Aaron Dworkin: Carving the path to diversify classical music performances and audiences

Aaron Dworkin is the personification of the theme he once explored on his weekly, mentoring videocast: Do more than is expected of you. He is a classically-trained, concert violinist. He is a MacArthur Fellow and the first member of former-President Barack Obama’s National Council of the Arts. He established the Sphinx Organization while pursuing his undergraduate degree at University of Michigan, a competition and support program for artists of color pursuing classical music training and careers. Aaron also became Dean of U of M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, ranked amongst the top performing arts schools in the nation.

Aaron’s additional talents include multi-media performing artist, public speaker, author, social entrepreneur, visual artist, and educator. He currently teaches Arts Leadership and Entrepreneurship at U of M.

Aaron is a leading proponent, authority and voice in the effort to diversify the arts, especially the stages and audiences of classical music performances. I had the honor of interviewing him for this week’s blog:

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you begin your work in the arts for diversity and inclusion?

 Aaron Dworkin: It was not until I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. At a lesson one day, my teacher asked if I wanted to play music by Black composers. I was not aware of any Black classical music composers, and it was during college that I began a wonderful exploration of this repertoire. I also would go to concerts and didn’t see any diversity on stage or in the audience. I began to ask why this was the case with an art form that had had such a powerful impact on my life, as well as ask what could be done about it. That inquiry led to the idea of establishing a competition and the effort sprung up from there.

Donna: How did you develop Sphinx and why in Detroit?

 Aaron: I was at University of Michigan and the project was initiated in Ann Arbor. The idea was to put together a competition so students of color, like myself, could convene and play works by composers of color, compete and be showcased. The goal also was for them to gain resources to go to top summer programs and be showcased as soloists with top major orchestras. It didn’t initially occur to me to assemble an orchestra of color, so for the first couple of years, the finalists performed with the Ann Arbor Symphony. Then through the collaboration and expertise of Dr. Willis Paterson, who had previously assembled an all African-American orchestra, we were empowered to continue his legacy through the Sphinx Symphony. We then transitioned to Detroit and had competitions in Ann Arbor and Detroit. Since then, the programming of Sphinx has been continuously evolving in service of the mission to transform lives through diversity in the arts.

Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the field of classical music?

Aaron: The core realization for the potential impact was in building the educational programs and early access initiatives. We learned that we needed to get involved in all the areas. In many ways, the Sphinx Competition is our oldest, flagship program. It draws critical awareness to the issue of diversity and to the extraordinary talent that exists. Today, it also provides year-long, professional development to all participants. Our pipeline needs those efforts to continue.

We also learned that there is no single organization capable of shifting the industry alone, so we established SphinxConnect, the global-convening, epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity. This is the core vehicle which positions Sphinx as a catalyst for the field, empowering others to carryout change with us.

Donna: How did you approach thinking about your work, what were the influences?

Aaron: It is different now. I transitioned from Sphinx three years ago; I left my position of Dean at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 2017, and now I am a professor of Arts Leadership and Entrepreneurship at U of M.

At Sphinx, the passion for the mission drove my efforts daily for increased impact. Now, I am primarily driven by the education and preparation I do for students through the courses I teach, as well as my interests in other entrepreneurial endeavors I constantly explore. My new science fiction book, Ethos: Rise of Malcolm, and my weekly mentoring video, AaronAsk.com, all stem from my desire to have some type of ongoing, positive impact on society.

Donna: What were the challenges and how were they addressed?

Aaron: One of the challenges I am trying to address today is how to be an effective advocate for entrepreneurial skillset development for young people pursuing creative career paths. There is little focus on this in our performing arts institutions, and in this day and age, they are an absolute requirement for a successful creative career. Whether you are an entrepreneur, a teacher or a performer, these skills are essential for survival. The challenge is to make the case and be a strong advocate for a more widespread, intentional effort in this area.

My challenges at Sphinx were the age-old problem of funding, which is faced by most people leading an organization. Building meaningful and sustainable relationships with donors and constantly being able to articulate the mission and why it is so critically urgent is always a challenge. One never stops addressing those challenges; in a way, it is an ever-evolving art and a science. My favorite quote by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her TED talk is the danger “of a single story…. is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete.” The stories we weave in the performing arts are incomplete. When we look at orchestras and see that less than one percent of the repertoire is by composers of color, it means we are not sharing the full, rich tapestry of stories of music that reflect the mosaic that is America.

Donna: As you transitioned into academia, how did you fulfill your important mission of creating diversity in the field of classical music?

Aaron: During my tenure as Dean at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, I implemented policies and practices to advance the institution. We increased unrepresented minority applications by 30% and matriculation by 20%. We also tripled the funding that was allocated to this area. We instituted a new position at the school, dedicated to the issues of inclusion and diversity.

As a professor, I look at how the issues of diversity cut across the curriculum I teach; how I try to build and maintain diverse student populations in my classes. I am impassioned about my connection with the students. Their vastly different stories inspire me to continue to find ways to celebrate diversity. In one of my classes, I bring in key, diverse arts leaders to serve as role models.

Diversity also cuts across everything I do; even in my latest book, which is essentially the story of an interracial family set in the future, diversity comes across as a critical societal value.

Donna: What are the trends you see in diversity and inclusion and who is doing it successfully?

Aaron: In the performing arts, I see the trajectory as inevitable. The art form will become more diverse and inclusive. When you look at the country, the world, there is no choice; it has to open up or it will wither and die. That is really important to understand. Those institutions that intentionally look at the issue and initiate programs are the ones who will excel and lead in the future. I see orchestras developing new efforts. Chamber music is also pioneering some of this work. Sphinx will continue to be at the forefront, due to its ultimate vision. But other institutions, such as Gateways Music Festival, Ritz Chamber Players, and others, will continue to have a significant impact.

It is my hope that a number of the revised orchestral initiatives will begin to bear real fruit. For example, the Minority Fellowship Program at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.It is not all roses; change is far more incremental than I would like to see. But it is happening. The League of American Orchestras had an annual conference with the theme of diversity and inclusion, which was a significant evolution for the field. I see partnerships building and mainstream institutions beginning to not only turn to Sphinx, but also collaborate to make change happen. I am absolutely positive and hopeful.

Donna: Thank you, Aaron, for your dedication, skills and passion for this ever-important endeavor. I had the privilege of working with Sphinx more than 10 years ago to promote their annual Carnegie Hall engagement. It was so exciting to see so many people of color coming to enjoy classical music performances by artists of color.

I also appreciate the continuous evolution of Aaron’s work to the academic arena, which is such a critical touchstone for learning and actualization. Aaron is a leader in the field of equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts. I am proud to be a colleague and look forward to sharing his wisdom in the future.