Medicinal, positive anarchy

Inviting improvisation for everyone, every week at the Rotunda

3 minute read
Three people playing wind instruments stand next to each other in an indoor area
Low-stakes, judgment-free music improv happens every Wednesday at the Rotunda. (Photo by Thomas Hagen.)

Every Wednesday, Philadelphia residents convene at the Rotunda for two hours of musical improvisation, free and open to all levels of experience. We have no leader, no instructions, and we rarely repeat ourselves. I started participating in February after seeing some regular attendees perform a concert in the same space under the name 52nd Street Planetary Ensemble. Our music spills out tall windows with sounds like jazz, country, ambient, dancehall, or—most often—unnamable accidents.

(Editor's note: last names of interviewees in this article by request have been omitted for privacy.)

Music is for everyone

The Rotunda’s weekly meet-up—simply, “Wednesday Improvised Music Session” on its calendar—attracts neighbors with unalike ages and backgrounds, though most live close to the sanctuary at 40th and Walnut Streets. Thomas, 42, who has worked as a music teacher, decided to start the group after attending similar sessions at South Philadelphia’s Headlong Dance Theater, hosted with People’s Music Supply. He wanted to create improvising opportunities close to his home, and he knew the Rotunda’s director Gina Renzi, who agreed to offer a space Wednesday afternoons. Renzi recalls Thomas’s egalitarian vision felt aligned with the venue’s mission because “we don’t really care for hierarchy here.” Other locals have started recurring, participatory projects there in Renzi’s 20-year tenure, but this Wednesday group shows exceptional consistency and growth.

Ihba, 56, who has worked as a house painter and club bouncer, knew Thomas from the neighborhood, so Thomas summoned him to “bring the energy” for their first few sessions in January 2023. Ihba gradually became a charismatic ambassador for the group, sharing plans through WhatsApp and uploading weekly footage to YouTube. Ryoko, 46, a music therapist and counselor, remembers early sessions where she played woodwinds alone, or only with Thomas and Ihba. But so many new people arrived since, and some 2024 sessions have incorporated 10 or more musicians.

Jason, 47, an art teacher, found the event on the Rotunda’s website, while Zoe, 30, works as the Rotunda venue manager and found it listed on calendars she printed. Chip, a receptionist, met Ihba playing in a drum circle; Mark teaches saxophone to Ryoko and Ihba. Longtime attendees believe I, 26, am the first visitor who discovered the group at a live performance.

Here, some players sound like experts, and some come to try an instrument for the first time in a “low-stakes, non-judgmental” space. Sequoia, 39, remembers finding “aggressive masculinity and cliquishness” in other improvising groups but appreciates how folks at the Rotunda “push their abilities [and] vulnerabilities” together. Creating spontaneously can unnerve anyone accustomed to reading and following directions, musical or otherwise. But if we fight our nerves, this “leaderless” practice, balancing listening with being listened to, brings a thrilling sense of power that feels worth fighting for. “It’s positive anarchy” for Jason; “it’s medicinal” for Thomas. “At this point, I need it for me,” Ryoko shares. “It’s my self-care.”

Through a few weeks’ efforts, I found the sensation that my neighbors return for every Wednesday, accepting “sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” We relax our expectations for others, trusting they do the same for us. “Do I fit? Am I ok?” Ryoko used to worry. “But I let that go. What’s the point of freaking out internally? I’m an anxiety-driven person so I wanna let that go because otherwise I can’t hear people.”

In the future, some players hope to create opportunities for improvising outside of Wednesday afternoons so more working adults or kids can join. In summer, some players link in other places, and some even tried improvising with kids during the Rotunda’s 2023 day camp at Renzi’s intrepid invitation—“there’s a lot of family-ology that happens here” through free, all-ages programming, Ihba commends. Renzi calls the Wednesday group, after its year of flourishing, her “weekly reminder that we don’t have to be so strict when we curate. It always keeps me open to trust, remembering to trust people.”

What, When, Where

Wednesday Improvised Music Sessions. Free and open to the public. Every Wednesday, 12pm-2pm, at the Rotunda, 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia.


The Rotunda is a wheelchair-accessible building. Find more accessibility information on the Rotunda website.

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