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Detroit music organization is moving the needle on cultural diversity

A stringed orchestra with a choir behind them
Kevin Kennedy
Sphinx provides opportunities for young classical musicians of color to perform and learn together

This weekend, you may notice a surprising number of people toting violin cases around Detroit.

It’s time for the Sphinx Competition. Musician, composer, and educator Aaron Dworkin founded the organization in 1997.

It's an annual competition and concert for young African-American and Latino string musicians from across the country. But its larger community, the Sphinx Organization, is also a powerful engine for helping young people of color get connected in music circles and learn how to sustain a career.

The Sphinx Organization is a wide ranging project that focuses on arts education and access, artist development, performance, and arts leadership. The Detroit organization also has a competition every year in which young black and Latino classical string players from across the nation play in front of an internationally renown panel of judges. This year's competition takes place February 5 through 8.

In a field so grounded in white Western European history, Sphinx alumni have called it an invaluable tool to think through their relationship to the music, and find other people doing the same reckoning.

Aaron Dworkin
Credit Kevin Kennedy / Sphinx
Dworkin's work with Sphinx has increased visibility of classical musicians of color

Dworkin discovered classical music at a very young age, and his passion for it blossomed into an illustrious career. He is an accomplished violinist, a 2005 McArthur fellow, and former dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater & Dance. But as he made his way up through the classical music scene, he began to realize there were few professional musicians who looked like him.

“It was not until I was here at the University of Michigan, and went into a lesson one day with my teacher who inquired if I wanted to learn music by black composers, at which point I was like, ‘What are you talking about? There are no black composers.’ Because no one had ever told me there were,” he said.

In the early days of Sphinx, Dworkin said many people he talked to were skeptical that the organization could fix the lack of diversity in classical music. While there were professional black and Latino musicians playing in professional orchestras, they were few and far between. Now, thanks to the efforts of musicians working with Sphinx, that’s starting to change. Many Sphinx alum are playing at the highest levels, whether in orchestras or with solo careers.

“One of the most things is that I never hear anyone say any more that musicians of color who play at the highest level are not out there, and that’s the testament to all of the Sphinx alums who are doing just tremendous work.”

Violinist Danielle Belen is the 2008 Sphinx Competition winner and is now an associate professor of violin at the UM School of Music, Theater & Dance.

“Somehow, because of having done this competition, rather than totally being terrified of soloing with all those orchestras, I kind of knew I could do it,” Belen said.

Another Sphinx alum, Kamyron Williams, a cellist at UM SMTD, said that Sphinx Organization’s wide range of projects allows young musicians to understand the broader world of classical music, beyond just performance.

“It wasn’t until I came to Michigan and started getting involved with Sphinx that I realized ‘OK, I need some skills that go beyond the concert hall.’”

Hear more of Belen and Williams reflecting on their personal experiences with Sphinx and performing on stage in the interview above 

Support for arts and culture coverage is supported in part by an award from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott

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