Empowering Women In Music in the Pioneer Valley: June Millington and the IMA

At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, the message of Beyoncé’s show-stopping number “Flawless” culminated in a display behind her that simply said “Feminism,” signaling her devotion to women’s empowerment and their empowerment through music as well. However, she was by no means the first to prove that women could play and sing just as good, if not better, than the boys. June Millington, the founder of the Institute for the Musical Arts, guitarist for the 1970s all-female band Fanny, champion for women in music, and a Pioneer Valley resident, may have been.

Millington, along with her sister Jean on bass, Alice de Buhr on drums, and keyboardist Nickey Barclay, formed the original lineup of the band Fanny, who were the first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label with their eponymous debut. This album featured a cover of the song “Badge,” originally written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison of the Beatles for Clapton’s band Cream, and Millington said “The critics at the time said that they didn’t know whose playing was better on that songs, that I was as good as Eric Clapton.” Despite this rousing endorsement, it was tough for the Millington sisters to gain a foothold in the male-dominated world of rock and roll, but this only gave them more drive to succeed in Fanny. This talent and dedication to her craft took her through a number of different musical groups, and led her and her partner Ann Hackler to start the Institute for the Musical Arts in 1987, “conceived in wild optimism”, as Millington put it, out of a van in Bodega, California with help from an unlikely source.

“The idea to start this came to me in dreams, that I had to make this group to help women get a foothold in performing music. Then I opened my big mouth to Angela Davis and she said ‘get this started immediately.’” Millington said, “When we started it, there wasn’t any sort of space for this type of thing, so we had to create space. We started it in Bodega, but during the dot-com boom we had to move out of our old location after the dot-com boom had driven up prices, so we found this place in Goshen and came out here.”

IMA’s goal, as Millington puts it, is to “blast through people’s preconceptions and consciousness” of what young women can do in music, as one of the many things they do is hold workshop camps for pre-teen and teen girls to teach them how to be in a band and perform so they can perform at the camp showcase at the end of the week. The young women come in at all different skill levels, from the neophyte instrumentalist to seasoned performer, and they split off into groups after an introductory activity that Millington calls the “musical handshake,” which is an icebreaker where all the campers play a song they like, either on their iPods or on instruments so the students can get a sense of what the other students like and what they would like to play with each other, and from there they form groups.

While the atmosphere is supportive, Millington makes it imperative that everybody writes and plays the music. “We’re not coddling them,” she says, “even though IMA is a safe space, it is very demanding. But it does get them out of their rooms and up on a stage, playing music.” She tries not to impose her ideas on the campers while they’re working throughout the week, but in one instance she wanted to get the girls to play some heavier music, and because she had the guitarist from Steppenwolf’s guitar in her studio she asked them about playing “Magic Carpet Ride,” albeit with a few lyrical alterations. While it wasn’t their cup of tea in the beginning, Millington got the girls to rock out a bit and feel how it is to play in a band with other girls and get into the music, which is the overarching point of the camp.

“I had the girls tell me after finishing the camp ‘Wow, I actually like other girls now.’” Millington said, “which goes to show that this model transcends the cliquey-ness and competition that can come between girls, especially at that age. They get to work together and perfect their craft, since a lot of these girls like to get it as close as they can get to perfect before they play it. I admire that work ethic. Boys sometimes seem to put out any old thing and call it music, I don’t know if it’s entitlement or whatever, but sometimes they hold themselves to a far lower standard.”

Whatever Millington and Hackler are doing, it is working. Many of the current crop of female musicians in the Pioneer Valley are IMA alumni. People like Deja Carr, formerly of Who’da Funk It?, Wishbone Zoe, And the Kids, and many more members of the music scene have come through IMA, inspiring new groups of young women to take up instruments, gain self-confidence, perform, work as a team with fellow songstresses, and above all, to have fun. Which, in the end, is all playing music is really about.