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Aaron P. Dworkin Biography - Embraced Music as an Early Escape, Love of Classical Led to Launch of Sphinx

told michigan times detroit

1970—

Violinist, organization leader

Dworkin, Aaron, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos.

From the first time he heard a violin, Aaron P. Dworkin has been in love with classical music. He attended a prestigious music academy and earned a master's degree in music. He swooned over orchestral performances and gave several of his own. Yet, there was something wrong. He told the New York Times that of all the musical situations he had been in, from rehearsals to performances, "I was either the only minority or one of less than a handful." Dworkin decided to change this statistic by launching the Sphinx Organization. In under a decade the group has helped open up classical music to thousands of minorities and has made diversity a reality in orchestras around the nation. Sphinx's success is due in large part to Dworkin's spirit. A top administrator from Dworkin's alma mater, the University of Michigan, recalled to the Michigan Difference, "One of Aaron's professors told me, 'I've taught more advanced musicians than Aaron Dworkin, but I never taught someone who changed the world."

Embraced Music as an Early Escape

Aaron Paul Dworkin was born on September 11, 1970, in Monticello, New York, and promptly given up for adoption. Two weeks later, Barry and Susan Dworkin, white, neuroscience professors from Manhattan, adopted him. Dworkin reunited with his birth parents, Vaughn and Audeen Moore, an inter-racial couple from upstate New York, in 2001. "It was the kind of experience music was created for," Dworkin told People Weekly. "I couldn't express it in words." It was Dworkin's adoptive mother, an amateur violinist, who introduced him to classical music. He told the New York Times that the first time he heard her play Bach, he was hooked. "I just loved it and I picked it up right away."

When Dworkin was ten, his family moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania. "There was only one black family," he told People Weekly. "I got Racial Issues 101, with a heavy dose of ostracism. I used music to escape." Dworkin pursued classical violin with a passion and for the final two years of high school attended the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. "[It] literally saved my life, because in Hershey I'd been on a downward spiral," he told the Metro Times. "I was a young kid with a huge Afro; I was black, yet I had an older brother who's white; and in the school system, I played the violin. It was too strange for most people."

After graduating from Interlochen, Dworkin returned home and enrolled in Pennsylvania State University to study business. He also served as concertmaster for the Penn State Philharmonic. After financial strains forced him to withdraw he decided to move to Michigan where he married Carrie, a student he had met at Interlochen. In Michigan Dworkin worked a variety of jobs in sales and marketing. He landed in non-profit administration and eventually founded Jumpstart, a homeless organization. It was not easy. "We spent years with pretty rough times," Dworkin told People Weekly. "Poverty, getting evicted. But I also got experience with nonprofits."

Love of Classical Led to
Launch of Sphinx

Drawn back to music, Dworkin enrolled in the University of Michigan and earned a bachelor's degree in violin in 1997 and a master's degree in music the following year. He got the idea for Sphinx while attending orchestral concerts at Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium. "I'd see no minorities on the stage," he told the Detroit News. "I wondered why there should be no place for minorities in classical music, something that was very important to me—something I loved." Around the same time Dworkin also came across the work of African-American composer William Grant Still. "I was upset with myself," he told the New Crisis. "I thought, how could I not have known about this music? And had I known, what motivation might it have given me, and how much more focused might I have been?"

Dworkin told the New York Times, "So, out of that came this idea of how to increase the representation of minorities in the audience and onstage, and I thought a competition would be a good vehicle." Dworkin drew up his plan and named it the Sphinx Organization after the mythical Egyptian figure which for many represents the African continent. For Dworkin the Sphinx also represented a mystery which he equated with music. "Like the Sphinx, it is up to the beholder, the listener, to interpret and appreciate from the music what is ultimately a reflection of internal emotions and spiritual experiences," noted the Sphinx Web site.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Dworkin sent an appeal to James Wolfensohn, then-president of the World Bank. Wolfensohn replied with a personal note and a check for $10,000. Dworkin raised another $70,000 to get the competition off the ground. A spokesman for Texaco, an early corporate sponsor, told the Detroit Free Press, "The quality of Aaron's leadership was very impressive. He had such a clear plan, knew what the need was and knew how to have an impact."

Built Community for
Minority Classical Musicians

The first Sphinx competition was held in 1996. Open to African-American and Latino classical string players from junior high school through college, the competition brought 18 semi-finalists in two categories—junior and senior—to Michigan each year. Three from each group were chosen laureates, ranked from one to three. They received financial stipends as well as guest appearances with prominent orchestras. In addition all semi-finalists received scholarships, musical training, and if needed, the one-year loan of a high-quality instrument. Professional development was offered from renowned musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "Most kids who grow up in urban environments don't have the resources to pay for those kinds of teachers," Dworkin told Strings Magazine.

At a Glance …

Born in 1970, in Monticello, NY; married Carrie Dworkin, 1997 (divorced 2003); children: Noah. Education : University of Michigan, BM, violin, 1997; University of Michigan, MM, music, 1998.

Career: Sphinx Organization, Detroit, MI, founder, executive director, 1996–.

Memberships: University Musical Society, Ann Arbor, MI, board member; Walnut Hill School, Natick, MA, board of visitors; ArtServe Michigan, board of directors; MetLife Awards for Excellence in Community Engagement, panelist; Alternative Strings Awards, advisory board.

Awards: University of Michigan, African-American Alumni Council, 5 Under 10 Award, 2002; New Detroit, Close the Gap Award, 2003; Detroit News, Michiganian of the Year, 2003; Black Entertainment Television (BET), History Makers in the Making, 2003.

Addresses: Office—Sphinx Organization, 400 Renaissance Center, Suite 2120, Detroit, MI 48243.

