Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Sphinx Organization founder Aaron Dworkin seeks diversity in classical music performance and appreciation

By Heather Longley

Almost everyone knows a few bars of at least one piece of classical music. It’s in the background of countless commercials, television shows, and movies and has inspired popular songwriters of all genres for more than a century.

So why is classical music often perceived as interesting to only the palest of racial demographics?

According to a League of American Orchestras poll, of musicians in 154 orchestras during the 2007–08 season, 1.83 percent were black, 2.42 percent were Latino, and 7.34 percent were Asian. Those numbers represent a miniscule increase from the findings in the league’s previous poll about the 1994–95 season.

Culture and history might have introduced largely white symphonies and musical styles with few chances for minorities to join the party, but Aaron Dworkin—Sphinx Organization founder, musician, spoken-word artist, author, social activist, and entrepreneur—says it’s that false sense of ownership that’s threatening the livelihood of classical music today. Dworkin addresses his concerns as featured speaker at the Penn State Forum September 15 and during a Penn State residency that features Catalyst Quartet, an ensemble of Sphinx laureate string musicians.

Born to a white mother and a black father in 1970, Dworkin was adopted as an infant by a white family. When he was 10, his family moved from culturally diverse New York City to Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he says he faced ridicule because of his race and his interest in violin studies.

He founded Detroit-based Sphinx in 1997 as a way to encourage diversity in classical music among children, especially minorities. Dworkin, a 2005 MacArthur Fellow and President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, says he knows how important it is to foster artistic talents among young people of color.

Dworkin, who in July became dean of The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, is proud of Sphinx’s accomplishments. He says the organization’s training programs reach 20,000 young people each year and pique the interest of 2 million more through live and broadcast audiences. According to sphinxmusic.org, more solo musicians and orchestras of color perform today than before the organization’s inception.

In this Center for the Performing Arts interview, Dworkin discusses the feeling of empowerment in music appreciation and stresses the importance of the classical music collective to embrace musicians of all backgrounds.

Q: You say your adoptive mother inspired you to pick up the violin. How prevalent do you think nature versus nurture is in how children learn to appreciate the arts?

A: Perhaps there is a perfect rule that calculates nature versus nurture, however, I am not, unfortunately, aware of one. However, I do think that both are factors in what constitutes success with music for an individual. I suspect that there may be what we think of as innate affinity for music, which may come from early inspiration. And then there is the nurture piece, also known as consistent, methodically informed hard work. In many ways, I do believe in Malcom Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours being the basic prerequisite for fluency in any discipline.

Q: Why do you think it’s important to introduce classical music to children and minorities?

A: I think classical music is an important facet of human development. It is, therefore, critically valuable to any young person, regardless of their background, status, or geography. It is also an avenue, a vessel that permits us to build expression. Young people are given the gift of expressing themselves with an instrument in their hands. They are inspired to explore their own creativity through music. Through Sphinx’s work in early education, we are privileged to observe and witness that sense of wonder and empowerment when a young person touches a violin for the first time. In underserved communities and settings, our young people often view this experience as a refuge, a place they look forward to coming (to) after school. In many instances, that joy is simply irreplaceable. While we have so much evidence on the correlation between study of music and academic success, the intrinsic value of studying music and arts-enriched education and its impact on the quality of life for young people is so very important.

Q: Why do you think there is a dearth of minorities involved in classical music organizations?

A: This is, of course, a complex question. There are many historic and societal components to the reasoning and the answer, including historical exclusion, lack of access to quality training (and) to resources, lack of access to exposure, awareness, and structural barriers in our modern-day society that persist. However, the reality is that there is a pool of highly qualified artists who simply need exposure, opportunities, professional development, and encouragement. That takes a field-wide effort, even in context with organizations like Sphinx, whose mission centers around the issue.

Q: Do you see a correlation between household income and interest in classical music and fine arts?

A: Without a doubt. This deals with access and awareness. Interest is not an isolated factor we can measure outside the context of one’s knowledge of music, the setting in which they are raised, and the values that exist in their community. Music and the arts in general remain a luxury. For the good of our society and for the sake of allowing the arts to survive, that needs to change. We must all strive to remove the barriers that limit access to the arts.

Q: Your goal at Sphinx was to grow the pool of talent of young minority classical players. So does that mean you think support for classical music is growing or remaining steady?

A: The goal at Sphinx is multifold. Ultimately, it is to inspire (and) transform through the power of diversity, through consistent and intentional/mindful effort to include. Support for classical music in terms of resources, in terms of society, remains a challenge. There is a long road to travel here. Unfortunately, public value for classical music is an area that needs continued attention. It is closely tied to the notion of the arts and their relevance to the community. If the arts represent the community to which it serves, there is hope.

Q: How do you hope your interactive advocacy events help to instill an appreciation of classical music in young people? Or how do your efforts help kids to understand the music and its technical aspects?

A: At Sphinx, we place instruments in the hands of young people on a daily basis, educating them, empowering them to express themselves through a musical instrument. Beyond interactive advocacy, we think of this as a hands-on, grassroots learning experience, where the goal is young development and enrichment of lives through the power of music learning. We are developing the next generation of music-lovers (and) well-rounded citizens through our educational programs. Many technical aspects of music translate powerfully to other concepts in life, including math and technical subjects, but more importantly, self-discipline, self-confidence, and beyond.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception or hurdle to overcome for children and minorities in cultivating interest and appreciation of classical music?

A: The largest misconception is that with lack of access comes lack of interest. Everyday, we see the opposite with our young people who are introduced to the violin for the first time and we are able to see that fire/sparkle in their eyes.

Q: Do you think classical music is falling by the wayside?

A: There is such a danger, and in order to avoid that, we must embrace it as a society. However, the art form itself must work harder to engage and find relevance to all layers of the society. It must be a reciprocal effort.

Q: You don’t have to be trained to like classical music, but would training help one to better appreciate it?

A: Classical music has the power to change lives, inspire, (and) empower a listener. Without a doubt, understanding it, based on the benefit of having been educated previously, is helpful. I do think that access, exposure, and awareness at first, during early stages of our lives, is where it starts.

Q: What is the next move for the Sphinx Organization? Will there be any changes instituted with you stepping down and (your wife) Afa Sadykhly Dworkin stepping up?

A: I know that Afa is looking at ensuring Sphinx’s impact ten and twenty years from now, growing depth-wise and sustaining our programs. One of the big areas she is thinking about is professional development, placement, helping the field see itself as a large player in reflecting diversity in our communities. Sphinx has always achieved greater success through meaningful partnerships. I know that Afa is thinking about those aspects and looking at ways to move our work forward on a larger scale.

Q: What are your plans for your new position as dean of The University of Michigan’s arts school?

A: I am deeply honored to serve my alma mater. There is such genuine excitement about the history of the school and how it can come to serve the next generation of our talented artists. I most look forward to looking at ways to prepare our students through innovation, maximizing their creativity, and equipping them in robust ways to make their living through their chosen art form once they graduate. The school has incredible resources and world-class faculty, and I am honored to be a part of such an incredible team.