Gather ’Round and Listen: Pianos and Dorm Bonding

Written by Jenny Wiland

A small group of girls sing hymns in harmony, circled around a piano in Waterman Residence. In the Niedfeldt lobby, a group of guys gather around a piano as a song from their last Mock Rock routine brings them back to their glory days. Girls with paint-stained fingers decorate the Benzing piano with colorful pictures, while football players in Simpson enact a sword fight with “Pirates of the Carribean” sounding from the piano in the background. Every piano that resides in a Hillsdale College dormitory has its own story, and each instrument plays an important role in bringing housemates together.

Nick Macaluso, ’21, Niedfeldt’s house director, has enjoyed the presence of a piano in his dorm’s lobby. “Even if someone’s playing in the afternoon, as people walk in and out of the dorm, they’ll stop and talk, or they’ll come and sit and listen,” he says. “It’s another aspect of the dorm which turns housemates into friends.” The guys in Niedfeldt play everything from classical music to the National Anthem, and sometimes they’ll even sing or dance along.

For Jolene Estruth, ’21, the house director of Benzing, hearing others play the piano provides a welcome break from studying. Other girls in her dorm seem to feel the same way. “A lot of girls will practice in the lobby, in part because they know people will come out of their dorms and listen. There’ll usually be an RA or two, and another dorm resident who’s in here studying. They’ll stop what they’re doing and pay attention, or walk out from their room and lean against the back of the couch and just listen for a minute. It gives us time to pause and reflect.”

While all the pianos offer the opportunity for housemates to come together and enjoy music, the Benzing piano sports a unique artistic touch. When Jolene first came to Benzing, the piano was dull and orangish, its paint worn and patchy, its notes out of tune. “It looked bad and didn’t sound great,” she says. “And so we thought, well, we can’t tune it ourselves, but we can make it look better.” She gathered the girls of Benzing to give the piano a fresh, white coat of paint, and invited anyone who wanted to add their own designs. Every year since then, the girls of Benzing have come together to paint the piano anew with fresh patterns and pictures. “It’s consistent, because it’s a tradition, but it also changes, since every year we have different, unique residents with different artistic abilities and personal vision.”

The piano in Waterman Residence may not be painted, but it bears a feature that makes it stand out among all the other pianos: it’s tuned. While the ladies of Waterman play many types of music on it, Christian worship songs are a common favorite. Emille Martelli, ’21 enjoys the way familiar songs bring her housemates together. “It draws people out of their dorm rooms, and there’s a general gathering around the instrument when music is being played,” she says. “While one person is playing the notes on the piano, there’s three or four other girls standing around the piano, singing the lyrics.”

Emille enjoys playing the piano as well, and she’ll often play tunes while singing Psalms as the lyrics. Nick also plays, and he finds it a great way to relieve stress, especially while hammering out “Pirates of the Carribean.” Neither of them are currently taking lessons, and many students who play in their dorms aren’t taking lessons either. “The great thing about the piano in the lobby is that it receives a wide array of skill levels,” says Nick. “People who play piano at school here will sit down and play, and people like me, who are more amateur and just love to play a little song, they’ll sit down and play here as well. It’s fun to see the variety of skill levels and how everyone feels confident enough to go out there and play something.”

Whether they’re playing their favorite songs or simply enjoying others’ music, these students deeply value having pianos in their dorms. “I just think a piano is a delightful instrument to make available for students,” says Emille. “It has so much power to create community, and it should be an essential piece to a dorm common area.”

“It functions as a vital piece of community,” Jolene agrees, “and a community that points to higher things and pulls others to those higher things. Even something as simple as a piano in a dorm lobby is instrumental in helping us accomplish that mission that we have as students.”

Headshot of student Jenny WilandJenny Wiland, ’23, plans to study psychology and graphic design. She loves her cat, dark chocolate, and writing stories, especially science fiction and fantasy.

Published in April 2021