Bringing Diversity to the World of Classical Music: The Sphinx Organization Provides Opportunities for Young Musicians of Color to Showcase Their Talents

By DeFord, Carla | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, June 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

Bringing Diversity to the World of Classical Music: The Sphinx Organization Provides Opportunities for Young Musicians of Color to Showcase Their Talents


DeFord, Carla, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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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.

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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. …

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