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Bringing Classical Music to Underserved Youth

Aaron Dworkin, Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, works to increase access to music education and foster the development of young artists of tomorrow.

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.


This week’s experience of meeting and exchanging ideas with a variety of arts and cultural leaders in the country was enriching, eye-opening and exciting. Having the White House serve as the avenue and catalyst for such a conversation was both poignant and encouraging. At a time when arts funding is in great scarcity and music and arts education in public schools is becoming extinct, having these issues brought to light on the highest level by great luminaries in the field is particularly empowering. I was not only moved by the insightful perspectives shared by fellow champions, but also, further inspired to continue my own efforts in issues of equity in access and diversity.

I serve as Founder and President for the international Sphinx Organization, whose mission it is to provide unprecedented access to music education among underserved youth, as well as to build diversity in classical music. Headquartered in Detroit, a legendary historic cultural landmark, Sphinx has satellite offices in New York, Chicago and London. Through its educational efforts, Sphinx reaches approximately 30,000 youth throughout the country. Our main educational grassroots initiative, The Sphinx Preparatory Music Institute, serves underserved youth in Detroit, with a track record of 100% high school graduation rate (compared to 30% graduation rate in Detroit Public Schools). When I launched Sphinx 15 years ago, nationally, Blacks and Latinos each represented approximately 1.5% of American orchestras (dramatically disproportionate to their population representation). Today, as a result of our consistent efforts, the numbers are nearly doubled. We see this as positive change, while recognizing the magnitude of work is ahead of us. Through Sphinx’s flagship program, its national competition for young Black and Latino string players, we foster the development of young artists of tomorrow, many of whom will join the ranks of orchestras, serve as faculty of music schools and dedicate themselves to solo and chamber music performance.

Music by composers of color represents less than 1% of repertoire performed by America’s orchestras. In addressing our mission to change that, Sphinx came together with 10 like-minded orchestras to launch the national Sphinx Commissioning Consortium, which is committed to commissioning a work by a composer of color annually. Prior to Sphinx’s existence, a solo appearance by a young artist of color was virtually unheard of: today, a Sphinx artist has the opportunity to perform with a professional orchestra 20 times a year. Each year, Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber ensemble, comprised of top alumni of the Sphinx Competition, gives a performance at the legendary Carnegie Hall, with rave reviews from the New York Times. This ensemble champions diverse repertoire not only at Carnegie, but venues across the country during its annual national tour. Sphinx has also launched other chamber groups, like the acclaimed Harlem and Catalyst Quartets. The professional Sphinx Symphony, comprised of professional musicians of color serve as mentors for our younger generation of artists.

With over 2 million in annual broadcast audiences, Sphinx looks forward to continuing its efforts of ensuring access to music education and diversifying the field of classical music. However, none of this work or our progress is possible or sustainable without the support of other champions and every member of our great society. It takes everyone being a leader, a champion, a catalyst, to create, sustain and propel any lasting change.

Aaron P. Dworkin is the Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, the leading national arts organization that focuses on youth development and diversity in classical music.