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Bringing Diversity to the World of Classical Music

The Sphinx Organization provides opportunities for young musicians of color to showcase their talents.

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As a young Black violinist growing up on the East Coast, it did not escape Aaron Dworkin that no performers and very few audience members at classical music concerts looked like him. So as a 25-year-old graduate student in music at the University of Michigan, he had an idea that could help bring diversity to the world of classical music: a competition that would attract the most gifted and accomplished young minority string players in the country.

Dworkin’s violin professor at the University of Michigan, Stephen Shipps, remembers when Dworkin first approached him about such a competition.

“He brought the idea to a lesson instead of playing, and I was originally upset that he didn’t have any music prepared,” says Shipps. “When he told me about his plan, my initial reaction was that he hadn’t thought it through, but within four days I was convinced he had a viable concept.”

So Dworkin and Shipps took the idea to Dr. Paul Boylan, then-dean of the UM School of Music, and asked for funding.

“I was impressed by Aaron,” Boylan remembers, “but at first I was discouraging. I wanted Aaron to go into this with his eyes open. I knew it would be a very challenging enterprise — and it was.”

Boylan made no decision until after he had met with Dworkin several times. Eventually, he offered $40,000 to be paid over three years, and Dworkin agreed to raise money from other sources during the term of the grant. Early donors included the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Ford Motor Co., Masco Corp. and the Wolfensohn Family Foundation.

Boylan says he was willing to invest in Dworkin’s proposal because “the objective was consonant with our goals.

“We wanted to recruit minority musicians and help them achieve success,” Boylan continues. “Aaron’s idea fit with the broader agenda of the University of Michigan and the school of music.”

Dworkin’s brainchild has since become the Sphinx Organization, which in addition to sponsoring its unique competition has distributed over $1 million in prize money and scholarships to promising classical musicians of color since its founding in 1996. Today, with an annual budget of about $3 million, Sphinx also offers a wide range of professional development and music-education programs to performers and audiences in the Detroit area and beyond.

This small empire sprang from the Sphinx Competition, which is now entering its 12th year and will be held again Jan. 28-Feb. 1, 2009, in Detroit. Most of the applicants are encouraged to participate in the competition by their music teachers, who are aware of its reputation and prestige. Once audition recordings of the competitors have been received, a screening committee chooses a group of semifinalists in the junior and senior divisions. From this group, three finalists (laureates) are chosen by a panel of distinguished judges.

The junior finalists, all under 18 years of age, perform at the Honors Concert accompanied by the Sphinx Symphony, composed of professional musicians of color. Held on the UM campus, the Honors Concert is free and attracts an audience of young people attending schools throughout Michigan. The senior finalists, also accompanied by the Sphinx Symphony, perform at the Finals Concert, which is hosted by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit. The judges rank the three winners in each division.

To further the laureates’ careers, the Sphinx Professional Development Program offers them opportunities to perform with major orchestras and other performing organizations around the country. In addition, Sphinx is organizing the first national tour of the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, which consists of alumni of the Sphinx Competition, and the Harlem Quartet, whose members are all first-place laureates. Some semifinalists also receive scholarships through the 16 partner institutions of the Music Assistance Fund, which includes some of the best-known music schools in the country.

Changing the Face of Classical Music

It takes years of training to produce musicians accomplished enough to participate in the Sphinx Competition, so Dworkin has made music education a top priority. The Sphinx Preparatory Music Institute, hosted by the Wayne State University Department of Music, offers beginning and intermediate classes in strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and piano for students ages 11-18. Sphinx also offers the “Overture” program, which makes beginning violin lessons available to members of underserved communities in Detroit and acts as a feeder for Sphinx Prep. Lessons and instruments in this program are free. A summer music camp for students ages 12-17 is offered at the Sphinx Performance Academy, hosted by the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass. Sphinx is also involved in teacher training through “Classical Connections,” which helps teachers incorporate music education into school curricula.

