It’s not hard to find a musical ensemble group in Philly. We are, arguably, the indie rock capital, with tons of basement shows where you can jam with fellow musicians and meet new bandmates. If folk’s your thing, it’s easy to find people looking for a banjo player to play a toe-tapping porch show. And if your music repertoire leans classical, there’s a plethora of chamber groups that you can join. (One place to start: the Philadelphia Amateur Classical Musicians meetup.)
But if you’re looking for something more unconventional — if you dream of an accordion jam or place to rock a dulcimer — there are lots of options here, too. Many groups don’t require a ton of experience, just curiosity and a good attitude. All are free, and some will even give you free lessons.
We’ve spotlighted a few, below. Happy playing.
Getting started with synths can be intimidating — the tools can be difficult to find and tricky to learn if there’s not someone showing you the ropes. So when Steve Harner opened BridgeSet Sound, he made it a point to stock a few synths for anyone who stopped by to mess around with.
“People just went nuts,” Harner said. “We constantly heard, ‘It’s so cool that someone has this for us to play with.’”
It was that sentiment that drove Harner to establish synth nights about five years ago, which grew into what is now called the Secret Synth Society. The events draw up to 50 synth enthusiasts.
The best thing about synth night, Harner says, is that musicians of all skill levels come together to create cool sounds. Some people put on headphones and zone out, while others hang out in groups and jam to a beat together. And the newbies get a chance to ask questions and watch demonstrations on electricity flow and building stuff from scratch, which are useful because “synths are a very visual thing to learn." And the events are kid-friendly.
You can bring your own synth or play one that’s there. “We used to have to take everything we had in stock and set it up for the event,” Harner said. “But now it’s gotten so successful and popular that people bring things they built or really rare pieces.”
No prior experience is necessary. “We encourage people who have never touched a synth and synth wizards alike,” the society’s event page says. “People often say they’re not ready yet to come to one of our group nights,” Harner says. “But we always tell them that that’s perfect, because it’s the best way to get a free lesson.”
Obie Ralphs and his wife, Bobbie Ralphs, discovered their affinity for the hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, and autoharp after seeing them performed in public.
“I thought it was really pretty,” says Bobbie, who plays the hammered dulcimer. “I had hand injuries and I was like, ‘I think I can play this.’”
Eventually the Ralphs formed the Quakertown Area Dulcimer and Autoharp Society (QUADAS), which meets every two weeks in Souderton. The group, which has about 20 regular members, performs frequently. At rehearsals, the time is split between practicing pieces for a performance and jamming with each other.
The hammered dulcimer has 72 strings, placed across a trapezoidal piece of wood. Players hit the strings in different places for different notes with spoon-shaped mallets. The mountain dulcimer is quite different in that the strings are placed across a rowboat-shaped wooden soundboard, and the player plucks them.
No prior experience is necessary. “Beginners are the players the club is built from. If you are a beginner or just think you’d like to learn, you are more than welcome to join us,” the group’s site says. “Many of us are self-taught,” said Obie. “But we’re more than happy to give tips to someone if they’re new to the instrument.”
In Cedar Park, Dot Levine hosts the West Philly Uke Club every month at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Levine, who has been playing ukulele for more than a decade, also runs the Philadelphia Uke Studio and Cedar Park Music School.
Levine runs the club through a Facebook group, where members can suggest that month’s theme, (like labor for September or road trips for August; January’s theme is “beginnings”). After a theme is chosen, Levine creates ukulele arrangements of songs in that category.
It’s important to Levine that people of all genders, ethnicities, and skill levels know that they’re welcome in the club.
“I try to use it as a space to empower people to enjoy the instrument, the music-making,” Levine said. “So I offer the members of the club opportunities to make their own transcriptions, so every now and then someone will write their own sheet music. It’s so awesome.”
BridgeSet Sound also hosts South Street Ukulele Club on the third Wednesday of every month. According to Harner, the meetings are mostly for people to try some easy songs and hang out. No prior experience is required to attend.
“There’s a lot of doctors and lawyers and people who might have pretty intense or serious jobs in this neighborhood,” he said. “This is a release for them. It’s a way to be around other people without the same kind of high tension. It’s that creative space in their weeks.”
Liberty Bellows, Philly’s only accordion shop, hosts a Saturday morning group session in Queen Village. Owner Mike Bulboff said that the decision to create the group about a decade ago came from the desire to try some of the music written for multiple accordions. The Philly Squeeze Accordion Band was born.
You can take accordion lessons at Liberty Bellows, but Bulboff and his staff uploaded a series of videos on how to play on YouTube to help those who choose to self-teach. According to him, it’s not that difficult once you get used to the feeling of pressing the keys and buttons while compressing and decompressing the bellows at the same time.
“Often people come to their first lesson, and they’re already playing a song by the end,” Bulboff said. “This is not something you have to spend months to do. You can start playing right away.”
“What connects us all is that we’re learning and playing unusual instruments,” he said. “But we all just like playing together and trying a little bit of everything.”
On warm days in the spring and summer, the group heads outside to play, Bulboff says. The group’s current repertoire includes about 100 songs, a blend of traditional accordion pieces and modern hits like Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” and the theme song to Game of Thrones. (More experienced players can check out the Accordion Noir Open Mic at Doobie’s Pub every third Thursday night, or Akkordeon Oberkrainer Mic at Austrian Village, a group that focuses on traditional alpine music.)
More info on all of these can be found at libertybellows.com.
When Matthew White first started working at BridgeSet Sound in 2014, a set of sticks in the corner of the shop caught his eye. White, a guitarist and singer, was immediately intrigued.
“I was like, ‘Is that a rain stick? What is that?’” White said. “I picked one up and when I finally got a sound to come out of it, it literally shook my head. And I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that forever. It’s going to be great.’”
It snowballed from there. White spent hours on YouTube, tracking down how-to videos, and posting on social media for “anybody who could give [him] some tips.” After he felt like he had a good understanding of the instrument, White started a group for percussionists, centered around the didgeridoo.
At the meetings, White, whoteaches private lessons at the store, determines how many people can do circular breathing first — a technique that allows a didgeridoo player to keep a drone going, by breathing in and out at the same time. Then other percussionists in the room join in with some “call-and-response” sounds, to get people to work together musically.
The most challenging part of learning didgeridoo is getting used to sitting back and relaxing your face, White said. But once you get that part down, learning the rhythms and practicing breathing is not as hard as it seems.
“Just show up with a smile and a didge and you’re good,” White said.