Inspiring People

Artist, 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Founder and President of The Sphinx Organization, Aaron Dworkin

Aaron Dworkin

Named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, a Member of the Obama National Arts Policy Committee and President Obama's first appointee to the National Council on the Arts, Aaron P. Dworkin is the Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization, the leading national arts organization that focuses on youth development and diversity in classical music. An author, social entrepreneur, artist-citizen and an avid youth education advocate, he has received extensive national recognition for his vast accomplishments. His memoir titled “Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah's Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee's "Journey to Leadership" was recently released through Aquarius Press.

He has been featured in People Magazine, on NBC's Today Show and Nightly News with Brian Williams, named one of Newsweek's 15 People Who Make America Great. He is the recipient of the National Governors Association 2005 Distinguished Service to State Government Award, Detroit Symphony's 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003 Michiganian of the Year, Crain's 40 Under 40, BET's History Makers in the Making Award and AT&T Excellence in Education Award.

Dr. Dworkin authored an autobiographical poetry collection entitled "They Said I Wasn't Really Black" as well as a children's book entitled "The 1st Adventure of Chilli Pepperz". A passionate advocate for excellence in music education and diversity in the performing arts, Dr. Dworkin has been a frequent keynote speaker and lecturer at numerous national conferences including The Aspen Ideas Festival, Chautauqua and many national service organizations.

A lifelong musician, Dr. Dworkin is an accomplished acoustic and electric violinist, a spoken-word and visual artist. He has strong interests in politics, world history and issues of economic and social justice. In addition to various genres of music, he enjoys travel and culinary arts.

I have seen the kids of the Sphinx Symphony perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City on more than one occasion and each time I have proud. I am as proud of those kids as if I had taught them myself. But in addition to being proud I am awakened. I woke up to experience the beauty and the power of music in an entirely different way because I woke up to the reality that this beauty is not available to everyone. Some will miss out on the opportunity to enjoy, to experience and to create the beauty.

Years earlier, as a student at the University of Michigan, Aaron Dworkin awakened to the same reality and it was not "O.K." with him. It became a problem for him; a problem that he has been working to solve ever since and the difference that he makes everyday transcends disciplines - music or otherwise. For that alone, Aaron Dworkin is a true hero.

DR: Tell me about your life?

AD: Sure.

Beginning where? (Laughs)

DR: Well, I remember hearing you speak at Carnegie Hall last year when the kids from the Sphinx Symphony performed there. You talked about how you started the Sphinx Organization; you talked about why.

How about if you start there?

AD: O.K.

Well I was at the University of Michigan and growing up as a violinist - I started when I was five. In all of the musical circumstances that I found myself, from growing up in New York to the Interlochen Arts Academy for my last two years of high school, to Peabody Prep, through all of these experiences, I was either the only minority or one of less than a handful. Even when I was at the University of Michigan, I'd go to Hill Auditorium, a 4,000 seat hall, to see some classical concert and of course -- no minorities on stage or in the audience! So, I really began to think about this. And also, in all of those experiences, I had never been exposed to music by Black composers. I never knew it existed.

I was in a lesson one day and my teacher said "Well you know there is music by Black composers and Latino composers" and he starts pulling all of this incredible music off the shelves. So that's what I ended up focusing on for my Bachelors and Masters degree. It was at that time that I started wondering:

"Why is this the case? Why was I never exposed? Why didn't I know about this music? Why have I never had an opportunity to meet my peers from around the country?"

All of those questions led to the founding of the competition....I literally went into a lesson one day and I said to my teacher "I've got this idea and its going to sound crazy." Luckily he didn't laugh me out.

From there, we did initially go to the Dean of the School of Music but then everyone there said "You really need to talk to Ken Fischer, who heads up the University Musical Society. He is a leading Arts administrator in the country." So, I ended up in his office sharing with him about what it is that I wanted to do.

DR: So talk to me then about what it is that you do.

AD: Well Sphinx began as just a competition for young Black and Latino string players and now, of course we've expanded because I have really come to understand and learn about this problem of Black diversity in classical music. It is a very complicated problem and unfortunately does not really have a simple solution. So Sphinx now has four major program areas.

