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.

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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.

Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash

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