Clayton Penrose-Whitmore was 12-years-old the first time he made the trek to Detroit to compete in the Sphinx Competition.
The Evanston, Ill. native, now 23, had heard about the annual strings competition — open to African-American and Latino players — from his violin instructor. Attending the Sphinx Competition served as a subtle revelation: Penrose-Whitmore, who had become accustomed to being the only Black violin player among his peers, was now surrounded by people who looked like him and shared similar experiences.
“[There] was an unspoken understanding throughout the competition of community,” said Penrose-Whitmore in a phone interview. Nearly a decade after his Sphinx experience, he emerged from the 2014 competition with a second place prize in the Senior Division.
Annelle Gregory, like Penrose-Whitmore, first heard about Sphinx when she was 12 or 13, through a family friend. Now, she’s 21. Over the years she came closer and closer to nabbing the top prize, until this year, when she was named champion.
“It was very rewarding for me to be named the winner this year,” she wrote in an email, “having been through every other placement in the competition previously.”
The Sphinx Organization, which runs the competition, is a Detroit-based organization dedicated to increasing the diversity of top-tier string players across the country. The inaugural competition was held in 1998, but the organization, the brainchild of Aaron Dworkin, then a student in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (where he is now the dean), began earlier. Dworkin noticed an acute lack of diversity in the upper echelons of classical music performance — which would deter young minorities from taking up classical music — and decided to address it.
Afa Dworkin, now the Executive Director of the Sphinx Organization, first learned about Sphinx through Aaron, her then classmate.
“We spoke at length about why he felt something like this was necessary at the time,” she revealed over the phone, “and while it seemed laudable at the beginning, and while it seemed like a wonderful idea, there was nothing like actually meeting the first cohort of musicians and just recognizing the depth of talent and of need that was out there.”
Dworkin joined Sphinx in 1999 as the organization’s first intern, working on the programmatic team, developing the curriculum, scholarships, partnerships and the programs around the competition. The experience was illuminating.
“At the same time when I was recognizing how much talent there is in the pool of the musicians that are working,” she said. “I realized how little opportunity there is and how much work there is in order to connect the talent with the resources that are out there.”
When the Sphinx Competition began, Blacks and Latinos each comprised less than 1.5 percent of the talent in the top tiers of classical orchestra performance. Now, thanks in large part to Sphinx and programs for which it has served as inspiration and catalyst, that number is up to 4.6 percent. But, Dworkin said, the inaugural competition revealed that the problems underlying the lack of diversity in the most prestigious orchestras ran deep. Students need to start playing at a very young age, and when schools only begin to teach music to 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds, they’ve already passed a critical point.
Danielle Belen, who won the 2008 Competition and has gone on to serve on the competition’s jury and teach some of Sphinx’s programs, agrees. She considers herself lucky because her parents believed music was a critical component of early education. But she admits that her experience is not universal.
“Most parents are not geared that way,” she said. It is here where Sphinx can fill in the gap. Sphinx has been stitching classical music into the lives of African-American and Latino students at an earlier and earlier age where public schools are lacking.
Sphinx quickly began to develop preparatory programs for students after school and a “boot camp” over the summer. The programs combined access and education so that playing classical music was achievable to all students. Costs, too, were not lost on Sphinx, which has built numerous scholarships and grants over the decades and has awarded about $2.5 million to date.
Belen has been on the receiving end of Sphinx’s help. After her win, Belen was invited to perform with various orchestras, including the Cleveland Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and the Boston Pops, among others.
“It was a whirlwind of a year,” she said in the phone interview. Belen has also won two different awards, amounting to $55,000, which she used to fund scholarships at a summer festival she started.
One of Sphinx’s larger mechanisms for financial support is the MPower Artist Grant, which is open to alumni of various Sphinx programs. The average award is $25,000, according to Sphinx’s website.
After her win, Belen began to focus on education, building connections and teaching at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, then in the Violin Department at the University of Michigan.
“Sphinx has always been there, always along the way, providing support,” she said.
Sphinx’s commitment to networking within the classical music community, an ever-important role in the field, is manifested in a more recent development, Sphinx Connect — “our epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity,” Dworkin said — which helps players network to find openings in a field notorious for its competition for opportunities. At the center of Sphinx Connect is a yearly convention for musicians. This past year, over 500 people attended from across the world. Sphinx Connect continues throughout the year by hosting webinars, contributing to a mentor network that serves as a “true conduit” for rising musicians to an industry increasingly attuned to the necessity of inclusion.
The Sphinx Organization also runs a litany of educational programs. One is Sphinx Overture, which provides free introductory lessons to Detroit and Flint students. The Sphinx Performance Academy is a full-scholarship summer program for solo instrumentalists to hone their craft. Not to be limited by geography, Classical Connections assists teachers in incorporating classical music into classrooms across the country.
As the Sphinx Competition approaches its 20th birthday, Dworkin looked back at the organization’s progress.
“There’s been a transformative impact,” she said, not only indicated by the experiences of musicians the organization has affected. “But also the field being so much more responsive and connected” to the organization’s work. When orchestras and institutions try to confront their own lack of diversity, Sphinx often serves as an exemplary model.
Sphinx’s direct impact is also substantial. There are over 600 alumni of the organization and two million people are reached each year through live and broadcast audiences.
Not to mention, Sphinx’s extraordinary musical achievements amount to the final word in a skeptic’s debate over whether exceptional talent existed in enough Latino and African-American players to justify the program. That doubt, abundantly disproven at this point, had cast a shadow over Sphinx as it began, but by now concerns have largely dissipated.
“[Sphinx participants] have proven that inclusion does not mean any sacrifice on the excellent front … it can exist in tandem and be celebrated,” Dworkin said.
Belen agreed. When she performed with the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra comprised of competition alumni, she noted, “There are absolutely no excuses or special standards” because of the orchestra’s racial makeup. On the contrary, she said, “[there’s] an incredibly high level of musicianship.”
For Belen, Sphinx’s 20th year represents a critical juncture in the organization’s success.
“As an educator, I am seeing that there are young people who have now grown up in a world where there has always been a Sphinx Organization,” she said. Progress in the field is slow, she admits, because players start early but only reach the pinnacles much later, perhaps 15 or 20 years in the future.
“We’re seeing an entire new generation of kids being influenced by this,” Belen said. All this progress amounts to a major change in the classical music community’s demographics.
“You want to look at musicians on stage that reflect the musicians of the community,” Belen added. “That’s the goal and it’s a long process because it has to start deep down, with little kids, and giving opportunities.”
Gregory named that demographic change as a particularly important development.
“Sphinx has opened up minds to the fact that musicians of color can not only play classical music, but that we can be extremely successful at it,” she wrote,
Still, there’s work to be done. Dworkin noticed a persistent and acute lack of diversity that remains in America’s academic music circles — conservatories and music schools. To take diversity seriously, she said, these institutions must go beyond supporting Sphinx; they need to follow its lead. For Dworkin, a lack of diversity is an existential crisis for classical music. Without making sure top tier classical musicians reflect the population as a whole, “our field stands to feel and become irrelevant and therefore suffer and eventually become extinct,” she said.
Gregory finds meaning in the music she plays not just through the notes, but the context — playing with friends. “Performing [the Sibelius Violin Concerto, the required repertoire for the 2017 finals] with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra was a wonderful experience that I will always remember,” she wrote, “not just because I won but because I know many of the members on a first-name basis and it was like giving a concert with my friends.”
Like Gregory, Penrose-Whitmore’s history with the Sphinx Competition has been shaped by the relationships he’s developed over the years. He was surprised the first time he participated in the competition.
“It felt more like a family reunion than a competition. It was great,” he said. Music competitions of the sort are typically extra competitive, leaving little room for bonding and socializing. But Sphinx was different.
“I made a lot of friends that I still have. It was just a great vibe over all,” Clayton said.
Belen shared a similar experience at her first competition. “It didn’t feel like a competition,” she said. “It felt like a family.” They call it “la Sphinx familia,” Belen said, and it’s clear why. The Sphinx Competition extends far beyond the competition itself. Scholarships, master classes and concerts are open to a larger swath of competitors than the elite few who advance to the final rounds. In the mean time, competitors learn about collaboration and work with each other in creative situations. Experience as pedagogy reigns supreme as competitors bask in a diverse classical music cornucopia.
As Penrose-Whitmore grew up, Sphinx’s magic didn’t fade. “A lot of times over the years I’ve gone back to the Sphinx Competition to participate in the orchestra, or compete again, and honestly I look forward to just going back,” he said, “not to compete but just to see everyone, see the old friends that I’ve made, and really have that sense of community there.”
La Sphinx familia extends beyond pleasantries at the competition. Belen said many Sphinx alumni’s careers have progressed with Sphinx very much in the background or foreground. Opportunities have been opened and connections have been made through the organization’s work.
And for some, Sphinx has provided much more than musical opportunities. The first violinist and the violist of the Catalyst Quartet, an ensemble of Sphinx Competition alumni, are getting married.