Aaron Dworkin: Founder of The Sphinx Organization

Dr. Aaron Dworkin , Founder of Sphinx Organization

Dr. Aaron Dworkin, Founder of Sphinx Organization

Last spring, I spoke with Aaron Dworkin, who, at the time was Dean for the University of Michigan's College of Fine Arts. Though he has since stepped down from this position, Aaron Dworkin has still maintained an active hand in the cultivation of 21st century musicians. Dworkin is founder of The Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based national organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Sphinx was founded by Dworkin while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. Its primary aim is to to address the stark under-representation of people of color in classical music.

Though I did not ask Mr. Dworkin as many questions as I would have liked about Sphinx, I did ask him his thoughts about concert collaboration and presentation, as well as how millennial musicians should prepare for a career in music. 

Infographic of Sphinx's Organizational Impact

Infographic of Sphinx's Organizational Impact


LS: What role will multi-media play in the presentation of classical music?

AD: Whether it is my children’s generation or the next generation, I believe very much they will ask “Wait a minute, you used to be able to go to a concert and not see the conductor?”I think classical music will have to engage audiences in that way. But I also think it will engage audiences through much more visual imagery. Where actual visual imagery is incorporated into performances and into what truly is a multi-media presentation.

LS: What direction do you see classical music taking in the next twenty years with respect to the symphony orchestra? What direction should it be taking?

AD: There are other formats of classical music that provide a level of flexibility and opportunities to innovate as the field evolves. And while I don’t think orchestras will disappear, the way in which they present themselves and the way in which they present their work will surely evolve.

LS:  What role will new compositions take in this model?

AD: New repertoire and new works will absolutely be a part of that. And we are still in the process of evolving and identifying how these new works will be constructed, and the nature of what genres they’ll fit in. There’s already a lot of cross-genre work being done, but I think there will be more. And I think there will be new arrangements or new ways in which traditional works are presented.

LS: So, for example, a new arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphony, except maybe an electric arrangement?

AD: Sure, it could be something like that. But I also think there may be new opportunities where there might be portions of major works performed in different formats ie; a movement of a symphony versus the whole symphony. Those elements like timing, format, venue are all aspects which affect how people, especially young people, perceive the arts.

LS: Have you observed a decline in appreciation of classical music amidst certain age groups? How might we reverse this decline?

AD: I think inherently with the changing demographics it means engaging new audiences. And that means younger people and it means people from diverse backgrounds. So I think we need to build new audiences. The American Symphony Orchestra league released a study a few years ago that stated the largest single increase in orchestral music audiences will be amongst Latinos. And I think over the next ten years they anticipated a million person increase. So engaging these new audiences, and those orchestras, institutions and musicians who are prepared and understand how to engage these new communities I believe will be the ones who are most successful.

Aaron Dworkin, Damian Woetzel, Cristina Pato and Yo-Yo Ma perform at Spain Elementary-Middle School.  Photo Credit: Afa Dworkin.

Aaron Dworkin, Damian Woetzel, Cristina Pato and Yo-Yo Ma perform at Spain Elementary-Middle School. Photo Credit: Afa Dworkin.

LS: From your perspective, how important is collaboration with other art forms like dance or theater in the field and presentation of classical music. Should there be more interdisciplinary collaboration in your opinion?

AD: Absolutely, that’s an easy one to answer. I think our art form depends on collaboration and collaboration is often what inspires innovation and evolution and all art forms thrive on that. One of the things I’ve noticed at the school of music, theater and dance at University of Michigan, is that that is the area that the vast majority of our students have an interest in. I hold Dean’s hours and almost without exception and almost always the things they want to discuss relate to interdisciplinary collaboration.

LS: What steps should millennials be taking now to preserve and promote classical music?

AD: One I would say is "engagement." All too often, millennials are kind of dismissive of classical music. One thing to notice is that millennials are used to receiving things in small pockets of time. If the video on Facebook goes longer than two minutes, they’re not going to watch it. And so the idea of sitting down for an hour long symphony is undesirable for many millennials. It is the format, not the actual music that’s the problem. I think creating opportunities for millennials to engage in classical music in ways that are similar to they way in which they engage other art forms, or social activities, I think will be important. The performing art of classical music is an incredible way through which we can express the human condition. Millennials absolutely want to express that, and so I think classical music is an incredible and powerful medium. There is incredible relevance and connectivity within classical music. Often the barriers are format and presentation rather than the art form itself.

For more about Aaron Dworkin and Sphinx, check out the Sphinx website: http://www.sphinxmusic.org/about/

Lydia Sewell