Learn how two alums found business success in music

Musical careers started at Waukesha campus

Ellen and Larry McDonald created a foundation for their careers in music at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. Both are now professional musicians, teachers and business owners.

They agree that going to UW-Waukesha — now part of UWM and called UW-Milwaukee at Waukesha — was an excellent decision.

“It was a demanding school, so I was well-prepared for the quality of work that was necessary when I transitioned into UW-Madison and then out of the academic world into the real world,” said Larry, who graduated from Waukesha in 1980.

Ellen, who graduated from Oconomowoc High School, grew up with music. She started playing piano at age 5, became a church organist at 13 and taught music when she was 15. “I went to the Wisconsin Conservatory after high school, then realized the program I liked was at UW-Waukesha. It was a better fit for me.”

She chose the Waukesha campus because of the location and the madrigal music program. “The madrigal program was excellent, and I met lifelong friends there.”

Tried a few majors

Larry chose the Waukesha campus for one reason – “money,” he said succinctly. He tried a few majors – mathematics, weather and climatology, engineering – and finally ended up in music, “much to my father’s chagrin,” he added with a smile. His dad was a violinist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at UW-Parkside, then went to UW-Madison for his master’s degree in composition/guitar performance and a doctorate in composition and theory. In addition to an ongoing performing career, he is a composer and taught guitar at Carroll University for 20 years. He is also a piano technician, repairing instruments of all ages.

The lower cost of the two-year campus made it possible for him to finish with only $300 in debt, and that only because he spent the money he saved for his final semester of tuition for a wedding ring – “that proved to be a good investment.” The McDonalds, who met at the Waukesha campus, were married in 1980. UW-Waukesha has honored both with Outstanding Alumni awards: Larry in 1993; and Ellen in 2000.

They now own the Hartland Music Building, which houses several music-related businesses and a coffee shop. Ellen, who studied the business of music at Carroll University, is the president of Hartland Piano and administrator of the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music.

Faculty inspiration

They remember faculty members at Waukesha who inspired them. “At Waukesha, you worked with professors, not TAs. The level of the faculty was extraordinary,” Ellen said.

Both she and Larry mentioned faculty members Don Stimpert and Andrea Matthias in particular.

“Andrea was meticulous. My degree was in her area, theory and composition. She was very meticulous in her craft. I never heard her play a wrong note,” Larry said.

Don Stimpert and the madrigal program he organized were key factors in her decision to come to the Waukesha campus, Ellen said.

“Don was a mentor of mine,” added Larry. “He kind of fit right into my persona of making sure the work was done and not done superficially. He still works and plays at a very high level.”

‘Really a community’

The McDonalds have stayed in touch with those faculty members and others from the music program at Waukesha, often hiring students and graduates in their businesses. “We still have connections with many people who graduated with us. We’re all on Facebook together. It’s really a community,” Ellen said.

She regularly encourages students to start at the Waukesha campus, she added.

“We have a very high regard for what the campus has done,” she said. “It’s a beautiful facility, and it’s very close. It’s a nice way to get started, then you can go on to a four-year degree if you want.”

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