GOOD

The Fact That Changed Everything: Aaron Dworkin and Sphinx

Sphinx is on a mission to bring diversity to classical music. Since it began, black musicians have doubled in America's top orchestras.


This content is brought to you by GOOD, with support from IBM. Click here to read more stories from The Fact That Changed Everything series and here to read about other Figures of Progress.

When music educator Aaron Dworkin talks about diversity in the world of classical music, he knows what it means. A MacArthur Fellow in 2005 and President Obama’s first appointee to the National Council on the Arts, Dworkin has earn many accolades, but still remembers that his love for classical music began at home. Adopted at two weeks old, the African-American became part of a white Jewish family in Chicago. It was here that he found his passion for classical music through playing the violin.


“My adoptive mother was an amateur violinist. She was reinvigorated and re-motivated to play around that time through Nathan Milstein’s recording of ‘Unaccompanied Bach,’ which she loved. I picked [the violin] up and absolutely loved it,” says Dworkin.

Dworkin was hooked to music, but he also felt out of place. I was usually the only person of color of all the musical circumstances that I was in,” says Dworkin. Since starting violin lessons at five years old all the way to his days at the University of Michigan, Dworkin searched for a face similar to his own and found none. “Why was it that when I would go to a classical orchestra concert, no one on the stage or on the audience look like me?”


Though the answer to his whys never came, it did give birth to a simple yet revolutionary idea of shining the light on minority musicians and composers through a national competition. Named after the enigmatic mythical creature, Sphinx is a venue where musicians of color can play works by composers of color and gain exposure that would help them build professional careers. “If we did that, the whole world would change and everything would be better,” Dworkin enthused.

Despite his initial enthusiasm, Dworkin found himself facing a latent type of racism. “It was not the overt ‘this is white people’s domain’—some people do think that but I think they’re very small minority—it was this sense that, ‘That would be nice, but the talent just isn’t out there.’”

The results of the inaugural Sphinx Competition in 1998 proved otherwise. In an alley behind Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor—where the competition was held—virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern expressed his amazement at the embarrassment of riches available right under the industry’s nose. “That just captured it,” recalls Dworkin. “I hear very rarely now that the talent isn’t out there, it’s more how can we connect with the talent.”

It was just the beginning. While the competition is still the organization’s most publicized event, Sphinx has added more far-reaching programs to its repertoire. It conducts free beginner violin lessons for thousands students in Flint and Detroit, Michigan throughout the year. Its global scholars have done residencies in the Venezuela, Colombia, South Africa, among others teaching and performing for underserved populations. Next year will mark the first Sphinx Con, the first national convention that will tackle the issue of diversity in the performing arts.

“Tens of thousands are touched by our educational programming in one way shape or form,” says Dworkin. In the first ten years of operation, black members in America’s top orchestras have doubled from 1.16 percent to 2.4 percent. In 1998, there were no professional black and Latino orchestras, now Sphinx operates two. At last count, Sphinx has reached 100,000 students in over 200 schools nationwide and given $2 million in scholarships.

Despite the impressive amount of ground that’s been covered, Dworkin’s work isn’t fueled by statistics, but by a basic need to belong. “A couple of [Sphinx students] have said to me is that they’ve always known a community of classical musicians of color,” says Dworkin,

“Hearing one of them say that was just so profound because as I was growing up that was unheard of. You were by default alone—that sense of community, the sense that none of them will ever feel ‘I’m the only one.’ I think that’s very significant.”

Whether part of an appreciative crowd applauding or being on-stage playing the violin, if Dworkin has it his way, Sphinx students will always know there are people like them who are similarly carried away by the melody played and imagined by people of all colors.

Articles
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott are getting company. Statues of the famous men are scattered across Central Park in New York City, along with 19 others. But they'll finally be joined by a few women.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth are the subjects of a new statue that will be on display along The Mall, a walkway that runs through the park from 66th to 72nd street. It will be dedicated in August of next year, which is fittingly the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.

Currently, just 3% of statues in New York City are dedicated to women. Out of 150 statues of historical figures across the city, only five statues are of historical women, including Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harriet Tubman.

Keep Reading Show less
promo-homepage

It's easy to become calloused to everyday headlines with messages like, "the world is ending" and "everything is going extinct." They're so prevalent, in fact, that the severity of these statements has completely diminished to the point that no one pays them any attention. This environmental negativity (coined "eco-phobia") has led us to believe that all hope is lost for wildlife. But luckily, that isn't the case.

Historically, we have waited until something is near the complete point of collapse, then fought and clawed to bring the species numbers back up. But oftentimes we wait so long that it's too late. Creatures vanish from the Earth altogether. They go extinct. And even though I don't think for a single second that we should downplay the severity of extinction, if we can flip this on its head and show that every once in a while a species we have given up on is actually still out there, hanging on by a thread against all odds, that is a story that deserves to be told. A tragic story of loss becomes one about an animal that deserves a shot at preservation and a message of hope the world deserves to hear.

As a wildlife biologist and tracker who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of animals I believe have been wrongfully deemed extinct, I spend most of my time in super remote corners of the Earth, hoping to find some shred of evidence that these incredible creatures are still out there. And to be frank, I'm pretty damn good at it!

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
NHM Vienna/Hans Reschreiter

Wealth inequality has been a hot topic of discussion as of late, but it's something that's occurred all throughout history. Class structure is a complicated issue, especially when you consider that haves and have nots have been in existence for over 4,000 years.

A study published in Science took a look at over 100 late Neolithic and early Bronze Age skeletons found in a burial site in southern Germany. The study "shed light on the complexity of social status, inheritance rules, and mobility during the Bronze Age." Partly by looking at their teeth and the artifacts they were buried with, researchers were able to discover that wealth inequality existed almost 4,000 years ago. "Our results reveal that individual households lasting several generations consisted of a high-status core family and unrelated low-status individuals, a social organization accompanied by patrilocality and female exogamy, and the stability of this system over 700 years," the study said.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture
via Truthout.org / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics