From Humble Beginnings to Renowned Composer

UMKC honors Xi Wang, Ph.D. with the Conservatory Alumni Achievement award
Xi Wang portrait

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association recognizes the achievements of outstanding alumni with an awards celebration. The UMKC Conservatory is honoring Xi Wang, Ph.D. (M.M. ‘03) with its Class of 2022 Alumni Achievement Award.

Born 1978 in China, just after the cultural revolution, Xi Wang learned never to take anything for granted. Recognizing her musical talent, her father and mother made great financial sacrifices to ensure that she received training. After completing her bachelor’s in music from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Xi came to UMKC to study under Chen Yi, Ph.D. and Zhou Long, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor Xi holds a doctoral degree from Cornell University. She is internationally celebrated with works commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony and Shanghai Philharmonic. In addition to composing, Xi teaches at Meadow School of Arts of Southern Methodist University.

Was music a large part of your childhood?

My father bought me a toy piano as a gift when I was four. The toy piano cost the equivalent of two U.S. dollars at that time-about half of my mother’s monthly income. My father taught me the piano by playing some children’s songs using one finger. One year later, he borrowed an old piano from the museum where he worked and brought it home. I started learning to play some longer, more complex songs with three fingers. Apparently, I showed unusual sensitivity to pitch and an excellent ability to memorize tones. A music teacher told my parents that he thought I had a talent for music. So, my parents found me a piano teacher. One dollar per lesson, four lessons per month, four dollars per month. That was my mother’s entire monthly salary!

When did you first realize that you wanted to work in music?

When I started winning local piano competitions, my parents were excited! Music was a high-class art form they had hardly dared to imagine. When I turned six, my parents cashed out all their savings and gathered money from their relatives and friends—around $250—to buy me a new, real piano. When it was delivered to our home on a tricycle, all the neighbors came out to touch the “furniture” they had only seen in newspapers or magazines. My parents spent the next three years working and saving to pay off this “fancy furniture.” 

Music is a beautiful, but very expensive gift that my parents gave me in childhood. I learned my first lesson about life- never take anything for granted. Education and opportunity are precious.

Has teaching changed your relationship with music? What do you enjoy most about it?

Teaching deepened my relationship with music. It makes me rethink of what I have learned about music. Through the process of teaching, I am learning new things constantly too.

What advice do you have for students who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

Work hard and keep challenging yourself. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if you encounter something “unfair.” It will happen and it happens in everyone’s life. You just have to flip it to your advantage, let it motivate you. Take it as an opportunity to make you stronger while accepting it could feel very frustrating at the beginning.

How did UMKC contribute to your success?

I had remarkable professors who not only helped me to learn about music, but also took care of me as their child and continuously fostered me along my career development even after I graduated. Dr. Chen Yi, Dr. Zhou Long, Dr. James Mobberley, Dr. Paul Rudy, Dr. William Everett and many others, including staff members at the international student office. I also met many warm-hearted friends, who loaned me their notes, helped me to learn the computer, drove me around and explained American culture to me.

Besides the academic preparation, it was people’s care and love that has shined through all the years since I started my American adventure at UMKC.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

Being a mother of two adorable children while maintaining a career as a composer and a professor.

Where can you be found on the weekends? What are your hobbies?

I have about 20 plants at home to water during work breaks. Occasionally, I do some clay sculpture and painting.

About Alumni Awards

Join us in honoring Xi and the other Class of 2022 awardees at an in-person celebration at 6 p.m. April 29, at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center. To register, visit UMKC's Alumni Association website. If you are unable to attend the event but would like to donate to student scholarships, contributions can be made online.

Learn more about Conservatory

Published: Feb 17, 2022

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