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Sphinx Organization diversifying classical music nationwide and changing lives


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Amna Nawaz: Like a number of institutions, classical music has been under recent pressure to diversify its ranks. But one group in Detroit has been at it for a long time, and its reach now stretches across the nation.

Jeffrey Brown reports on the Sphinx Organization for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: An after-school violin class at the Cesar Chavez Academy, a public charter school in Detroit.

Woman: One, two, ready, go.

Jeffrey Brown: Among the songs, the traditional folk tune
"De Colores." Among the students, 9-year-old Taniel Hernandez, who loves to play at home for his mother while she is cooking.

Taniel Hernandez, Student: I also play "De Colores" to her, since that is my favorite.

Jeffrey Brown: "De Colores" is your favorite.

Taniel Hernandez: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Why is that?

Taniel Hernandez: Because it is a little bit challenging, but I still can do it.

Jeffrey Brown: That he can do it, playing with other children on the violin, as well as the piano he has at home, is vital for his mother, Elizabeth Cruz, who struggled to find and pay for music lessons for her son.

Elizabeth Cruz, Mother: They need that more here in Southwest, because, if he didn't do that, he wouldn't be able to play the violin now. He wouldn't be able to know what he knows now. He has only been in here for two years, and it is only twice a week.

So, oh, yes, it's -- definitely -- we need that.

Taniel Hernandez: Yes.

Elizabeth Cruz: The kids need it, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: The class is part of the Overture program run by the Sphinx Organization, founded 25 years ago by Aaron Dworkin to diversify the world of classical music.

Aaron Dworkin, Founder, Sphinx Organization: When we were looking at the idea of founding Sphinx and beginning this work in this field, which didn't really exist, it was, how can we bring about systemic impact? How can we change the way that our orchestras are comprised?

And, of course, most importantly, how can we make sure that high-level, high-quality music instruction is happening at all of our schools, and not just those with the most resources?

Jeffrey Brown: Dworkin had been adopted as an infant and raised in New York City, with access to music and violin lessons beginning at age 5. But he routinely found himself the only Black person on stage or in the audience, and never even knew there were Black composers until he was in college and conservatory.

It was at the University of Michigan, where he still teaches, that he started Sphinx. It's also where he met his wife, Afa, also a finalist also a violinist, who had come to the U.S. from Azerbaijan as a teenager, and who now heads Sphinx.

The biggest early barrier, the Dworkins say, overcoming biases surrounding the idea of excellence.

Afa Dworkin, President and Artistic Director, Sphinx Organization: It was presumed that we're talking -- if we are talking about inclusivity, if we are talking about representation and diversity, there should be this presumed compromise relative to artistic integrity.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean the quality would go down.

Afa Dworkin: Go down. It is a myth that is so misfortunate. And it has stalled progress for our industry and sector.

Aaron Dworkin: I would have meetings with major orchestras, and leadership would sit and say to me, it's nice, but we don't need to do this. We are X-orchestra. We are excellent. And this would invade that excellence.

Thankfully, we don't hear that much anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: But that had to be a painful thing to hear.

Aaron Dworkin: My approach to things is not worrying about how painful things are and how unjust things are, but focus on the work.

Jeffrey Brown: Years later, Sphinx now runs high-level intensive training programs, fields its own touring company, the Sphinx Virtuosi, 18 accomplished Black and Latino musicians, partners with more than 100 orchestras to promote diverse rosters and repertory, and now has a network of more than 1,000 alumni, many holding positions throughout the industry.

Its annual competition, held in Detroit, continues to expand, giving young string players of color a chance to perform with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, seasoned musicians from around the country who gather for this event, and to compete for prize money and touring opportunities with leading orchestras; 23-year-old Njioma Grevious won this year's senior competition.

Nijoma Grevious, Winner, 2023 Sphinx Competition: It was, I mean, life-changing. It showed me that, even through all the struggles, that just keeping on believing was able to make this all possible for all of us on stage, and for me too.

Just the feeling of having that support, people who have shared in this experience that I have gone through, this journey, was very special and meaningful to me.

Jeffrey Brown: Grevious began playing the violin at age 4 and credits Boston-based Project STEP, another organization seeking to diversify classical music, with helping her with lessons, mentoring, and financial support.

She is a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, where we talked. At this level, she said, she met only a few other Black musicians.

Nijoma Grevious: Specifically, in terms of Black female violinists, I was the only one for quite some time while I was in my undergrad here. So it definitely has been a journey, a challenging journey in many ways. I have had a lot of support along the way, but it is sort of hard to ignore the lack thereof of us on the classical music stage.

Jeffrey Brown: And that's the continuing issue for Sphinx.

The Dworkins see enormous progress, but also a long way to go, with very high stakes for the classical field and the arts in general.

Afa Dworkin: The pitch to the orchestras is that it is existentially important. If orchestras wish to envision themselves as thriving today and five and 10 years from now, they ought to think about their audiences.

And they ought to think about who comprises the artistic collective that performs on the stage, and why it is important for that artistic collective to, in fact, reflect the community and be relevant to the community.

Aaron Dworkin: All of this work, the reality is, it requires resources.

And so the resource allocation in the nonprofit world in general, and especially in the arts world, has inherent disparities that are not just limiting. They literally can be destructive.

Jeffrey Brown: This is still a problem you see?


Aaron Dworkin: It is a massive problem. It absolutely still continues.

And until that dynamic shifts, then we will see an ongoing continuing struggle as it relates to diversity in the arts.

Jeffrey Brown: At Cesar Chavez Academy, the focus is on access as much as excellence. And, already, young Taniel Hernandez has decided he wants a life as a professional musician.

Taniel Hernandez: Music is my life. And I love it as much as I do -- as my mom.


Jeffrey Brown: Music is your life, and you love it as much as you love your mom?

Taniel Hernandez: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jeffrey Brown in Detroit.

Geoff Bennett: I can't wait to watch him perform on the big stage one day.

Amna Nawaz: Oh, we will be front row.

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