Thomas Hilbish was born on August 28, 1918, in Bristol, Indiana, and graduated from Bristol High School in 1937. Hilbish attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he participated in numerous student activities including varsity basketball, student government, symphonic band, church choir, glee club, and the Phi Mu Alpha, Alpha Phi Omega, and Kappa Sigma fraternities. He graduated with a Bachelor of Music in instrumental supervision in 1941. Hilbish earned a master of music degree from Westminster Choir College in 1947, and pursued doctoral studies at Rutgers (1949), Columbia University (1950), and Indiana University (1952). In addition to formal educational training, Hilbish did private score study and analysis with renowned choral conductor Julius Herford in New York City.
Prior to coming to the University of Michigan, Hilbish was an instructor and choral conductor in Princeton, New Jersey, working as the supervisor of music for the public school system (1948-1964), the director of music at the Hun School (1948-1964), the director of music at the First Methodist Church (1948-1964), a professor of conducting and director of the symphonic choir at Westminster Choir College (1956-1963), and professor of conducting (1961-1962) and director of the men's glee club at Princeton University (1961-1962 and 1962-1964, respectively). While working for the Princeton public schools, Hilbish built the Princeton High School Choir into a nationally recognized ensemble, acclaimed for the complexity and professional level of its work. Under Hilbish's leadership the choir was the first high school to receive United States State Department sponsorship for tours of Europe (1962, 1964).
Thomas Hilbish joined the faculty at the University of Michigan in 1965 as an associate professor of music, earning the status of professor (of conducting) in 1973. During his tenure at Michigan, Hilbish served as the chairman of the Conducting Department for nine years, director of University Choirs, and founder of the University of Michigan Chamber Choir. In addition to serving as the director of conducting and choral activities at the university, Hilbish taught graduate courses in music education, choral and orchestral conducting, and 20th century musical literature. Hilbish also facilitated choral conducting instruction during the summers, at the University of Southern California (1955), Harvard University (1972), and the University of Michigan.
Throughout his career, Hilbish engaged in professional and educational service. In addition to writing on the importance of musical education in schools, Hilbish served on the Board of Observers of Harvard College, as a member of the American Choral Directors Association, board member of the Kodaly Fellowship Program sponsored by the National Council on the Arts, and a board member of Choruses of the World.
Under Hilbish's guidance, the University of Michigan Chamber Choir became internationally recognized for its sophistication and excellence. Among Hilbish's notable accomplishments with the choir are its residency at Gian Carlo Menotti's Festival of Two Worlds, and concerts and operas with Thomas Shippers and the Trieste Orchestra in Spoleto, Italy (1969); a State Department Cultural Exchange tour to the Soviet Union, the first collegiate choir to be so honored (1971); a performance at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in New York (1972); the second U.S. performance of Schönberg's Die Jakobsleiter at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (1974); participation in the Canary Islands International Opera Festival in Las Palmas, Spain, with performances with Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Placido Domingo (1975, 1976); and State Department sponsored tours of Poland, Eastern Europe, and Israel (1976, 1983, 1980). Hilbish also led the Michigan Chamber Choir in several recording sessions, primarily of 20th century music. The choir's recording of Italian composer's Gian Carlo Menotti's The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore received a Grammy nomination in 1981.
In addition to his work with the University of Michigan Chamber Choir, Thomas Hilbish has trained choirs to perform with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, conducted with the Cleveland Chorus, and directed the U.S. Universities Chorus at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. As an orchestral conductor, Hilbish has conducted the Warsaw Symphony and the Szczecin Philharmonic in Poland, the Harvard Philharmonic, the Princeton University Orchestra, and the University of Michigan Symphony, Philharmonic and Faculty Orchestras.
Over the course of his career, Hilbish gained a reputation for his ability to inspire musicians in their performances and for his wide-ranging knowledge or choral literature. Hilbish has led choirs in professional recordings of Menotti's The Unicorn, Randall Thompson's Americana, Elliot Carter's To Music, Seymour Shifrin's The Odes of Shang, Salvatore Martirano's O, O, O, O, That Shakespearean Rag, and eighteenth century American music. Hilbish has also conducted world premiers of Arnold Schönberg's Die Jakobsleiter, Roger Sessions' A Mass, Peter Maxwell Davies' Veni Sancte Spiritus, Igor Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, Thomas Janson's Eternal Voices, Leslie Bassett's Notes in the Silence and Moon Canticle, Réne Leibowitz's Two Settings of William Blake, Op. 71 and Empedakles Opus 13, David Winkler's Frische Schatten, meine Freude, Eugene Lee's Afterimages, and Jacques-Louis Monod's Cantus Contra Cantum III.
Thomas Hilbish retired from the University of Michigan as a Professor Emeritus of Conducting in 1988. Since his retirement, Hilbish has worked as a guest conductor and visiting professor of conducting at New York University, Indiana University, Florida State University, University of Cincinnati, University of California-Los Angeles, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Arizona, University Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Western Michigan University, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.