* I wrote this article about Mandy Rowden for the Oct. 2010 issue of Austin Woman Magazine. Mandy continues to be a musical and entrepreneurial inspiration to many, and despite her Austin Rock Star Status, remains as friendly and down-to-earth as always. *
It’s a Wednesday evening and four women sit in a small room holding guitars, occasionally sipping wine.
A tall blonde named Mandy Rowden, 30, stands in front, teaching the ladies how to play Winter Winds by Mumford & Sons. One woman watches Rowden’s rapidly-strumming hand, another furrows her brow while playing the pattern and a third taps her foot to the rhythm she is trying to make on her guitar.
The women are all members of Girl Guitar, a program Rowden began in 2007 to fuse her passion for musical performance with her gift for teaching.
“After moving back to Austin from New York, I was so broke that my cell phone service was cut off,” Rowden says. “I originally put a Girl Guitar class together as a fun way to pay my cell phone bill. I never pictured it turning into what it’s become. It’s been quite the accidental success.”
Girl Guitar classes are held at The Music Lab on Oltorf Street. In addition to encouraging students to drink wine in class, Rowden stresses the importance of having fun and confidence while playing, no matter what your skill level. At the end of each six-week class, students play a few songs in a showcase at Antone’s Night Club.
Performing on stage at a world-famous music venue is both awesome and intimidating for beginners.
“The first time I went on stage I was shaking,” says Suzanne VanRandwyck, 47, who has been a Girl Guitar member for six months. Having recently performed at her third showcase, VanRandwyck says she now cracks jokes with the audience and feels fairly relaxed while performing.
Many of Rowden’s students say that Girl Guitar forced them to face a variety of fears they needed to overcome.
“From the moment I joined Girl Guitar in 2007, it changed my life,” says Amanda Hickey, 29. “I am a very shy person, so walking into a room full of women made me sweat. Making music is something I wanted to do my whole life, so I knew I had to overcome the fears of being social, singing in front of my peers and actually getting on stage. Now I am a performing musician, and have accomplished one of my greatest goals.”
“Mandy and Girl Guitar teach you to go beyond your limits and have no fear,” says Jennifer Kiger, 51, a one-year veteran of the program who just completed her sixth Antone’s showcase.
Despite the unintentional formation and success of Girl Guitar, Rowden says this is always what she imagined herself doing.
“I’ve known from an early age that the 9-5 lifestyle wasn’t going to work for me, and I’m absolutely miserable if I’m not doing something creative,” she says. “Growing up homeschooled in the small town of Sulphur Springs, Texas, taught me to make my own fun, and I guess it’s paying off now.”
Rowden’s ability to create an entertaining environment makes her classes both unique and addictive, according to her students.
“Girl Guitar is probably the most fun I’ve had as an adult,” says Abbey Tootle, 30, who has played in four Antone’s showcases. “It reminds me of being a kid when anything was possible and I was always surrounded by good friends and laughing.”
“Mandy is the queen of inside jokes, never afraid to be silly, and has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know,” says Ana Bee, 38, who has “taken too many Girl Guitar classes to count.”
Though she doesn’t actively advocate the idea of girl power, Rowden acknowledges that playing guitar is still mostly a man’s arena.
“While I find plenty of work and entertain many people, I still roll my eyes at guys’ condescension of women playing rock music,” she says. “Recently a guy asked me if I could ‘really’ play guitar or if I was just one of those girls who knew a few chords and thought she looked cool. That stuff gets old, but makes it even more fun to wow them on stage.”
Despite this disparity, Rowden praises the resources and support available for Austin’s female musicians. She cites Women in Music Professional Society (WIMPS) and its monthly luncheons as a great networking resource for women.
When she isn’t busy helping Austin’s women achieve their musical aspirations, Rowden can be seen performing solo, or collaborating with fellow musicians such as Billy Abel. And because she plays seven instruments – violin, piano, bass, drums, harmonica, and mandolin in addition to guitar – Rowden substitutes in a variety of bands.
Rowden’s musical skills were sparked when she started learning classical violin at six years old. Soon thereafter, she began playing piano, and by ten years old she was being paid to play at events in her hometown. It wasn’t until she was a 21-year-old Texas State University student that she “caught the bug for live music” at an open mic night in San Marcos.
Despite having played in public for most of her life, Rowden says “performing is still sometimes a bit intimidating, but that’s the rush I love.”
With a thriving music business and two successful bands, it looks like Rowden has no shortage of opportunities to feel that rush.