical pianist, School of Music, Theatre & Dance student Melissa Coppola had a passion for rock and pop music from a young age. She heard about a movement called Girls Rock in 2011, and knew she wanted to get involved. While volunteering in Chicago she met fellow U-M student Willa Adamo and Detroiter Ros Hartigan. The trio soon teamed up to launch Girls Rock Detroit in August 2014. Their goal: empower young girls and women, regardless of race or socio-economic status, to challenge preconceived notions of what they can do, what they can become, and to become engaged members of their communities.

Now a registered 501(c)(3), the nonprofit gives young girls ages 8-14 an opportunity to participate in a summer camp focused on music education and performance. At camp, girls receive instrument lessons, form bands, write original songs, and then perform their songs on the stage of a Detroit music venue.

That first year, Girls Rock Detroit had 26 participants, and formed six bands and two DJs. Nearly 200 Detroiters attended the final showcase concert. Melissa and her team mobilized an entirely volunteer work force, and were able to supply every participant with an instrument using loaned or donated equipment.

“I wish we could have accommodated all that applied, but we received twice as many applications as we had spaces available. Our short-term goal is to expand to two separate week-long sessions this summer, but long-term goals and dreams are a bit more lofty,” says Coppola.

The Girls Rock Detroit team envisions an instrument loan program in the future. “There are many participants who just fall in love with their instrument at camp, but many families can’t afford to buy one,” she says.

Praveena Ramaswami’s daughter Meera participated in Girls Rock Detroit last summer, and said the camp not only exposed her daughter to new music and performance, but also empowered her with a new sense of confidence. “Every day after camp on our drive home, she talked about what she learned, who she met, how much fun she had, and how she was facing her fears.”

“After five days of classes, band meet-ups, activities, and lunch, our band played at the Detroit Institute of Music Education (DIME). Our band got face paint and dressed up, then we rocked the house! It was an awesome experience!” says 11-year-old Meera.

Coppola recently returned to her master’s studies after taking a break to pursue entrepreneurial goals. “When I returned to school to finish my coursework, I became suddenly more aware of the enormous amount of resources that University of Michigan provides. With our new dean, I have definitely noticed a marked change in the emphasis of entrepreneurship at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, which I think it amazing,” she says.

Applications for this year’s Girls Rock Detroit will open in April, and the camp will take place in July. The program’s value to the Detroit community continues to grow, with demand outpacing supply. “My personal dream is to also offer a year-round after school program as an extended, multi-week version of camp,” says Melissa, noting that they will have to grow to make that happen.