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. Continue Reading »

Watercooler: a multicultural celebration gone wrong

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from M:

I work for a government human services agency and we have a diversity council here at work. I served on it for a few years, but I got so frustrated and pissed off most of the time that I didn’t serve on it anymore.

One time, this group of people decided that they wanted to develop “cultural competency” guidelines for human services work. I do honestly think these people were well intentioned, but I think some of these guidelines tend to stereotype groups and lump them into the same category. For example, the implication that there is a “Pan-Asian view” of things or “Hispanic view” of things when in fact there are people in these groups that come from different countries which may have very different beliefs.

Also, a few years ago, the assistant commissioner had this big interest in diversity so she started to go to our diversity council meetings. (She seemed like one of those touchy feely 1960s flower type children.)

Anyway, so I’m at work one day and the assistant commissioner sends an email to everyone on the diversity council about this great idea she has: that all of us people of color can dress up in “traditional dress” and people can come around and we can describe our culture to them. <big eye roll> I suppose since I’m 1/2 Peruvian I’m supposed to dress up like one of the indigenous people of Peru and bake a potato dish for them.

It never happened at work, but the fact that our assistant commissioner — someone who thinks she’s so “diversified” and “informed” and “liberal” thought that this would be a good idea just killed me!

I mean, if part of the mission of the so-called diversity council was suppose to dispel stereotypes, I don’t know anything more stereotypical than having people of color (a term I hate by the way) dress up in “traditional dress” and share our traditions with all the white folks.

Aren’t “people of color” part of America too? When are “people of color” going to stop being perceived as “the other” or “foreign?”

Please email if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.