Classical music needs more diversity — Sphinx Organization is working to make that a reality

Diversifying American Orchestras

Today, Black and Latino musicians make up around 5% of American orchestras. That number is almost triple what it was 25 years ago, but since Blacks and latinos make up 32% of the U.S. population, it’s still not nearly close to what an equitable representation would look like. 

This disparity didn’t happen by accident or overnight. It happened as a result of decades of discrimination and Black musicians being barred from performing in many orchestras. For most of American history, non-white musicians had to form their own ensembles, and it wasn’t until the forties and fifties that Black musicians began to get access to some of the most renowned orchestras. This legacy has left a lasting imprint on American classical music, and brought us to where we are today.

One organization working to boost diversity in the arts, specifically in classical music, is the Sphinx Organization. They believe that diversifying classical music is important not just to be equitable, but to truly ensure that classical music is performed and created by the most talented individuals out there, regardless of their race. “The minute we start speaking about diversity we somehow have to acquiesce to compromising artistic merit.” Sphinx President and Artistic Director Afa Dworkin said in an interview with Colorado Public Radio, “I think it’s time to do away with that false argument… in order for us (the classical music world) to be excellent, we have to be diverse.”

In the Sphinx Organization’s inaugural year of programming, they had 11 musicians of color come to Detroit and receive mentoring, participate in classes and the Sphinx competition. Looking back on the organization’s beginnings in 1998, Dworkin says, “It would be almost unheard of to think of an emerging soloist of color coming in front of an orchestra.” Now, the Sphinx Organization has a full orchestra made up of 18 top Black and Latino classical soloists that performs all over the country, including Carnegie Hall. They also provide music education to students of all ages, run full-scholarship summer programs, and many talented performance groups, including chamber, orchestral and vocal performers.

In 2016, the Sphinx Organization established the $50,000 “Robert Frederick Smith Prize,” which is given annually in January to a select group of winners of the Sphinx competition. About the partnership, Robert F. Smith said, “Music is at the core of the African-American and Latino cultural experience, and provides us with a language to inspire, uplift and empower our young people. I partnered with Sphinx to give this prize because Sphinx understands how music transforms lives and through its competition can recognize the very best musicians in the world.” 

Smith has often talked about the role that music has played in his upbringing, and believes that everyone should have the opportunity to experience art and music.

Classical music in the United States has largely been shaped by racism and a history of exclusionary practices, but organizations like the Sphinx Organization are helping create a more inclusive future for musicians of color.
Watch the 2020 Sphinx Finals Competition performance online and learn more about the Sphinx Organization. earn more about the Sphinx Organization, visit its website.