Conservatory History

A Brief History of the Conservatory

The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance was founded in 1906 by John A. Cowan (1874–1949) as the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Art, in a spirit of idealism. 

In 1916 John Cowan turned over the original Conservatory to the City of Kansas City, MO, making it the first publicly owned and supported music conservatory in the country.  Cowan’s decision forged a relationship with the city which has benefitted the Conservatory and the community ever since.

After its first merger with the Horner Institute for Fine Arts, July 1, 1926, the Conservatory experienced a surge in enrollment.  With nearly 4,000 students it became the third largest music institution in the country by the 1929–30 school year.  The Horner Institute was founded in 1914 by Charles Horner (1878–1967), and became a member of NASM (National Association of Schools of Music) in 1933.

Many of the Conservatory’s former professors and deans contributed to the Conservatory’s international reputation throughout the years.

John Thompson, pianist, teacher, and composer, and author of the John Thompson’s Modern Course for The Piano series joined the Conservatory faculty in 1918 and was director 1931–39, he published his most well-known pedagogical book, Teaching Little Fingers to Play in 1936, while he was the director.

Dean Archie Jones was instrumental in the creation of the American Choral Directors Association.  Founded in 1959, the ACDA is the music education organization that promotes excellence in choral music.

Wanda Lathom-Radocy, Professor Emerita, founder of the UMKC music therapy program, played a leading role in developing higher education curricula for this emerging profession in the 1970s.

Conductor Eph Ehly, Professor Emeritus, founded the International Choral Symposium in 1975.

Faculty Bobby Watson is a world-renowned saxophone performer, composer Chen Yi is a recipient of the Charles Ives Living Award and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, composer Zhou Long won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his first opera, Madame White Snake, and all four major composition faculty are Guggenheim Fellows. 

Faculty and tenor Vinson Cole, who is also an alumnus, won the Metropolitan Opera auditions and has performed around the world.

The Conservatory’s distinguished classical dance program charted a new direction in the 1980s by offering a dual-emphasis program of ballet and modern dance.  The Conservatory was among the first institutions to provide this unique dual-emphasis preparation.

Some Milestones

In 1918 the State of Missouri authorized the Kansas City Conservatory to award the Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Doctor of Music degrees.

1926 Kansas City Conservatory and Horner Institute merge to form Horner Institute Conservatory of Music.  In 1934 it is renamed Conservatory of Music of Kansas City.

1937–39, graduate degree programs in Composition, Music Ed, Piano, Violin, and Vocal Music are offered.

1963 Conservatory becomes part of the University of Missouri system.

1973 Music therapy added to curriculum and degree offerings.

1990 NASD authorization is received for BFA in Dance.

1998, revival of Performer’s and Artist’s Certificates for advanced non-degree performance training.

2003 Conservatory piano faculty Robert Weirich became the national president of the College Music Society, the largest organization representing collegiate music faculty in the U.S.

2004 Howard and Patricia Barr Institute for American Composition Studies dedicated.

2006 Conservatory celebrates 100 years!

2012 Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opens to worldwide acclaim and becomes a venue for Conservatory performances.

2013 The Conservatory receives a $20 million challenge grant to build a Downtown Arts Campus.

2014 The Conservatory receives a site property pledge for the Downtown Arts Campus.

Faculty and/or alumni founded or have led the following Kansas City Arts organizations

1933 Kansas City Philharmonic (later became the Kansas City Symphony), Karl Krueger

1957 Kansas City Ballet, Tatiana Dokoudovska, Associate Professor Emerita (deceased)

1958 Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Russell Patterson, (alumnus, MM, 1952; former Assistant Professor of Music, Conservatory)

1958 Kansas City Youth Symphony, Glenn Block (associated 1983)

1982 Kansas City Chorale, Jonathan Griffith, (DMA, 1983, 1985, conducting) Charles Bruffy, (MA,1988, performance, voice)

1982 Kansas City Symphony, Russell Patterson

1984 Civic Opera, Martha Longmire, Professor Emerita

1991 Summerfest, Rebecca Bell, Jane Carl

1994 newEar, Pat Conway, (BA, 1986, BM, 1989, composition, MM, 1992, composition) Mark Lowry, (BM, 1983, performance, BM 1983, performance, percussion; MM, 1988, performance, percussion)

2000 Puccini Festival, Andy Anderson, (MM, 1999 conducting)

2002 Operakadopera, Anne DeLaunay

2003 Chamber Music Society of Kansas City, James Hall, MM, 2000, performance, flute; DMA, 2005, performance, flute)