Published April 03. 2014 4:00AM Updated April 03. 2014 9:07AM
On a sunny March afternoon, a group of visitors stopped by Nightingale's Acoustic Cafe on Lyme Street in Old Lyme for an impromptu music session.
The passers-by strummed a homemade washboard, rattled a maraca and then listened as teacher Dan Stevens and two students played "Oh! Susanna" and "Skip to My Lou."
"Bravo, bravo, bravissimo," praised Stevens, after fourth-grader Dante Occhipinti performed an electric-guitar solo.
For the musical-cafe owners, it was another afternoon dedicated to their mission to encourage the community to enjoy music.
"We really wanted to be a community-based music school," said Gail Stevens, who runs the cafe and music program, called the MusicNow Foundation, with her husband Dan Stevens.
The Stevens offer several programs - as well as coffee and assorted treats - at the 68 Lyme Street shop. Whimsically decorated, the cafe contains glass chandeliers, a purple piano, spacious seating and cheerful signs that state "Follow Your Heart" and "Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining."
The MusicNow Foundation aims to reinvigorate people's love of music and help them express themselves through music. People - such as the visitors who stopped by that afternoon after hearing a sermon in church about the music cafe - are welcome to play any instruments they want. On site, the cafe has guitars, as well as less-traditional instruments, such as a percussion instrument in the shape of a frog. And listeners are also welcome, said Dan Stevens.
"We're trying to develop a scene where people can learn from each other and collaborate," he said.
The foundation, dedicated to youth enrichment in music and performance art for all levels, offers music lessons and events, such as "Guitar Pickin' Parties" and "Friday Nite Live"
The workshops are reminiscent of coffee clubs, more common years ago, where people could listen to music on Friday nights. Participants come from all over, including the local area, Hartford, Madison and Massachusetts, the owners said.
On that March afternoon, the two students - Occhipinti and Delaney Gagnon - were getting a lesson in jazz history and flexing their creativity, since they were assigned to write and perform their own songs.
Juli Occhipinti said her son Dante is very enthusiastic about the program. After one lesson, he came home and showed her how he can play a song on an instrument without singing and then how he can sing a song without playing an instrument.
"It gets the creative juices flowing," she said about the program.
Justin Gellar, 16, helps out at the cafe and is planning to write a newsletter about events in the area. The Lyme-Old Lyme High School student also enjoys teaching children how to play the guitar - an instrument he picked up three years ago - and playing the guitar at Friday night workshops.
"It's a lot of fun," he said.
The Stevens hope to help build a strong music scene in Old Lyme - a town already known for its vibrant arts community. Stevens praised the Side Door Cafe, a jazz club, for also promoting jazz and musicians in the community.
Gail Stevens said she often cites a fact when describing the mission of the foundation: 20 percent of kids play instruments, while 80 percent of adults wish they had.
"We're trying to switch that," she said.
The foundation hopes to develop a cadre of young musicians who can mentor each other. The mission continues to evolve and the owners said they remain excited about the possibilities.