Pittsburgh Musical Institute

School of Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Earl Wild, and Vivian Reed

The Pittsburgh Musical Institute (PMI) was one of America’s most prestigious music schools for 48 years.  It offered undergraduate and graduate programs in music education and instrumental and vocal performance.  One of the most progressive music schools in the country it ranked among the top 4 music schools in the U.S during the early 20th century.  Breaking the Jim Crow era racial barriers PMI admitted and trained African American musicians.  The renown alumni of PMI include composer Billy Strayhorn, jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, Tony award winner Vivian Reed, jazz pianist and band leader Walt Harper, trumpeter Charles Austin, pianist Carl Arter, jazz organist Ruby Younge, trumpeter Horace Turner, jazz double-bassists Robert “Bull” Ruther, jazz keyboardist and composer Eddie Russ, big band leader George Hudson, reed player Art Nance, composer David Carey, and classical piano master Earl Wild.  Many of the PMI graduates went on to be college music professors, school music teachers, and church organists.

The Pittsburgh Musical Institute was charted in 1915.  Its founders were Western Pennsylvania natives Frank Milton Hunter, William H. Oetting, Charles N. Boyd, and Dallmeyer Russell.  The school was first located in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh on 4259 Fifth Avenue across the street from the Masonic Temple (the current site of Clapp Hall).  A staff of 18 instructors taught the first year enrollment of 150 students.  Needing more space PMI moved around the corner to its own larger building on 131-133 Bellefield Avenue in 1921.  The Victorian style PMI building contained 32 studio class rooms. a recital hall, and three organs.  By 1928 the staff grew to 56 teachers and enrollment reached 2,000 students.  It attracted students from Western, Pa and the entire country.    The PMI offered to the public free recitals and concerts by the PMI Orchestra, the PMI Chorus, the senior and graduate students, and the faculty.  Over 800 free performances had been given by 1928.

PMI opened five smaller neighborhood branch studios in the city of Pittsburgh and by 1928 had branch studios in 28 small Western, Pa towns including Aliquippa, Ambridge, Bellevue, Butler, Canonsburg, Crafton, Monaca, Mt. Lebanon, New Kensington and more.  The branch studios offered piano, expression, and eurhythmic classes on Saturdays and evenings to children and adults.

In 1924 PMI’s director Charles N. Boyd joined with six other music conservatories to form NASM the National Association of Schools of Music and Allied Arts.  Six institutions were the founding members: the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, the American Conservatory of Music, the Bush Conservatory of Music, the Louisville Conservatory of Music, Walcott Conservatory of Music, and the Pittsburgh Musical Institute.  Charles Boyd was the founding treasurer of NASM.  NASM is now the principal U.S. accreditor for higher education music programs. It currently has approximately 625 accredited members that include schools of music, conservatories, and universities.

The PMI curriculum included courses in harmony, composition, orchestration, music history, music pedagogy, church music, and dramatic expression.  The theory department offered 15 courses.  Instruction was given on piano, organ, voice and all orchestral instruments. The “Visuolo” method of music instruction employed at the school along with the Helen Curtis method of piano instruction.  Helen Curtis taught her method to a class of piano teachers during a six week course in November of 1927. The school operated in 10 week sessions.  High School graduates gained admission to the school through annual auditions.  In a cooperative arrangement PMI exchanged credits with the University of Pittsburgh.  After World War II many musicians attended PMI using the G.I. Bill tuition benefits.

Many of the PMI instructors were members or former members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Former PSO violinist Roy Shoemaker chaired the PMI string department and taught for 44 years.  Dr. Gaylord Yost was the long time violin instructor.  Carl McVicker Sr. was a member of the faculty teaching brass instruments.  William Henry Oetting, one of the founders who became school president in 1920, taught organ and composition.  Direct Dallmey Russell, a concert pianist, taught piano.  Charles N. Boyd personally instructed Billy Strayhorn in music theory and composition.  Strayhorn left the school when Boyd died suddenly in 1937.  In a 1962 interview Strayhorn said: “He was so wonderful, that I didn't think there was anyone else there who could teach me so I didn't stay." 

PMI took on young child prodigies.  Earl Wild, who is recognized as one of the great pianists of the 20th century, was enrolled at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute at age 6.  He studied with pianist Alice Walker.  Musical actress Vivian Reed who came to fame in the Tony-nominated musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar began her voice studies at age eight with vocal teacher Romaine Russell.

The Pittsburgh Musical Institute operated until 1963 when it was merged into the University of Pittsburgh Music Department.  The historic Victorian era PMI building on Bellefield Avenue was demolished to construct the concrete slab Brutalist style American Institutes for Research Building in 1965.  The University of Pittsburgh purchased the building in 1968 making it the home of its School of Library and Information Science.  The Pitt Music Department moved into the much smaller former WQED building on the corner of Fifth and Bellefield Avenues around 1968. 

Founders - William Oetting, Charles Boyd
Advertisement -1931
1948 PMI Bulletin
Vivian Reed