Sphinx develops diversity in classical music

Like many other urban centers, Detroit years ago pared arts from its public school budget, reducing the exposure of students to disciplines like classical musical.

But Sphinx, a Detroit-based national nonprofit, is doing its part to change that. Since 1997 the organization has been working to diminish cultural stereotypes associated with classical music and encouraging the participation of African-Americans and Latinos in the field.

Last year, Knight announced an investment of $19.25 million in Detroit arts, which included an award of $1 million over five years to endow Sphinx’s national competition. In the past, Sphinx has also received a $125,000 grant toward the launch of SphinxCon, a national conference for diversity in the arts. Related Links

Knight is “helping us remove all the barriers that typically exist to students,” said Alison Piech, the organization’s chief advancement officer.

Primarily through free afterschool music lessons, concerts and a national competition open to African-American and Latino string musicians, Sphinx reaches about 20,000 participants annually, including several thousand from the Detroit area.

“These are first-time experiences for many of them,” Piech said. “We’re making the music accessible for students in underserved communities where they may not have music in their schools, or a family member who’s musically inclined.”

Even as music courses are disappearing from public schools, studies show that student achievement rates increase when they participate in music, she said. “The program’s goals focus on all the benefits music brings in terms of youth development.”

Sphinx alumni are among students in the nation’s top music schools and tour nationally and internationally. They’re also helping break down musical barriers in their professional careers.

Violist Jason Amos, 28, a former Sphinx student from suburban Detroit, helps run a Boston nonprofit called MusiConnects, which provides free lessons and instruments to public school youths. He also teaches at Project Step, an organization that prepares musically gifted African-American and Latino students for careers in classical music.

“When a kid can look at someone who is playing the viola, cello or other instrument and they look like them, they can immediately relate in a meaningful way,” Amos said. “And Sphinx is doing incredible things to advance that.”

Mary M. Chapman is a freelance writer based in Detroit.