Detroit Is Changing the Classical Music Status Quo

The classical music industry is diversifying at a slower rate than other arts industries, with a historically Eurocentric culture. The Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, is focused on “increasing representation of Black and Latinx artists” in the classical music community. Members of Sphinx speak to the future of diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry. Cover graphic by Allison Jiang for Midstory.

For Andre Dowell, an epiphany about the classical music world hit him during his first performance as a percussion major at the University of Michigan. 

“At intermission, there were a group of four to five Black individuals who came to the edge of the stage. I didn’t know if I knew them, but they called me over and they said, ‘You’re the first Black musician I’ve seen on a classical stage,’” Dowell said.

Black musician representation in classical music — a world mired in Eurocentric tradition — has improved at a slower rate than that of any other racial or ethnic group, increasing by only 0.6% during the past decade. Less than 1% of the nation’s orchestral music programming includes music by a composer of color.

This climate of the classical music industry sparked a drive for change in Dowell. 

“That hit me a certain way. It wasn’t something that I had really thought about or really noticed. Even at that young age, I started getting involved in high schools and middle schools, teaching and educating. I thought that representation mattered … really trying to be an example and a role model,” Dowell said.

1998 Sphinx Competition semi-finalists with Aaron Dworkin, the founder of Sphinx. Image courtesy of Sphinx.

Today, he works as the chief of artist engagement at the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit based in Detroit and dedicated to “transform[ing] lives through the power of diversity in the arts,” according to their website.

In the last decade, classical music has been dedicating unprecedented attention to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at a national scale. But Sphinx has been hard at work since 1997.

While the organization is based in the Midwest, the successful promotion of diversity in executive music leadership and orchestra and ensemble rosters has earned Sphinx national recognition.

Perhaps most well-known is their National Sphinx Competition, which awards a first-place prize of $50,000 and career management benefits. This competition was founded to support talented Black and Latinx artists with internationally renowned mentorship and to promote their classical music career paths.

Sphinx has also expanded to offer pre-college summer programs that provide conservatory-style experiences and exposure for young artists. At Sphinx Performance Academy, musicians engage in masterclasses, musical studies classes, workshops and coachings at prestigious institutions like The Juilliard School and Cleveland Institute of Music.

Sphinx Virtuosi performs Valerie Coleman’s “Tracing Visions” (2022) at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The self-conducted chamber orchestra frequently performs works by modern composers of color. Footage courtesy of Sphinx.

“I’m very often the only person of color or the only Black person,” Nazeeh Shahid said, thinking back on his experiences at other summer programs. 

Shahid is a young violist from Chicago who participated in the Sphinx Performance Academy and was a finalist in the 2022 National Sphinx Competition’s junior division. He has been accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the nation’s most selective classical conservatory program. 

Nazeeh Shahid, violist, performing. Image courtesy of Nazeeh Shahid.

“By going to a chamber music camp that was just brown people, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s actually a lot of people [who] play.’ That kind of surprised me, because you look at all the orchestras and you literally just see white people,” Shahid said. 

“It’s really cool to see there are other people who are doing the same thing and have the same drive … instead of you being the only person,” he added.

The artist development department also includes customized support networks for Black and Latino artists. Sphinx’s National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) is an unprecedented initiative to increase diversity in American orchestras, in collaboration with the New World Symphony and the League of American Orchestras.

“[NAAS] is an avenue for financial support for musicians: to get lessons, to take auditions, help pay for flights or hotels. We’re really trying to make sure that the playing field is level for everyone in terms of the resources and the opportunities that we’re able to provide,” Dowell said.

While the audience’s focus may center around performer representation, Sphinx also boasts a robust executive leadership program: Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts & Diversity) is a two-year program for rising Black and Latinx art administrators.

“I was really unsure if I even wanted to stay in the field and how I wanted my career to progress, because there are unseen barriers for people of color in these organizations, Achia Floyd, a LEAD alumna and Director of Foundation Relations and Community at Sphinx, said. “It turns out I’m not the only leader that felt that way entering the program.”

Andre Dowell is the Chief of Artist Engagement at the Sphinx Organization. Image courtesy of Sphinx.
Achia Floyd is Director of Foundation Relations and Community at Sphinx. She was a part of the Sphinx LEAD program and is a classically trained flutist. Image courtesy of Sphinx.

Sphinx LEAD consists of a cohort that allows participants to interact with other administrators of color, and has a professional network to assist navigating the inner workings of an arts organization. 

“Publicized things have happened with arts administrators of color, specifically Black and Latino administrators who enter these arts organizations as executives … The board isn’t quite ready to have them or for them to create change,” Floyd said. “This program allows us to create that belonging together that is necessary for us to thrive in a field that doesn’t necessarily have the ability to provide yet.”

Looking forward, the classical music industry grapples with addressing a lack of minority representation within historically exclusionary structures and practices. That struggle is apparent in, for example, classical repertoire and programming. 

“It’s really only in the last five or seven years that we’re seeing really, really significant change based around what we’ve been doing for 20-odd years,” Floyd said.

The Sphinx LEAD program. Image courtesy of Sphinx.

Sphinx houses an extensive database of Black and Latinx compositions, largely a result of their efforts to annually commission works from composers of color. 

“It’s only been since the pandemic really that people have been calling for these works by Black and Latino composers,” Floyd said.

Floyd also noted that the structure of tenure reinforces the predominately white industry population, particularly in high-paying positions like conductors and board directors.

“I would love for orchestras to be like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna put a brown person in this position today.’ But without improving the equity around the contractual structure, it becomes difficult to improve diversity without punishing those who have been in the industry for many years,” he said.

While individual changes might seem slow, Sphinx prioritizes a collective approach.

“If you’re talking about an orchestra, it’s not just the staff. It’s not just the board members. It’s not just the members of the orchestra. And it’s not just the community. But it is the collective and everyone having that same shared vision for accountability,” Dowell said.

An important tool for diversification is in monitoring metrics, and being able to identify the goals for various sectors of the artistic organization.

For example, when hiring staff and board members, administrators can decide whether or not to hold themselves accountable to the board’s makeup.

On the performer’s side, blind auditions for orchestras are a common practice. But some are debating the equity of existing audition policies.

“That starts with the training of the musicians who are behind the panels: implicit [bias] and anti-racism training. I think that organizations need to think about how they are ensuring that their pool of musicians [is] diverse for whatever the open position is,” Dowell said.

As Sphinx continues to move forward, Floyd said they must work around the barriers of an industry that is only recently waking up to the necessity of diversifying the art form.

“It’s really not easy to create that change in framework especially when you have a very big call-out culture online and a culture that’s very unforgiving right now,” Floyd said.

Reframing the dialogue around diversity, equity, inclusion and access is a part of the next steps, according to Floyd. This means challenging the notion that established people in the industry need to give up something so minority artists can advance. 

“We have to figure out how to frame it in such a way that we are all benefiting. That’s not easy to do, especially in today’s societal climate,” Floyd said. “We’re not a monolith. We’re part of a bigger microcosm.”

Adé Williams, violinist, wins the 2012 Sphinx Competition junior division. Image courtesy of Sphinx.

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