As these initiatives were being developed, UM helped sustain what Dworkin calls his “life’s work” by providing not only financial backing, but also faculty time, scholarships, performance venues, visiting professorships, and development expertise.

In addition to its partnership with UM, Sphinx benefits from a strong relationship with the University Musical Society (UMS). Affiliated with UM and located on its campus, UMS is one of the oldest university-affiliated performing arts presenters in the country. Its president, Kenneth C. Fischer, has been an advocate of the Sphinx Organization from the beginning.

“Aaron first came to visit me in the mid- 1990s when he was forming his ideas about Sphinx,” Fischer recalls. “I found him sincere, clear-headed, compelling and committed. I told him I wanted to help, and I got on the phone and started making calls to colleagues and friends.”

Since then, UMS has given valuable assistance to Sphinx, especially in coordinating its Honors Concert. In addition, it is helping to organize the first national tour of the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, which will take place this fall. UMS has also facilitated relationships between Sphinx and some of the distinguished performers it has brought to campus, including Michael Tilson Thomas, Yo-Yo Ma, and the late Isaac Stern. Says Fischer: “Sphinx is changing the face of classical music in the United States. It challenges everyone who ever said, ‘You don’t see more Blacks and Hispanics in orchestras because the musicians are just not out there.’ Sphinx has proved that they are out there; they just need to be identified, encouraged and rewarded. And that’s exactly what Sphinx does.”

Undertaking a Herculean Task

Dworkin’s work has often been recognized, but the stakes were raised in 2005 when he won a MacArthur Fellowship, which comes with a $500,000 stipend paid over five years. According to Dworkin, the fellowship provided “seed money for additional philanthropic priorities and creative projects” he has wanted to pursue. These include supporting the creative endeavors of Sphinx alumni, establishing a program combining poetry and classical music, and producing a children’s book on the subject of diversity.

In the three years since the grant was awarded, Sphinx activities have also grown significantly. Founding the Harlem Quartet, establishing an annual Carnegie Hall concert and setting up an office in Harlem are all new ventures. The MacArthur Fellowship has made the Sphinx Competition better known to the media as well, attracting additional performing opportunities for its alumni.

Still, the problem of severe underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in classical music is far from solved. The League of American Orchestras reports that in the 2005-2006 season, 1.4 percent of orchestra musicians were Black and 2.1 percent were Hispanic. The mission of Sphinx is to offer programs that will improve this situation.

Stephanie Perrin, head of the Walnut Hill School in Massachusetts, which hosts the Sphinx Performance Academy, says the music camp has resulted in a notable increase in the number of minority musicians the school has been able to enroll.

“This group of young people will bring to the study of classical music their own cultural background, which will then inform the music itself in new and vital ways and will have a long-lasting effect on the classical music of the future,” Perrin says.

The impact of Sphinx programs on the participants themselves is clear in the words of Melissa White, a recent laureate and current member of the Harlem Quartet.

“From the friends I made, to the opportunities I received, to the financial support that helped further my violin studies, the Sphinx Competition has helped me a great deal. I had the opportunity to have private coaching with the late Isaac Stern and to solo with many of the country’s top symphony orchestras,” says White.

Anthony Elliott, winner of the Emanuel Feuermann International Cello Competition in 1987 and the first African-American appointed to a principal position in a major symphony orchestra, provides another perspective. Growing up in upstate New York, the schools Elliott attended had good music programs, but no cello instruction. As a result, he played other instruments until he was 16 years old and finally found a cello teacher, but getting to his lessons involved a long commute.

“It was not an easy road,” he admits. To Elliott, now a cello professor at UM, Sphinx holds the promise of profound change in the world of classical music.

“Aaron and Sphinx have been amazing in what they’ve accomplished,” says Elliott, who has been involved with the organization since its inception. “The task is Herculean, but the progress is unprecedented. It will be very different for today’s young musicians than it was for us. Because of Sphinx, they will not have to make this journey alone.”

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