Aaron Dworkin practicing his violin playing as a child.

Our first is Artists Development, which is our biggest area. That is basically the Sphinx Competition and all of its associated programs. So, there is the competition, both age divisions, for young Black and Latino string players. During the competition we assemble the all professional Sphinx Symphony which is the professional orchestra comprised of minorities from around the country. Nationally, about one and a half percent of orchestras are Black or Latino so it means we pull "the one" from the Atlanta Symphony, the New York Phil, the Met Opera Orchestra, etc.

Then we also have scholarship programs and an instrument fund and then our Laureate soloists...We have about 30 orchestras around the country that we partner with. All of that is what we call Artists Development.

Then our secondary programming is our Preparatory Music Institute in Detroit, which is a Saturday preparatory program - we have about 80 students in the program - and they get, not only music training in Chamber music, but also music theory and music history courses.

Then our third area is our summer program located outside of Boston, which is the Sphinx Performance Academy, based in Walnut Hill. Then our fourth area of programming is our in school programming which is what we refer to as our Classical Connections Program, where we actually go into schools. We train teachers on a curriculum that we have developed. We do that in a number of states around the country.

DR: Tell me, when you think about the word "success" would you say that you consider yourself to be successful?

AD: That is an interesting question.

I think that others might label it as such, but for me, anything that kind of has a definitive ending concerns me.

So, I would not say that I am "successful" in the sense that one has then achieved "success". Like if you are running a marathon and you are successful at the marathon, you have finished the marathon; you are done running. From my perspective, we have not been successful yet, ultimately successful yet, in addressing this problem of the lack of diversity in classical music. That won't be "successful" until, in fact, you look at America's orchestras and chamber musicians and you, in fact, see diversity.

I think that we have been successful or, I have been able to be successful in a number of steps, but they are up a much greater ladder toward ultimate success, which is the mission of addressing the under representation of minorities.

DR: So far what would you say has been your biggest contributions to your communities or to the world for that matter?

AD: Hmmm.

I would say that, in terms of Sphinx, our ability to provide...

It's kind of two-fold. For young people who are not yet at a very high level, we've been able to provide the opportunity to be exposed and to experience classical music where otherwise they just wouldn't. If we weren't there they would not experience classical music. And also for those who have been working and have achieved quite a high level, providing for them the resources so that they can build professional careers. We have seen that now happen. Then, ultimately giving our audiences the opportunity to hear great music performed by members of their community.

DR: Share with me an adverse situation that you turned into a triumph or a victory.

Sphinx Organization


We envision a world in which
classical music reflects cultural diversity
and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth.


  • To increase the participation of Blacks & Latinos:
  • in music schools
  • as professional musicians
  • as classical music audiences and
  • To enhance K-12 music education

The Sphinx Organization will conduct and assess all of its operations and programs in accordance with the following core values:
  • Integrity to standards of excellence
  • Passion for Sphinx mission
  • Honest & trusting relationships
  • Respect, both internally and externally
  • Responsive to change

DONATE NOW to the Sphinx Organization

Visit the Sphinx Organization at:

The Sphinx Organization
400 Renaissance Center, Suite 2120
Detroit MI 48243

AD: Well there are definitely many but one of the things is that -

I am persistent.

I will just keep trying and, you have to! Especially in a non-profit field otherwise there is no way that you can be successful.

When starting out the competition there was a corporate funder that I thought could and should be involved and I had written them a proposal and they sent a rejection. So, a couple of months later I sent them, yet another proposal and said "It's really getting close. This will be the first Sphinx Competition. It's really going to be amazing. You don't want to miss out!" And again I got another rejection. About a month or two months out, I sent them another proposal saying "This is, I mean this really is your last opportunity! You don't want to miss this! It's going to be a phenomenal experience. We are going to change these kids' lives..."

They did finally come on board!

They have been one of our major corporate sponsors ever since. Most recently they gave us a $300,000 grant to basically sponsor the Sphinx Symphony. So that persistence and overcoming to build that relationship is certainly up there!

