Sphinx, Project STEP, and Community of Strings Tackle Diversity in the String World

By Karen Peterson

2016 Sphinx Medals of Excellence awardees: Gabriel Cabezas, standing, Laura Downes, seated left, and Julia Bullock, seated right.
2016 Sphinx Medals of Excellence awardees: Gabriel Cabezas, standing, Laura Downes, seated left, and Julia Bullock, seated right.

Encouraging diversity—one step, one concert, one community at a time

More than a generation ago, the number of black and Hispanic performers in American orchestras barely broke 2 percent of the total. Today that figure is 4.3 percent, according to the League of American Orchestras.

Not much of a numerical gain, agree organizations that have persevered over the decades to create a more diverse world in classical music.

The development of the CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship was about fostering a community that reflects and accepts those who have been, to date, underrepresented in the classical landscape.

But the still-low numbers aren’t deterring those invested in the idea of diversity, nor are advocates disheartened over what tends to be true about the nature of societal change: It takes time and concerted effort. And it tends to start with providing necessary educational opportunities to students at a young age.

The following organizations are committed to serving as these kinds of vital resources.

Project STEP
“We don’t look at figures. We look at the work we do,” says Javier Caballero, cellist and artistic director of Boston-based Project STEP. “We’re in it for the long run. We’re committed to it, however long it takes.”

Founded in 1982 by the personnel manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Project STEP is the country’s longest-running youth organization dedicated to racial balance. It provides rigorous, vigorous, and classically based music education for underrepresented black, Hispanic, and Native-American K–12 students. (The organization is affiliated with the BSO, but has no inside track on auditions and receives no financial support from the orchestra.)


A point of pride: 100 percent of the students from its core music program have gone on to colleges or conservatories, such as Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music.

“This is about social justice, absolutely,” says executive director Mary S. Jaffee of the organization’s work. “We want to continue to increase those numbers so that there are no barriers to anyone wanting to go into classical music as a profession. What we are doing is necessary and transformative”— including the emphasis on exposing students to composers outside “the Three B” canon of classical music (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms).

There is also the acceptance of the “new normal.” Today, unlike 30 years ago, the end goal is not necessarily to land what has increasingly become scant: a permanent orchestral position. “There are so many career options in the classical world,” says Caballero. “Through music we are training students in concepts of excellence: hard work, perseverance, and discipline, and our goal is to give them the tools to pursue excellence” in whatever field they choose: orchestral, chamber, or solo performance.

The Sphinx Organization
“The numbers may seem small, but steps have been large,” says Sphinx Organization president and artistic director Afa S. Dworkin, referring to the success of Sphinx in directing the spotlight to the talents of underrepresented players since the launch of the Sphinx Competition nearly two decades ago. At the competition’s start, “the idea of a young musician of color as a soloist was unheard of. Now it happens 20-plus times a year,” Dworkin says, in large part due to what the organization pursues beyond the music itself: relationships within the classical-music world, including those with 30 orchestras.

Now gearing up for Sphinx’s 20th anniversary, Dworkin adds, “While the momentum [for change] has been great, could it be greater? Yes, and that’s what the next 20 years will be about.”

Based in Detroit and founded by violinist Aaron Dworkin, Sphinx has commanded the stage for racial diversity through educational outreach programs in Detroit and Flint elementary schools—which include free violins for players—and through its premier event, the highly competitive, highly regarded Sphinx Competition, as well as a myriad of other performance-based opportunities, some of which find the aspiring young musicians playing for audiences at Carnegie Hall and Miami’s New World Symphony Center.


These organizations are creating a kind of pathway to a classical-music career for string players of color, supporting musicians from the early stages of their development.

And, just as the work to date has been an effort to promote, as Dworkin describes it, “social justice through music education,” the Sphinx Organization is taking its commitment to change to the next key level: jobs. With the goal of becoming a true “conduit” to the classical world, Sphinx is preparing to roll out Sphinx Connect in 2017, a job fair of stellar proportions that would connect the dots from emerging musicians of color to professional musicians of color. “The idea is to be more involved in the development end,” says Dworkin, with, among other highlights, career development workshops that would include basics from resume writing to preparing for an audition.

Also in the works for summer 2017: a global symposium on diversity in classical music to be held in the UK and featuring London Music Masters, a charity that supports young musicians and calls on outreach “ambassadors,” including violinists Anthony Marwood and Tai Murray, and the Chineke! Foundation. Founded by double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku—“a dear friend and colleague,” says Dworkin—the organization is dedicated to racial diversity and has created Chineke!, the UK’s first all-black orchestra.

Cincinnati’s Community of Strings
When Peter Landgren first met with Trey Devey, president of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2011, the discussion was initially about “experiential learning opportunities,” says Landgren, who, at the time, had just arrived as the new dean of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM).

But the conversation quickly turned to diversity, with the two brainstorming how they could address, together, “a national problem,” says Landgren—orchestras that do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. “None of them do,” he says, including Cincinnati, where African Americans make up 44.8 percent of the population. The CSO has one black member, assistant principal cellist Norman E. Johns, who joined the symphony more than 40 years ago. (The 2014 season marked the 20th anniversary of the Norman E. Johns Chair Award, a scholarship awarded to minority musicians that pays for their Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra tuition.)


The solution crafted after that first discussion is the newly launched CSO/CCM Diversity Fellowship for string players who have been or are pursuing a college degree. Funded for four years through a $900,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the fellowship provides scholarships, stipends, and opportunities to play with the CSO—with compensation. In April, CSO and CCM announced the first five of ten total fellows, who will graduate after two years with either a master’s degree or an artist diploma from CCM. While eligibility is broader than that of either Project STEP or Sphinx—not only are members of underrepresented racial groups considered but also first-generation college students—the selection process is as tough as any professional audition. Out of 72 initial applicants who auditioned in January and February of 2016, 12 were asked to return for the final round in February.

The next and final fellow selections begin August 1 of this year. After the funding runs out, the two organizations will look at the data from the pilot program and pursue a long-term solution for keeping it alive, aided by consultant Aaron Dworkin. As Landgren describes, the development of the fellowship was based not only on need. It was about fostering a community that reflects and accepts those who have been, to date, underrepresented in the classical landscape.

“We want them to be able to see themselves as full members” of the classical community, says Landgren. “If people don’t see themselves as part of an organization, they’re not going to be drawn to it.”

These organizations are creating a kind of pathway to a classical-music career for string players of color, supporting musicians from the early stages of their development through to making vital contacts with professional ensembles. “You start with a generation and go from there,” says Project STEP’s Caballero.

He adds, wistfully, “It would be an ideal world if the numbers someday matched the US Census.”