When seen around the MCC campus, music instructor Michael Hillstrom might appear quiet and reserved. But when he enters the classroom, his enthusiasm for teaching music comes alive. “When class begins, it’s like someone clicks the ‘on’ switch. It just happens without my thinking about it; it’s an authentic excitement for me.”
Hillstrom hopes his excitement is contagious to his students. He encourages all music majors to improve their overall musicianship continuously. His music theory and ear training students—a variety of vocalists, guitarists, pianists and other instrumentalists—do so with studies in piano fundamentals as well as rhythmic, melodic and harmonic dictation.
Though he comes from a musical family and began developing these skills in childhood, Hillstrom did not begin his college career as a music major. “I was sitting in a theology class at Marquette University—writing out a clarinet part for an original composition—when it occurred to me that I should probably major in music.”
After a stint in his native state at the University of Minnesota, he transferred again to Webster University in St. Louis, where he found a music program in which he could focus on composition rather than performance. At Webster, Hillstrom realized what makes the art of music so great: “Scales, harmony and rhythm are so patterned and logical, while their use is a means of artistic expression. Thus, music exercises both sides of my brain.”
As a graduate student at Illinois State University, Hillstrom became a more detail-oriented composer. “It was easy to be inspired while studying with Roque Cordero. I could just look up at his office wall and see his picture with Igor Stravinsky.”
Now in his fifth year at MCC, Hillstrom discusses Stravinsky and many other composers in his music appreciation class. In addition to learning about perceptive listening, music appreciation students begin associating a variety of works with their titles and composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and others.
“Carrying no illusions about matching any of the above,” Hillstrom is still an active composer. His recent work includes the McHenry County College Graduation March, a fight song called the MCC Rouser, and the music for Jay Geller’s What Am I Going to Do Now? (performing in MCC’s Black Box Theatre on Jan. 27 and 28; Feb. 3 and 4).
When he’s not working as a musician or teacher, Hillstrom enjoys rooting for the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs. (He still hasn’t decided whether or not he prefers music to baseball.) So when you see him, test his knowledge of baseball trivia by asking him for the results of any World Series.