DR: What inspires you most about yourself?

AD: Hmm.

I don't know if I inspire myself. I get inspired by our kids and by seeing the work that we are doing.

When I see our young competition participants performing - that inspires me! When I see some of the hardships or obstacles that they encounter - that inspires me to do more work. Also, to be frank, when I encounter obstacles or challenges -- that often inspires me.

I get inspired by obstacles.

DR: Tell me a little bit more about that.

AD: I think that's kind of related to the persistence. In other words, if we are looking at something and, we just can't. or we need more orchestral partners, or we need performance opportunities but orchestras are, for whatever reason, not coming on board, or there is some major funder or foundation that we are trying to get support from because we need to get support to be able to make this program happen - that just makes me try and work all the harder to be able to make it happen.

DR: Do you ever get disappointed in yourself for any reason?

AD: I think I would have to say "no", but not kind of from some type of ego. For me it just manifests in a different way.

I don't get disappointed in myself. I get energized or frustrated about something to do. In other words, I make mistakes all of the time but when I make a mistake, I look at that and to me that's like "O.K. how do you over come that? How do you make sure that you don't do that again?" I really don't spend time commiserating over mistakes. For me the focus is on "Where are you going? What are you about to do?" not "What are all of the things that may have gone wrong in the past."

DR: I was talking to someone this morning about dreams and dreaming; about dreaming and doing, about dreaming vs. doing, even.

Do you consider yourself more of a dreamer or a doer?

AD: You know, people often describe people that way. I am absolutely a dreamer, in my entire life and still, everyday -


I dream of all the myriad of things I think that Sphinx could do. But also just pragmatically, I have had to do them because otherwise they are just dreams and they don't come to reality. For me, to come across someone or some institution that could make my dreams a reality, I'd opt for that. It would be much easier. But in the absence of that --

I have to make my dreams come true. It comes to me when I have my dreams to say O.K. You have to take it to the next step other wise its only going to be a dream.

DR: And clearly you have done a lot, at least by my estimation. You have had to move mountains to do what you have done. Tell me, when you dream now, what do you dream of; what do you dream about?

AD: There are a couple of things. One is more of a pragmatic dream...I dream about Sphinx' programs being endowed.

One thing that is always on my mind is what that the economy might tank or various things might happen. Key supporters drop out from year to year. What happens to the long term sustainability, to the work that we are doing. We have already had a big impact but its going to be many, many years before we are able to achieve our mission. So, how do we endow these programs that we are doing? And how am I able to ensure that Sphinx is here long after I am not.

Hopefully I don't go anywhere... (Laughs)

To me that is a dream - to have Sphinx endowed.

The other is just several major programs that I would love to see Sphinx tackle and again, that comes through being able to identify the resources so that we can make this happen.

I constantly dream about those things and then those dreams drive the reality of my everyday which is in fact working on those dreams. I get up everyday and just absolutely love what I do!

DR: What a blessing.

It is obvious that you are extremely committed to what you do. How would you describe your personal relationship to commitment?

AD: Well it's strange for me because what Sphinx does is my life's work. So I actually don't consciously think about being committed to it or being dedicated to it. For me there really is no other option. I feel like I have to do this work. For me there is no struggle in terms of my commitment or my dedication. It's by default. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, I would still be doing this work and that would just help in making the dream come true. For me, I don't really have a choice but to be committed to what I do.

DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

AD: That is a very, very difficult question. I haven't really thought about it.

I guess I am kind of more focused on trying to have an impact and just make a difference and maybe, in the end, that's really it. That I have made a difference in peoples lives and bettered their lives.

Just that.

That I made an impact and that I helped the world in some, maybe small, way,

be a better place.

Thanks Aaron!

Sphinx Virtuosi Catalyst Quartet at Carnegie Hall, October 8th, 2013

Tickets $25/$15 Seniors & Students

For General Admission, Students & Seniors
CarnegieCharge (212) 247-7800
Box Office at 57th Street and 7th Avenue

For $4 Group Tickets
(646) 429-1987 x714

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