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Sphinx Virtuosi: Thinking Critically About Diversity in Classical Music

Published on
October 22

The lack of diversity in classical music orchestras is a stark and persistent problem. Enter Sphinx, an organization that provides access and development to Black and Latino performers so they may pursue professional careers as classical musicians. Sphinx provides support through many avenues like the Sphinx Performance Academy, the Sphinx Competition, several orchestras, and Sphinx Con.


One of its orchestras, the Sphinx Virtuosi, consists of alumni of the Sphinx Competition. The Arts Initiative had the pleasure of facilitating a Creative Conversation with two Sphinx Virtuosi alumni. The conversation was part of Sphinx Virtuosi's week-long residency at Columbia University which also consisted of a concert at Carnegie Hall and a community event with our Passport to Museums partner The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.


Jessie MontgomeryIf you are interested in music education, diversity initiatives, and issues in classical music in general, this Creative Conversation with Sphinx Virtuosi provided a lot of food for thought. I will recap below some of the important themes discussed by violinist-composer Jessie Montgomery (on the left) and violinist-arranger-educator Jannina Norpoth (on the right).


On becoming a musician, both Jannina and Jessie stressed that it’s never too late to start. While it is common to start children on the violin sometime around age 3, Jannina mentioned that it really depends more on discipline. Although she herself started at age 2 using the Suzuki method, she said that one age is not right for everyone; some kids will be more receptive to beginning at a later age. Jessie began her instruction at age 4 and then went to an arts school in her neighborhood; her experience showed the importance of local opportunities in reaching minorities who usually have no path to classical music.


Jannina and Jessie shared the story of a Sphinx alumnus who taught himself starting at age 12 and luckily found a mentor who gave him free lessons. Through discipline he made it to the University of Miami’s music school and won the Sphinx competition. The story of his path to becoming a professional classical musician is extraordinary, but his example shows the stark contrast between the incredible luck and effort necessary for an individual to become a classical musician when he lacks access to the traditional pipelines to classical music readily available to more privileged groups.


Jessie spoke fervently about a pet peeve she sees in some diversity initiatives in music education. She is irritated that often the approach is to just give low-income Black and Latino students instruments and see what happens, instead of building a curriculum that gives them confidence and challenges them by asking the same excellence of them as of everyone else. These programs need to be sensitive to personal hardship but the students are ill-served if they are not expected to rise to expectations that take the students’ potential seriously; and these initiatives will certainly fail to address the lack of diversity in professional orchestras if the musicians that result don’t play to their full potential. Jannina agreed, as an educator she sees that her own students rise to whatever expectations she sets. She said that if you make them aim high, some of them will exceed expectations, and while some will fall short, they still will go farther than if you had set lower expectations.



Jannina NorpothBoth women are very prolific musicians and shared a bit of insight into their creative process. Jannina spoke about breaking out of the structured comfort of classical music and experimenting with improvisation through her renowned group, the PUBLIQuartet, a string quartet that mixes genres and juxtaposes compositions and improvisation. Jannina said “the violin is capable of much more than classical music” and her work shows how dedicated she is to exploring that. Jessie discussed how her background in film scoring has impacted her creative process as a composer. She mentioned that when writing a new piece she often had a visual intention she wanted to evoke. For example, in a piece performed at the Sphinx Virtuosi concert at Carnegie Hall, she imagined an explosion of colors. Some audience members who had attended the concert enthusiastically agreed that her piece did indeed capture that visual with cinematic grandiosity.



Finally, the women spoke about the unique experience of the Sphinx Virtuosi concerts. According to audience members, the audience energy is palpable and the audience is more interactive than typical classical music audiences. Jannina posed the question of whether imposing so many rules on audience behavior was really worthwhile when audience energy and engagement can feel so encouraging to performers. The Sphinx organization did a lot of promotion and provided many discount tickets for the Carnegie Hall concert in communities that usually don’t have access to classical music. There were young kids wiggling in their seats and adults clapping along to a particular movement. That kind of engagement is the seed that plants a love for classical music and can lead to more Black and Latino classical musicians.



This Creative Conversation with Sphinx Virtuosi provided a space to engage in critical questions about problems with diversity initiatives and educational approaches. I feel hopeful now that the lack of diversity in classical music is a problem that can be solved with the right investment and attention. Meeting extraordinary musicians like Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth was very inspiring and validating as a fellow woman and woman of color. If you want to learn more about what the Sphinx organization does, visit their website and keep an eye out for more concerts. Jannina Norpoth and Jessie Montgomery can be reached through their own websites.