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Secret of the Sphinx: Bringing Music to Minorities

February 28, 2012

Of course, there was the music, but it was also the summer she first fell in love. In Lima, Peru, in the middle of August 2003. His name was Ernesto. They both played the viola in the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. He played third tier, she played principal. He, from Lima; she, from North Royalton, Ohio. He couldn’t speak much English; she couldn’t speak much Spanish. But under the circumstances, what difference could that possibly make? Jennifer and Ernesto, playing Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and Strauss’ Don Juan and Till Eulenspeigel.

To standing ovations, encore after encore. People lined up for blocks trying to buy a ticket. They were at the top of the world.

Randall Goosby on violin and Gabriel Cabezas on cello at the Sphinx Virtuosi competition at Carnegie HallAnd it was that summer — in a 105-member orchestra with musicians between 12 and 25 years old, playing 16 concerts in eight countries — that Jennifer learned three things about how “America” is seen in Latin America. Ernesto as much as anyone taught her that, even with the language differences. Those things were that America seems obsessed with interfering in the business of other countries. And America is rich beyond compare. And America is white.

Jennifer Arnold, who was 22 that summer, is black.

Incidentally, Arnold is having a fabulous career, and now, at 31, plays in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony. She’s also on the faculty of the Community Music Center in Portland, and on the faculty of the Alfredo Saint-Malo Music Festival of Panama, and the Sphinx Performance Academies in Oberlin and Chicago. On and on.

She is also a former member of the Akron Symphony, the Cleveland Pops Orchestra, the Youngstown Symphony, and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, she was a three-time semi-finalist in the Sphinx Competition, which provided the scholarship for her to join the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in 2003.

Connecting Through Classical Music

Aaron DworkinIf you don’t know about Sphinx, it’s a 15-year-old nonprofit organization founded in Detroit by Aaron Dworkin and Carrie Chester. It is a breakthrough, by any measure — at once a bridge between minority communities, particularly black and Latino communities, and the classical music establishment and also an ever-expanding network that allows graduates to find a variety of opportunities and build careers.

Since the organization started, Sphinx has reached 85,000 students in 200 schools. They’ve provided $1,825,000 in prizes and scholarships. And alumni have received full scholarships to top conservatories, including Juilliard and the Cleveland Institute of Music.

The program is open both to those who come to summer camps and are not motivated to play classical music (but may be motivated in the future) and those already on a journey. The 2012 winner of the 15th Annual Sphinx competition in the senior division — he also won the Audience Choice Award — is 19-year-old Gabriel Cabezas. He was already on a journey, and had been playing the cello for nearly 10 years when he came to Sphinx in 2006. And won the junior competition that year. His heritage is Costa Rican.

Cabezas says he has always been attracted to the need for diversity: “In the same way you see diversity at a college or among a group of lawyers, the dream at Sphinx is to see that diversity in classic music.”

Sphinx is at once a bridge between minority communities and the classical music establishment, and also an ever-expanding network.

And so you wonder why Sphinx isn’t in every large city in America. It may be, one day. But the problem in the meantime is that it’s a nonprofit during a recession. And, of course, this kind of outreach demands enormous time and patience.

“The task is daunting, and change has been slow,” explains Afa Sadykhly, the organization’s programming and artistic director. “Fifteen years ago blacks and Latinos comprised 3.2 percent of American orchestras; now it’s 4.2 percent. In the top-tier orchestras, the number of black musicians has doubled. It’s encouraging to see a change, but at the same time, it’s slow.”

And why is it slow? It’s the ever-so-uncertain matter of drawing out, say, a quiet and reserved 16-year-old girl living with her sister — her parents are “out of the picture” — and then getting her to a performance academy where she can develop her interest in the cello. You give her inspiration, build her motivation, strengthen her confidence, and hope it’s enough. And often it is.

