Tim McMillin’s father, a Lutheran pastor, graduated from Wartburg College.
His sister also graduated from Wartburg.
And when McMillin was in high school, he took private piano and voice lessons from faculty members at Luther College, some 45 minutes from his home near Elkader in northeastern Iowa.
So how is it possible he chose to study at Simpson College?
The short answer: The Orpheus Summer Music Camp.
The summer before his senior year at Central High School in Elkader, McMillin attended the annual music camp on the Simpson campus, where he met and took lessons from Dr. Robert Larsen, the longtime chairman of the music department, and other faculty members, including Maria DiPalma.
It changed everything.
“Dr. Larsen and Maria DiPalma (the late professor of voice at Simpson) took an interest in me and had a vision for what I might someday be, and they communicated that really well.”
Today, McMillin ’97 is chair of the renowned Simpson music department. He and the music faculty members recently welcomed 46 students from Iowa and several other states to the 30th Annual Orpheus Music Camp for eight days of intense immersion in musical study.
“The thing that is special about this camp is that every day, Monday through Friday, students are receiving private lessons from faculty members in up to two areas,” he says. “It’s a camp for serious high school musicians.”
McMillin’s love affair with music began in second grade, when he started piano lessons, mostly to keep pace with his older sister.
“I was slightly competitive,” he says, laughing. “When I finally passed her, that’s when we came to our own decision that I was going to be the musician and she was going to be the jock. I think we sort of settled into our roles in life at that time.”
In a town the size of Elkader, there were plenty of performing opportunities for a youngster who could play piano.
“When you’re the preacher’s kid, and you happen to be a fifth grader and play the piano and happen to be a boy, everyone dotes on you,” he says. “You can play fairly badly and people are still impressed. I got great support for doing what I did.”
McMillin remembers his high school years fondly. He sang, played trumpet in band and participated in community theater, among other activities. When he arrived at Simpson, it was as a piano major.
“I guess I’m the poster child for, ‘You never know what’s going to happen, so keep your options open,’” he says.
Simpson is known for encouraging students to reach beyond their specific areas of interest, and McMillin quickly discovered a passion for working with ensembles and conducting. Larsen, his mentor, and other music faculty members noticed it as well.
“Conducting is normally a junior-level course, but I was encouraged to take it early, as a sophomore,” McMillin says. “It was a really good idea. That was a spark for me. I think
they guessed that would be the case, and they were right.”
Rebecca Gruber, then the choir director at Simpson, allowed McMillin to conduct his fellow students. He also conducted a church choir in Des Moines his final two years at Simpson.
“One of the wonderful things about Simpson is the individual attention that students get,” he says. “I think that’s one of the things that really sets a program like Simpson apart. Your applied teachers are two people who spend hours with you every week, one on one. Those are the folks who help guide you and open your eyes to what sorts of possibilities are out there.”
After graduating from Simpson, McMillin accepted a teaching job at St. Charles High School in southeastern Minnesota, a school that required every seventh grader to join the choir.
“So it was me and 90 seventh-graders the very first hour of my very first day of teaching,” he says.
He spent two years as the 7-12 vocal director at St. Charles, then taught at Roseville High School in suburban Minneapolis, where he remained four years.
He enjoyed teaching high school students, and many went on to pursue music degrees in college, including six who attended Simpson College as music majors. But he also discovered something else during his work mentoring student-teachers in his classroom.
“I really enjoyed working with people who were interested in doing what I did,” he says. “I felt I was ready to use what I had learned as a high school music teacher to train the next generation of music teachers.”
And that led him back to Simpson in 2004.
“It was very exciting to come back and work with people who had been my mentors as an undergrad,” he says.
That would include Larsen, now a professor emeritus of music.
“The fact that he’s still here is really a great gift,” he says. “He’s a wonderful resource for institutional knowledge and why things are the way they are.”
McMillin is now in position to pass on what might be called the Simpson legacy.
“People talk about how this is an intense program,” he says. “It is, and that’s not an accident. It’s intense because in order to be successful in this field, you have to be intense. Musicians have four years to become the best that they possibly can at the undergraduate level. You don’t have a minute to waste. Be as efficient as you can and work as hard as you possibly can, because you never get these years back.”
It’s a lesson that still guides McMillin’s life. In addition to chairing the music department, he’s director of choral activities and associate professor of music at Simpson. In addition, he’s the artistic director and conductor of the Des Moines Vocal Arts Ensemble in Des Moines, and is often invited to be a guest conductor, clinician and adjudicator throughout the Midwest.
He also somehow found the time since returning to Simpson to earn a doctorate in choral conducting from Michigan State University.
McMillin says he and the entire music faculty welcome the challenge to enhance Simpson’s reputation.
“The establishment of a proud tradition here is huge, but the thing I’m most pleased to say is I think every faculty member here is looking not only to maintain a level of professionalism and expertise, but also is continually asking, ‘How can we improve?’ and ‘How can we grow?’
“With great respect to everything that’s happened in the past, it’s really important to look to the future as well. Many wonderful institutions that rest on their laurels suddenly find themselves not at the head of the pack anymore.”
The student has become a professor. The high school student whose great promise was discovered at the Orpheus Summer Music Camp now is teaching there and looking for other young students with great promise. McMillin, whose life was greatly influenced by Simpson faculty, now spends his time trying to influence others.
Fall classes will begin in a few weeks, along with the arrival of a new group of first-year students. It’s McMillin’s favorite time of the year.
“One of the great blessings of this job for me and what I do is that it doesn’t get old,” he says. “Every year, it’s a different set of students with a different set of skills and challenges. One of the great things about a career in music is that there’s always more to learn and always more to get to know and new challenges that face you.
“It’s still all new, every day.”