The Sphinx Organization is celebrating 25 years of transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Founded in 1997 by violinist Aaron P. Dworkin, the Sphinx Organization is currently led by Artistic Director and President Afa S. Dworkin. In its 25 years, the organization has created a robust space for more than 1,000 Black and brown classical string players to realize their dreams of becoming professional musicians and music leaders.
“American Black Journal” host Stephen Henderson sits down with Achia Floyd, the Sphinx Organization director of foundation and government partnerships, to talk about the organization’s role in diversifying the classical music landscape over the past two and a half decades. Plus, they talk about the pandemic’s impact on the arts and the organization’s return to an in-person Sphinx Competition in 2023.
Plus, Watch the Sphinx Competition 2023 senior division winner Njioma Chinyere Grevious, a violinist from Boston, perform at the 26th annual Sphinx Competition in Detroit in January. Grevious is an award-winning violinist and a versatile solo, chamber and orchestral musician who graduated from The Juilliard School. She’s also a founding member of the Aboe Quartet.
Stephen Henderson, Host, American Black Journal: Floyd, welcome to American Black Journal.
Achia Floyd, Director, Foundation & Government Partnership, Sphinx Organization: Thanks for having me.
Stephen Henderson: So, it’s hard to believe that it was 25 years ago that my friend Aaron Dworkin started the Sphinx Organization. I can kind of remember that happening. But let’s go back to the original idea here and the environment that created it. The dearth of musicians of color in classical music in professional circles 25 years ago, and how that’s changed since Sphinx has been around.
Achia Floyd: Yes. Our founder, Aaron Dworkin, 26 years ago now, we just finished celebrating our 25th year anniversary, started the Sphinx Organization with the Sphinx competition, and his aim was the same aim. The vision and the mission of the organization has not changed, and I think that’s important. The goal was to bring more black and brown people into orchestras. There was hardly any. There were a few in major orchestras, but there was no consistency. There was no support for black and brown individuals who wanted a career in classical music. And over the years that mission has not changed. But now, we’re seeing a different landscape because of that pursuit.
Stephen Henderson: How different is it? How can we kind of quantify the influence that Sphinx has had?
Achia Floyd: It has been huge. You know, I only joined the Sphinx Organization about a year ago, but I was a member of one of Sphinx’s programs. I’m an alumni of the Sphinx Organization as well. And what makes that significant is not changing that mission. Being very intentional about it, so that now when we have a landscape where people are more apt to have more black and brown people throughout the organization, Sphinx Organization has been there doing the work. So, now we’re an authority on it for people in the industry. So, they come to us for information, for access. And so, we’re able to use our cachet to help diversify the landscape.
Stephen Henderson: I know you referenced the national competition each year, which is an important part of the organization and an important part of establishing that pipeline of musicians into professional careers. But Sphinx does a lot more, as well. And that’s also been really key, I think, to not just establishing the idea that there should be more black and brown people in classical music. But finding the practical ways that, that has to happen. In other words, there are a lot of things that have to come together for a young person who might dream of being in a professional orchestra, to get to there. Sphinx does a lot along the way to help that work.
Achia Floyd: Yeah, it’s, as you said, it’s the whole pipeline. To become a professional musician, you know, the question is always how do you get to Carnegie Hall? And the answer is a lot. A lot of long-term practices and support. So, Sphinx starts at the elementary level and provides support all the way through performance. We have administrators, we have a program for administrators called Sphinx Lead to help create the belonging.
A musician who comes up in the pipeline needs to survive and thrive in the orchestral landscape. We have Sphinx Connect, which just ended in the competition. It’s a conference in which we hosted over a thousand people in Detroit from the industry. Funders, artists, all focused on diversifying the arts landscape. And all of that starts with that pipeline and that competition program.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. So let’s talk about this year’s event and some of the highlights from it.
Achia Floyd: It was the first time since the pandemic began that we were able to do the competition in person.
Stephen Henderson: In person, right!
Achia Floyd: Yeah, it was amazing. The whole vibe really was one where everyone was so happy to be there and celebrate in person at the Max and Marjorie Fisher Hall in Detroit. We held a competition of our three finalists, which are black and brown musicians. And the winner, Njioma, also won Audience Choice as well, performing a work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was also a black composer who wrote in the 40s, 50s era. And it was really a celebration of years of work. And the winner, I mean, the audience loved her at the concert and the judges really recognized her skill. And it was really just the way to in the conference and the celebration overall.
Stephen Henderson: Yeah. And a little later, we’re going to, for our viewers, share a little bit of Njioma’s performance. Talk also about the pandemic and the effect it had on the organization and the competition, and this idea that, hey, we’re back, we’re back in person, and that really does matter.
Achia Floyd: Yeah, overall the pandemic had a huge impact on the arts as a whole, especially performing arts. A lot of people were furloughed from orchestras, freelancers could not perform. And so, the Sphinx Organization pivoted. We created funds to just put money directly in the hands of our artists. We have over a thousand alumni to support, right? And so, we’re also for marginalized communities. We support black and brown musicians. And so, they were hit significantly by the pandemic. We were able to create funds with the help of funders and the hard work of our staff, to support these musicians, as well as administrators in the field. And coming back, we got to bring everyone together to Detroit for days, the Renaissance Center was full of us for days in Detroit. Despite the weather, people came.
Stephen Henderson: I also want to talk a little about, we’ve been talking about the effect that the Sphinx and its work has had on classical music and professional classical circles in our country. But there’s also kind of a reverse benefit, and that’s on black and brown communities. The ways that they have changed because of the opportunities that have opened up because of Sphinx. And of course, because of the presence of black and brown musicians in these professional circles.
Achia Floyd: Yes, we actually have a touring orchestra called the Sphinx Virtuosi, and they go around and they’ve been around for, I believe, ten or 11 years now, I could be wrong. But they go around and perform. It’s an al Black and Brown orchestra and we make a point of performing for Black and Brown audiences so that they see the possibilities, right? These are musicians who do perform in major orchestras as well, and they are just at that top level. And these kids do not get to see that. Our SPA program, Sphinx Performance Academy is also held throughout the country. And we just had a testimonial from a kid who was talking about the fact that she had never seen black and brown kids her age, this is an early high school student, in orchestra performing. And so, after Sphinx, she just had a whole new lease on it all and really started to find self-motivation because she saw the possibilities.
Stephen Henderson: So what’s next for Sphinx now that the world is kind of coming back together after the pandemic and you’re holding the national competition in-person, what’s coming up?
Achia Floyd: You know, we really just want to grow our programs. We have grown a lot over the last five years and kind of developed a whole pipeline and landscape that starts at elementary but also goes all the way to large grants to support artists’ ideas, Right? Composition. And we have now composers who are now in residence at Chicago Symphony at the Kennedy Center. And so, we just want to make sure that we’re able to continue to support them as best we can. We have to, you know, continue to do our job as fundraisers and as advocates, and make sure that we keep this programming solid. And we just let the artists tell us where we’re going to go. We survey, we keep in touch with what they want, and that’s how we grow. That’s how we find it best to grow, from our constituency, not necessarily what our pipe dreams are.
Stephen Henderson: Great to have you here with us on American Black Journal. Congratulations on a quarter century of Sphinx. And of course, congratulations to my friend Aaron Dworkin, who I’ve always been a great fan of. Thanks for being here.
Achia Floyd: Thanks for having me.
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Watch American Black Journal on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on Detroit Public TV, WTVS-Channel 56.