Promoting diversity in American classical music

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Aaron Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic racial inequalities in the field of classical music.

Today we have the opportunity to learn about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music and what Aaron’s organization has accomplished in its first 10 years. Also, if you are a public school teacher, check out the last question for tips that Aaron has given to inspire your students to become nationally competitive musicians.

In your experience as a performing musician, what have you noticed about diversity in classical music/orchestras?

Nationally, less than 4% of professional orchestras are comprised of Blacks and Latinos combined. This compares to over 15% within the population (for each group, with Hispanics now growing substantially). Additionally, growing up, I found myself to be either the only one or one in less than a handful of minorities playing in any orchestra, or in any musical setting (a classroom, concert hall as an audience member, a summer program, etc). This made me question why this is the case, and why there are no composers of color typically featured on any standard program, including ones I would perform myself.

It was not until my years at the University of Michigan that I discovered the substantial volumes of works by Black (and Latino) composers, and began to focus my degrees on the study of these tremendous works. I learned that there is a wealth of repertoire by minority composers, which merited attention, but hardly received any. I performed works by William Grant Still, David Baker, Noel da Costa, Roque Cordero, and others. I then began to look at what I can do in order to make others aware of this inequality and of what already exists in terms of the repertoire.

Thus was born the concept of a national competition for young Black and Latino string musicians, who would come together each year to showcase their talents and receive educational and professional development opportunities. I wanted this to be much more than a competition, as the building of a community was a very important aspect of the idea. I also wanted to bring to the forefront this incredible repertoire, to give it visibility and recognition, with the idea that some day, the repertoire by minority composers will become standard literature.

What is The Sphinx Organization and how has it developed diversity in American orchestras?

The Sphinx Organization is a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic under representation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music. As a violinist, I founded the organization to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music, and to encourage the participation of Blacks and Latinos in the field.

In the 10 year history of the organization, Sphinx has made the following impact:
-Over 45,000 students reached around the country
-Over 2 million individuals reached per year through national broadcasts
-Over $180,000 in quality instruments provided to young minority musicians
-Over $800,000 in prizes and scholarships
-Over 140 Laureate performances reaching over 150,000 in audiences

The name Sphinx was given to the organization to represent some of the founding principles that guided its conception. The Sphinx represents the historical and geographical source for many minorities and exemplifies the power, wisdom and persistence that we hope to instill in our participants. The Sphinx also constitutes a mystery, an enigma. Music shares this puzzling aspect, as it is born from the experiences and aspirations of the composer as well as the performer. Like the Sphinx, it is up to the beholder, the listener, to interpret and appreciate from the music what is ultimately a reflection of internal emotions and spiritual experiences.

Because of the effort of your organization and talented youth across the country, do you see any trends changing in minority hiring practices, recognition, and retention in orchestras?

At the moment, the average age of our competition alumni is only 23. However, we are already beginning to see some change, despite the fact that most of them are still working on their degrees in music schools across the country. In the past 2 years, 4 of our alumni have been able to win permanent positions in professional orchestras, including a principal bass position in the Grand Rapids Symphony, as well as section positions in Oregon, San Antonio and Puerto Rico Symphonies. These young talented people are only in their mid twenties, and are making a difference in their respective orchestras. The unfortunate statistic is that they are probably increasing the diversity within those groups by 50-100%, but it is a start. We are very hopeful that this will grow and more and more qualified musicians of color will begin joining the ranks of the top orchestras. There is much work to be done in training our musicians and preparing them for professional careers, and we look forward to continuing in our efforts.

If you could change anything in the way local and national orchestras hire and retain musicians, what would it be?

This is a complicated question, as there is much history and many complex reasons for the way in which auditions are conducted. Back in 1970s, a blind audition process was instituted, in an attempt to make an impact on the diversity in the composition of our orchestras. This has made a tremendous difference for women and has impacted gender inequality. However, minorities continue to be starkly under represented.

If I had to choose one aspect, I wish that orchestras might consider looking at their processes and be able to objectively assess that something may not be working correctly when no professional orchestra is able to actually represent the diversity of the community that it resides and which it serves. Perhaps, among all of the necessary artistic factors, we might begin to consider race as one, looking at the musician and individual as a whole, including what they may ultimately offer the orchestra through their experience. I am in no way suggesting lessening the importance placed on the excellence and artistic merit. I am suggesting broadening the overall criteria, not dissimilarly to the world of academia or business.

Do you see any parallels between symphony orchestras and discrimination in hiring practices in other job sectors of the U.S.? Please explain.

I do find that our field of classical music stands out from the business sector or the academia. Both of the latter have found ways to incorporate diversity into the set of priorities within which they operate. Unfortunately, classical music is definitively behind in rectifying these challenges.

Besides being a positive influence on minority musicians, what benefits will classical music and orchestras receive by more diverse musicians? What affect does this have on new audiences, donors, etc?

Diversity of musicians will bring in new audiences and new constituents who would otherwise likely not visit a concert hall. People like to see themselves represented on stage, in order to be able to relate to the field. It would make orchestras less alienating and more welcoming of new audiences, which we desperately need, as our live audiences are aging and in some cases, becoming extinct.

Additionally, at the beginning of 20th century, a wave of Russian, French and other immigrants joined US orchestras. This had a unique effect, by adding certain cultural influences to the concept of “sound” of a particular orchestra. Similarly, having under represented groups better included in our orchestras would enrich the artistic product by offering new interpretations to both standard and more rarely performed repertoire by minority composers.

Do you have any advice/resources for music teachers in urban American schools to get their students more eager to advance their skills and become nationally competitive?

Expose your students to the remarkable contributions by minority composers into the field. Be in touch with your local orchestra’s education department staff to see what programs may benefit your students. Visit to explore the rich world of composers who lived throughout the various times and wrote fantastic music, both minorities, as well as European and US composers. Have your student explore the site, including interactive games, experiment with orchestration and learning about various instruments. If a student is already studying, help them realize their talent by teaching discipline, the importance of persistent hard work and exposing themselves to the highest levels of music education as a whole (finding resources, summer programs that would challenge them, etc.)

Further Reading:
You can find more Race in the Workplace interviews in our archives.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. What you missed on Race in the Workplace at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture on 26 Apr 2007 at 10:00 am

    […] Promoting diversity in American classical music Adina Ba interviews Aaron Dworkin, founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic racial inequalities in the field of classical music. Did you know that nationally, less than 4% of professional orchestras are comprised of Blacks and Latinos combined? […]

  2. The Productive Poet » Blog Archive » Links for 07-05-07 on 06 May 2007 at 6:51 pm

    […] Promoting diversity in American classical music - Today we have the opportunity to learn about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music and what Aaronâ��s organization has accomplished in its first 10 years… […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.