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Overcoming the Cultural Stereotypes of Classical Music

The Sphinx Organization is helping change the face of classical music by creating opportunities for African Americans and Latinos.

In 1996 violinist Aaron Dworkin and educator Carrie Chester founded a non-profit to combat stereotypes and build diversity in classical music through year-round programming in arts education, awareness, and presentation. Their goals include increased Black and Latino participation in music schools, as professional musicians, and as classical music audiences.

“Growing up, I was always the only person who looked like me who was playing the violin. It was pretty isolating,” says From the Top alum and 2001 Sphinx Laureate Melissa White. Historically, only about one or two out of every 100 orchestra members have been Black or Latino.

“If you only permit one type of voice, one type of interpretation, it limited artistic vision, artistic excellence, the creativity that can be brought to our art form. By diversifying our classical music institutions our art form will evolve and that I think is a benefit to everyone,” Aaron Dworkin explains.

The Organization administers youth development initiatives in underserved communities and promotes the creation, performance and preservation of works by Black and Latino composers. This is accomplished through five areas: artist development, Sphinx Preparatory Music Institute, Sphinx Performance Academy, Sphinx Presents, and Sphinx Legacy Project. These programs provide various types of music education, intensive training, and performance opportunities for all ages. Sphinx has created educational opportunities, many free, for young people to find their musical voice.

In the 14 years since its inception, Sphinx has touched over 85,000 students in 200 schools nationwide, provided $300,000 worth of instruments to young minority musicians, and awarded $1.8 million in prizes and scholarships in the Sphinx Competition.

Many From the Top alums have participated in the annual Sphinx Competition. First and second place winners include Clayton Penrose-Whitmore (2008), Tony Rymer (2009), Khari Joyner (2009), Randall Goosby (2010), Xavier Foley (2011), and Alexandra Switala (2011).