aaron_newGuest Commentary by Aaron Dworkin
Founder & President
The Sphinx Organization*

"The deepest defeat suffered by human beings is constituted by the difference between what one was capable of becoming and what one has in fact become." - Ashley Montagu

I have a bit of an unusual history.  My start might have made it challenging for anyone to determine what I might be capable of becoming. By any statistical norms, being born a bi-racial baby on September 11, 1970 to an un-wed white Irish Catholic mother and African-American Jehovah's Witness father in a small village of Monticello, NY, and being immediately given up for adoption did not necessarily set the stage for the highest expectations for my future capabilities. I was adopted, however, at the age of two weeks by a white Jewish couple, professors in neural and behavioral science at Rockefeller University, and given the too-rare gift of a fine education.

People ask me why I care so much about diversity and why I have dedicated my life to pursuits that further that end.  My response is: I am a Black, white Jewish, Irish Catholic Jehovah's Witness who plays the violin.  I am the definition of diversity.  I don't have a choice but to do what I do.

When I was five, my adoptive mother, who was an amateur violinist, inspired me to begin studying violin.  I remember sitting in Carnegie Hall at age 8, listening to Isaac Stern, and the impact that experience had on me.  However, I do not recollect seeing Sanford Allen around the same time.  Who, you might ask, is Sanford Allen?  In 1961, he was the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic in the orchestra's history.

As I continued to develop on my instrument, as the concertmaster of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony, student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, or concertmaster of the Penn State Philharmonic, I was either the only or one of less than a handful of minorities.

It was not until I was working on my degrees at the University of Michigan that I first learned that there were any Black composers.  I literally went into a lesson one day and my teacher asked if I had any interest in playing music by Black composers.  Completely shocked by his suggestion, I was to discover a rich plethora of works by William Grant Still, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and David N. Baker.  And it led me to question, why had no one told me of Joseph Boulogne St. George (an Afro-French contemporary of Mozart's) or George Polgreen Bridgetower, a well-known Black violin virtuoso, a friend of Beethoven's, who premiered his famous Kreutzer Sonata with him in 1803, and for whom Beethoven actually wrote the work?   Within the context of these questions and immersion in this newly discovered incredible music, combined with the lack of minorities that I would see in the audiences or on stage, I was led to found the Sphinx Organization.  Specifically, I envisioned an organization that would serve as an avenue through which one might bring attention and exposure to musicians and composers of color, both aspiring and established.  I saw Sphinx as a creative way to give voice to something that already existed, yet, remained unheard: decades of achievement in this field by those who had paved the path before my generation, like Sanford Allen, Dominique Rene De Lerma (one of the foremost musicologists and experts on composers of color), and Willis Patterson (acclaimed African-American vocalist and founder of the Symposia on African-Americans in Arts and Education).  I saw myself as one whose responsibility it was to make a difference.

In 1996, I found that the state of diversity in the field was alarming: Blacks and Latinos comprised less than three percent of American orchestras.  In launching Sphinx, I began to formulate its ethos and define what it would stand for: advancing diversity in all phases of classical music, and providing unprecedented opportunities for talented young people of color in the field.

Today, Blacks and Latinos comprise only slightly above 4% of our orchestras combined.  To give a further sense of the current scene, one must also look deeper, beyond the musicians: minority representation in the administrations of our orchestras boast a depressing statistical zero  The same statistic is true for works by composers of color performed today by American orchestras.  Our music schools and youth orchestras are faced with similar statistics, and our audiences are dwindling rapidly.  This lack of opportunity sits within a paltry level of public support for the arts: in a comparative survey, Germany's per capita spending on the arts is 2%, France's is 1%, the UK spends .8%, while the US allocates a woeful .5%.

Despite minimal public support, music has played a pivotal role in the lives of leaders of social movements throughout history.  During the Civil Rights Movement, there were marchers with "battle" hymns.  Frederick Douglass, the great statesman and freedom fighter leading the abolitionist movement, played the violin, as did his son; and his grandson, Joseph Douglass, was the first Black violinist to tour nationally and internationally.  Classical composers were encouraged to write revolutionary songs, such as La Marseillaise, composed by Claude Rouget de Lisle, inspired by Mozart's Piano Concerto No 25.

Recently, we have been able to bring about the beginnings of change: young musicians of color have been appearing as soloists in front of major orchestras 20 times each year for the past decade; the number of Blacks in top tier orchestras has doubled in the last decade; over two million annually are able to hear the Sphinx musicians through television and radio broadcasts.  However, this impact must merely be the beginning.  We have a long road ahead of us.

Borrowing ideas from the great Martin Luther King, Jr., "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.... History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people... Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."  Together, these words depict the very essence of responsibility that we hope to instill upon our young artists and all those who believe in advancing the mission of Sphinx.  I submit to you: this work we do matters!

 


*The mission of the Sphinx Organization is to increase the participation of Blacks and Latinos in music schools, as professional musicians, as classical music audiences and to enhance K-12 music education.

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