Three teenagers belted “Rebel Rebel” by David Bowie, guitars clad with Green Day stickers and pride flags, at a bar show last Thursday evening, May 9.
Their band is called Sirens of the Next Generation, S.O.N.G. for short. The teens are part of a program called Kidz Rock in Eugene, where they attend workshops to help them with musical skills and artistic exploration.
The program is fronted by Matrisha Armitage, who leads these workshops and books shows for the bands. This particular show was at Sam Bond’s Garage and is part of the annual Kidz Rock Festival, a 12-show series of fundraisers where the program’s participants are able to perform.
After S.O.N.G. played, Armitage hopped onto the stage and got behind the drum kit, filling in for the next band’s drummer who couldn’t make the show. As her and the teen members of Scared of the Dark set up, it was apparent how strong their connection is. Armitage makes an effort to bond with all of the members of Kidz Rock, being a role model to them. The kids have given her the nickname “Fairy Rockmother.”
Armitage was an at-risk youth and homeless at a very young age. When she overcame that, she began working with at-risk youth in trauma services. She realized she loved mentoring kids and, after a while, she eventually translated those skills into working with youth in music.
She got invited to be part of Grrrlz Rule, a project getting women involved in music, and thought of the idea to get a bunch of kids together and teach them how to play a song on different instruments. The first workshop had ten musicians teaching 40 kids all in one room. Though the idea sounded crazy, Armitage told the Emerald, “they learned the song in 25 flippin’ minutes. We didn’t even have a second song prepared.” They ended up calling the mobile music workshop Rock Orchestra.
“When I realized I could work with a population of at-risk youth who need support and mix it with arts and music, it was my path forever,” said Armitage. She doesn’t have her own children so she enjoys having the non-parent relationship of playing a supportive role and providing resources for them.
Armitage makes a point to be as inclusive as possible in these programs, welcoming all kinds of kids and teens with open arms. She says that her favorite part of the youth workshops are seeing the transformation in the kids’ confidence. “They start off with all these doubts and all this insecurity, and in 30 minutes they’re rockin’ on that mic or jammin’ on a guitar or playing drums,” Armitage said. “You see their eyes light up and they’re like ‘I can do this’.”
At the show, bands switched between ukelele songs, electric guitar covers, and originals. Even through technical errors, the teens laughed through them and smiled with their friends.
Armitage says it’s “the most thankful job you’ll ever have.” She constantly gets emails from parents telling her she’s changed their kids’ lives and that she’s even helped them overcome things like depression.
Armitage is the head of the Music Education and Performing Arts Association, more commonly known as MEPAA. MEPAA is the larger umbrella that holds Kidz Rock among two other programs: Grrrlz Rock and MuseArt.
Grrrlz Rock began as a music and arts festival celebrating female and nonbinary artists every November in Eugene, but has grown to continue with shows throughout the year. It also includes Grrrl Jamz, a free weekly rock camp for girls ages 10-18 at Ophelia’s Place on Pearl St. The idea started as a safe space for women to perform music freely without judgment.
MuseArt is a weekly all-ages event where visual and musical artists can express themselves each Monday at Whirled Pies downtown. The events are supposed to bring artists together while encouraging creative flow.
In the near future, MEPAA hopes to have a dedicated space where they can build their programs and include more resources for youth musicians.