“I am basically a black, white, Irish, Jewish Jehovah’s Witness who plays the violin—the definition of diversity,” said Aaron P. Dworkin, violinist and founder of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit group which promotes racial diversity in the classical music world. In his Learning From Performers lecture on Friday, March 11 at the Barker Center, Dworkin attributed this background as one of his motivations to promote diversity in classical music, a field which he says still contains starkly underrepresented percentages of African-American and Hispanic musicians. As this year’s recipient of the Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award, administered by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, Dworkin was invited to discuss the dearth of minorities in classical music and the efforts that Sphinx is spearheading to bring change.
Each year, the Luise Vosgerchian Teaching Award honors an arts educator who has made a notable difference in students’ lives in the tradition of Vosgerchian herself, the Walter W. Naumberg Professor of Music Emerita in the music department. Thomas S. Lee, the manager of the Learning From Performers program, said “Aaron’s championing of black and Hispanic performers fits really well with Luise’s philosophy: she really made a difference in students’ lives, and he reflects her values.”
The founding of Sphinx, as Dworkin explains, was a product of his atypical childhood. He explained that he was born to an interracial couple in 1970—when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states—and given up for adoption to a Jewish family. His adoptive mother’s love for the violin convinced Dworkin to take up the instrument, and he has not looked back since.
However, Dworkin’s rise as a classical musician is uncommon. Historically, classical music has never been particularly diverse; Dworkin said only two percent of musicians in classical orchestras are African-American and another one percent are Hispanic. According to Dworkin, there are currently no black members of the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gained its first black musician only in the last six years. Dworkin said that he was either the only African-American student or one of a small handful at every musical institution that he attended, including programs at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the University of Michigan. He described his shock during his college years when he learned that there was an entire repertoire of African-American classical composition that he had not known existed. This realization, combined with today’s lack of minorities both on stages and in the audience, led Dworkin to found the Sphinx Organization.
The organization, now in its 15th year, is dedicated to combating the imbalance of racial groups in classical music with a variety of programs that reach out to minority musicians. Dworkin said, “we have programs where we put an instrument in the hands of a child for the first time, all the way up to the Sphinx Virtuosi program with [adult] musicians. Our programs run the entire gamut.” These include the Sphinx Orchestra, which is mainly composed of black and Latino musicians, a children’s summer training program, and musical education programs in Detroit public schools. “Sphinx reaches out to people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to study classical music,” said Jack Megan, Director of the Office for the Arts at Harvard.
In his Friday lecture, Dworkin presented statistics that demonstrate the dearth of African-Americans and Hispanics in classical music and shed light on the many initiatives that Sphinx has begun since its founding. It is not only that African-American and Hispanic musicians are lacking today; Dworkin added that pieces by African-American or Hispanic composers are often absent from traditional classical programming. This may seem skewed since many of these composers, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven, are European, but when only looking at the programming of composers in North America, the absence remains. These problems bring perspective to the Sphinx Organization’s efforts to reverse this lacking diversity.
Despite his shocking numbers, Dworkin’s lecture was not simply a presentation of statistics. He also read a few of his poems that dealt with growing up as a multiracial musician and showed video clips of musicians who credit Sphinx in helping them achieve careers in classical music. One video, called “Sphinx: The Sound of Change,” was comprised of inspirational clips of young minority musicians who have benefited from the Sphinx’s intensive summer boot camp and other educational programs. After presenting the clips, Dworkin added, “By diversifying musicians on stage, the art form really evolves—and that, I think, is a benefit to everyone.”