"The competition was like camp—it was so much fun. I pretty much forgot it was a competition the second I got there, because everyone was so nurturing and supportive," 2003 junior winner, Elena Urioste told the Michigan Difference. That the competition is more like a convention is by design. "I'm actually not a fan of competitions," Dworkin told Strings Magazine. "Often times, you demotivate more people than you motivate." Sphinx motivates, building a community where there was none before. "I can't express how it is to learn that you're not alone, that there are other African Americans your age doing the same thing," 2002 senior division winner Patrice Jackson told the New York Times.

Sphinx has done more than build solidarity among young minorities in classical music. It has also provided a bridge to the world of the professional orchestra. For each competition, Dworkin brings together a group of professional minority musicians from around the nation to form the Sphinx Symphony. The musicians offer mentoring and accompany the laureates during the finals. "It's our mission to build a sense of peer group and to give the players a sense through the Sphinx Symphony that there was a generation of pioneers before them. That this is a world they belong to," Dworkin told the Detroit Free Press.

Drove Orchestras to
Build Diversity

The driving vision that motivated Dworkin to found Sphinx was a world in which classical music reflected cultural diversity. "A big goal of ours is to increase the numbers across the board, in audiences and in orchestras and in music schools and faculty, and hopefully, potentially as a soloist," he told the New York Times. When Dworkin started the organization there were just a handful of minority musicians in the nation's professional orchestras. As of 2005 the figure was still dismal—less than 3 percent of all orchestral members nationwide, or just one or two minorities per 80-member orchestra. Not only has this problem been vexing for minority musicians, it has also been of concern to orchestras who want their membership to better reflect the social makeup of society.

"Orchestras have traditionally insisted that the minority talent simply wasn't out there," Dworkin told the Detroit News. "And now at least they're saying, 'Yes, the talent's there but we're not seeing those musicians at our auditions.' Getting these kids spotlighted in front of the orchestras is going to change all that." The connections the kids make with Sphinx Symphony members help, as does the guest performances with professional orchestras. "I'd never have imagined I'd play with the Boston Pops or the National Symphony in DC," 2002 junior winner Gareth Johnson told People Weekly. "The experience of performing with an orchestra is both invaluable and very hard to get," Dworkin told Strings Magazine. "It makes them infinitely better musicians and acclimates them to life in an orchestra." Dworkin predicted that Sphinx alumni would start auditioning for spots on professional orchestras by 2006.

Dworkin has highlighted another essential element in the diversification of classical music—the need for young people to embrace the music in the first place. Cultural factors have long pushed minority youth towards pop, rap, or hip-hop music. Classical has been considered the bastion of wealthy, white patrons. To counter that, Sphinx created Musical Encounters, an inner-city music program which sends Sphinx laureates into underprivileged schools to perform and meet the students. "We ask our kids to go back to their communities and be ambassadors for the music—to play in church concerts, play in local community concerts, play for friends, etc.," Dworkin told the Metro Times. "Because the same thing that sparked them to start is what's going to happen when they play."

Instruments Poised for
More Success

In January of 2005 Sphinx held its eighth competition. By that time Dworkin and crew had established artistic partnerships with 25 professional symphonies, 16 music academies, and scores of professional classical musicians. Five major universities, including the Julliard School, had created scholarship programs in conjunction with Sphinx. In addition, the competition had given way to the development of musical outreach programs, recital series, and mentoring programs, potentially reaching tens of thousands of minority youth nationwide. "What the Sphinx Competition is doing couldn't possibly be more important," Guillermo Figueroa, music director of the Puerto Rico and New Mexico Symphony Orchestras, told The Detroit News.

Yet Dworkin recognized that there was still a long way to go. Though Sphinx's budget had grown from an initial $80,000 to $1.5 million by 2004, thanks in large part to corporate sponsorships, the whole program could be jeopardized if even one major sponsor pulled out. To counter that, Dworkin announced plans to seek a $20 million endowment to assure the program's future. Kenneth C. Fischer, president of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, did not doubt Dworkin could do it. "He's irresistible," he told the Detroit News. "He simply doesn't take no for an answer. He's an inspiration to anybody in any kind of arts organization. You see what vision and persistence and hard work can accomplish."

Dworkin has been the feature of a documentary called Breaking the Sound Barrier and has garnered numerous awards including a 2003 nod from Black Entertainment Television (BET) as a History Maker in the Making. He was looking forward to seeing that history made. Dworkin, who has recorded two CDs and published a book of poetry, told People Weekly, "My hope is that one day nobody makes a big deal about hiring a minority classical musician. I hope there's no need for a Sphinx Organization and I can go off to write poetry and play my violin."

Selected works

Albums

Ebony Rhythm, Ethnovibe Records.

Bar-talk, Ethnovibe Records.

Books

They Said I Wasn't Really Black, Ethnovibe Publishing, 1999.

Sources

Periodicals

Detroit Free Press, February 6, 2002; January 25, 2005.

Detroit News, February 15, 2003; February 17, 2004; January 22, 2005.

People Weekly, November 22, 2004.

New York Times, March 3, 2002.

New Crisis, September/October 2002.

On-line

"Behind the Sphinx," Metro Times, www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=4628 (February 22, 2005).

"Changing the Face of Classical Music," Michigan Difference, www.giving.umich.edu/leadersbest/fall2004/classical.htm (February 22, 2005).

"Mystery of the Sphinx," Metro Times, www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=4626 (February 22, 2005).

"The Sphinx Stands Alone," Strings Magazine, http://stringsmagazine.com/issues/strings107/coverstory.html (February 22, 2005).

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from www.sphinxmusic.org.

—Candace LaBalle

Wilma Dykeman Biography [next]

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