Taking the Time

Catalyst QuartetChristopher Jenkins is a founding member of the Catalyst Quartet, a premiere Sphinx ensemble, and has played in the Sphinx Symphony. He is also Dean of the Sphinx Performance Academy at Oberlin and Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

“One of the reasons that Sphinx works,” he says, “is that there are very few organizations in this country that can go into places like Flint, Michigan, with high-quality musicians who also know how to talk to kids. The truth is that outreach is not always effective. There are many youth orchestras, but few survive. It’s different at Sphinx; the staff is mostly African-American and Latino, and these people know the contact points in communities. That’s what’s crucial: knowing where to start and who to talk to.”

You give her inspiration, build her motivation, strengthen her confidence, and hope it’s enough. And often it is.

“It’s a lot easier if someone looks like they can relate you,” Jennifer Arnold told me. “And in, let’s say, one of the black neighborhoods in East Cleveland, people don’t see musicians that play classical music who look like them.”

Arnold, herself, grew up in the suburbs west of Cleveland. She was one of two African-Americans in a high school of some 1,500 students. Her parents are both accomplished professionals; indeed, her mother got to college on a music scholarship. “She played the viola,” says Jennifer, “and she would be the first to tell you that she didn’t play that well, but she stayed with it and she played well enough to get into college.”

In her role as a teacher of young kids Jennifer says that she tries to encourage the notion that music is not only “a ticket out,” much the way sports is often thought to be, but it’s a language, with a value all its own.

“Playing music teaches you discipline, goals, and the value of striving for something. As a young musician, you’re always working toward something, toward learning the next piece of music or putting on a performance for your family.”

And there’s something else.

“We live in a culture where kids are encouraged to do a lot of things, but often they’re not the best at any one thing. I think when you play an instrument, and when you really devote yourself to it, it often becomes that one thing that you do well. You may not be the best, but even if you are just good, that’s a great source of empowerment. And it’s also a way to make something your own. I can talk to a student about how to do something, but I can’t play their instrument for them. And so when they play, that ability and the music becomes theirs.

“And this is something I tell students: ‘If you practice playing the violin enough, you can reach a level where you can make some money for college. You may not be a soloist in an orchestra, but you can play at weddings and parties, other gigs, and you’ll make more money in an afternoon than you’ll make working for a week at McDonald’s.’”

Turning the Tide: Classical for Everyone

Jennifer ArnoldArnold says that she has never experienced a hate crime, or overt racism, but she has walked into a competition, particularly when she was much younger, and seen the face of a judge, or perhaps someone in the audience looking at her in a certain way.

“As if they assumed I would play like crap. And then I would play and they would see my talent. But there was definitely a feeling of being prejudged.”

But now perhaps even the prejudgments are beginning to fade. And while Sphinx may be making slow headway to expose young children to the many benefits of classical music, its graduates have made a stunning impact, as teachers and as musicians in orchestras, quartets, chamber groups, and opera companies.

“I think it’s finally reaching the point,” says Arnold, “where seeing minorities playing classical music is not weird. It’s no longer a big deal. There are a ton of us now and our visibility is growing all the time. It may seem like a small thing, but in the last 10 years the Metropolitan Opera has hired three black musicians, all wind players.”

Of those nights in Lima, Jennifer Arnold will always remember the concert on August 9, 2003. She kept a careful record. “We had just come in after performing in Rosario, Argentina, with a travel day to Lima. The night of the 8th we performed at the Auditorio Santa Ursula with Christopher Wilkins. The audience was packed. And these were not just wealthy people, they were from every class.

“After every piece there was a standing ovation. We performed the Peruvian National Anthem and people were in tears. I’ve never received such enthusiasm from an audience in one concert. We played three encores because they wouldn’t stop clapping. I truly felt at that moment that we were giving these people a moment away from their daily lives, and that the music was honestly healing.”

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair.  Recent pieces for San Francisco Classical Voice include profiles of San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink, and the great violinist, Midori; along with essays on Teddy Abrams’s effort to build political bridges with music and Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast.