three male students sitting, playing acoustic music in a coffee house

Closer Listening: Saturdays at Penny’s

Written by Asa Hoffman

When I walked into Penny’s for the first time, I was struck by the design of the space: it was an inviting, open environment with a hard floor and a high ceiling, perfect for live music. Because of my own eagerness to perform, I spoke to the manager at the time about the possibility of hosting student music at the shop, and to my delight, she ran with the idea.

I was put in charge of finding performers for the event, and the process went pretty smoothly because—as I suspected—there were many students chomping at the bit to share their talents. It is not often you can play a show for dozens of your peers in the comfort of a familiar campus hangout.

At that first Saturday concert at Penny’s, it was clear to me that the musicians’ nervousness was subdued by the familiar environment and warm atmosphere of New Dorm’s cozy coffee shop. Part of the joy of performance is overcoming the anxiety of getting up in front of strangers and friends alike and making yourself vulnerable to their intent gazes. Some people need all their excuses taken from them before they can muster the courage to perform in front of others, and the setting that wintry afternoon did just that. As you may know, Hillsdale is not exactly a bustling metropolis, so there are not many venues that host live music. While Rough Draft occasionally hosts student musicians, there is not high demand for student performers around town, and those who are able to find gigs usually get them through personal connections.

Students gathered in the lounge area, coffee in hand, eager to take in their friends’ performances. Saturdays are best for putting off homework and finding reasons not to catch up on readings from weeks past; the students in attendance that day felt that they at least had a good excuse to do so on this occasion because they were supporting their peers. As the music was about to begin, the lively conversations among students dissipated. The only sound that dared to interrupt the performers was the delicious buzz of coffee-making from the kitchen. The first chords played, and any lingering tension in the room was dismantled by the sound that reverberated throughout the room.

Acoustic music is a special form of live music. It is the most raw conveyance of the musician’s talents and is therefore the most intimate form of performance. The musician cannot hide behind layers of effects and a wall of sound. He is forced to be brilliant in every note, even if the audience is not able to pick up on missteps. On that chilly day, the fever of academic stress was broken by a collection of brave students who set aside their own stress to share their passions through song. Whether it was from a folk trio comprised of banjo, mandolin, guitar, and harmonica or a simple acoustic guitar and voice duet, the music was a balm to the soul.

Penny’s has continued the tradition of live music with students playing at various events at the coffee shop throughout the year. It has become a fantastic cultural hub on campus for its uniqueness and simplicity. If you ever are on campus when there is music happening there, be sure to swing by. Everyone can benefit from a good cup of coffee with gentle tunes to match.

Asa Hoffman headshot Asa Hoffman, ’21, is a proud Oregonian who studies politics and music. When he is not working on schoolwork or managing things at the radio station, he is probably formulating his next pretentious take on music. If there is a concert on campus, odds are good that he is playing at it.

Published in February 2021