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The chicks who picked up the guitar

In 13 years, instructor Sue Stearns has taught over 400 women not to fret over music
Playful women Guitar teacher Sue Stearns (right) leads her Chicks With Picks in Whistler. PHOTO submitted

Sue Stearns is a natural teacher.

The instructor for Chicks With Picks in Whistler and Pemberton for the past 13 years, she greets you at the door with a guitar in-hand and punctuates conversation with string plucking and chord strumming, describing what she means through her fingers, the same way writers might reach for a metaphor.

Show and tell.

When it comes to self-expression through music, Joan Jett said it pretty well:"My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am."

Stearns has instilled this love of the instrument in the over 400 women she has taught in beginners and intermediate players programs.

"I've had an 80-year-old woman in the course and a young girl who joined it with her mother. It's a very social course," Stearns says.

"The whole thing has evolved into something amazing. I get so much inspiration from all these women who share their passion for music. It's a lifelong thing, you start in the classes as everyone starts and play until you're old and grey."

Stearns describes the guitar fret as a dancefloor and the fingers as "tiny dancers."

"When you bring this instrument to your body, it's touching you. One hand is on the fret and you're wondering which finger? Where? Which string? It all has to come together. Then you have the other hand and it looks so easy and fluid," she says and then starts to play.

"But it's one thing at a time. It's like any skill."

She agrees that there aren't a lot of opportunities for grown-up, mature women to start something new.

"It evolved. The women get together in smaller groups, some have gone on to become semi-professionals. Some had probably played before, but the opportunity to perform in a group that is cooperative and feel supported, it has fed on everyone's positivity," she says.

"Women socialize differently from men, they want to get out of the house. It's very cooperative, with some fun, crazy women coming together. The have all kinds of different professions and abilities and tastes in music."

Stearns went as far as developing a philosophy for the Chicks — the essence of which is to develop skills in a group environment, have fun and forget about the pressure of playing.

Eight-week spring and fall sessions have been offered in Whistler since 2013.

Stearns also offers Pemberton classes for beginners, veterans and those in between; this class has run since 2003.

"Before this I wasn't playing all that much, though I was performing live. My partner is a bassist. I was in a rock 'n' roll band called Still Smokin' for a few years, playing classic rock 'n' roll. We play together in a duo called B.Daddy and the Coconut. We play a lot of Jimmy Buffet music and John Prine, heavy guitar and really fun stuff."

It led to their first gig — 16 new guitarists playing at the Pemberton Trail Steakhouse, now known as The Pony.

"The audience packed the place and we had champagne and toasts. It was really exciting."

This joyful, women-centric ethos came about, in part, because of the origins of the course.

"This whole Chicks thing hatched, you could say, around a campfire in 2002. I met a couple of women who had been taking some guitar lessons and they found that it was kind of intimidating," says Stearns.

"There weren't any female teachers around at that time that I was aware of. The teachers they had were a little bit intimidating to them and they were frustrated by the lack of progress. So they just asked me to teach them a few chords.

"There was a lot of excitement, a lot of talk. We set up winter classes at the old Pemberton Community Centre and then no one signed up!"

A false start, perhaps, but Stearns didn't give up.

"Some of the girls were snowbirds and went south for the winter. So we offered it again the next spring and it was full. And it has been full or almost full ever since."

They performed at their first fundraiser the same year; public performances and giving back to the community has remained a big part of the Chicks' ethos, with many fundraisers and celebrations now behind them.

"We didn't know that many songs, so we got cracking and made a set list. We still use about 80 per cent of that set list, and anyone who has ever been in the program will still feel like they fit in because they will know how to play them," she says.

"You can imagine trying to pull together that many women for rehearsal, between families and jobs and anything else they have on. It's tough."

And the music? Stearns is sick and tired of what she calls processed music on the radio. She goes for older Canadiana in the classes — Four Strong Winds by Ian Tyson is a favourite — and acoustic music from the '60s and '70s, but she will throw in a little Taylor Swift to keep it current.

Seventy-year-old Mary Bergen is one of Stearns' new, enthusiastic students. She joined Chicks With Picks after moving to Pemberton from Prince Edward Island two years ago.

"When I started I didn't know the name of the strings, didn't know the name of a tuner. I hadn't picked up a guitar for 40 years," Bergen says.

"A friend of a friend introduced me to this group last year and I started to play. I've come to be amazed at everyone's dedication. I'm amazed at their discipline.

"I now belong to the church choir. I never did before."

She describes herself as usually shy, but since picking up the guitar from Chicks with Picks, Bergen has found herself teaching songs to others. And it has helped her become part of the community.

"I was showing one woman how to play in the parking lot by Pemberton Community Centre. She will eventually join. She has a great voice but just shy and insecure," Bergen says.

"This has opened a million doors for me. What I've learned is I have to practice. Knowing three chords at the beginning... I now know 15! We just keep strumming."

Chicks With Picks is holding its spring recital on Monday, June 20, at the Maury Young Arts Centre.

Stearns says: "We play a few songs then have an intermission with refreshments. We always have a big group jam at the end, Hound Dog or something like that, and we give out shakers to the kids.

"We try to get spouses or whoever to participate because it really lightens the tension. Some of the girls are quite nervous about performance; eight weeks is a short time to learn guitar."

Students aren't cut loose after eight weeks, though. Many repeat until they are knowledgeable and confident and can move on to a more experienced level.

Other plans for the summer include dates at the Pemberton Farmers' Market.

Chicks With Picks is back in October at the Maury Young Arts Centre. For more information on Whistler classes, visit