Building a Sense of Value, One Family at a Time

This is a guest post by Afa Sadykhly Dworkin, Vice President of Programming and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization. Ms. Dworkin will be a panelist at our live event in San Francisco on October 23.

At Sphinx, we attempt to tackle issues of connecting the artist with the community through the prism of diversity, inclusiveness and integration.

There is a notable divide between communities of color and classical music. We focus on bridging the gap by immersing classical music within the community. We market our concerts in a grassroots manner, working with community and faith based institutions, to establish common goals and synthesize our efforts. We have to build the sense of value and experience, one person, one family at a time.

Prior to a concert at Carnegie Hall (a venue that would otherwise not typically engage a diverse audience for a classical performance), as well as our annual concert at the Detroit Orchestra Hall, we do an entire series of community concerts in churches where our artists of color perform and engage the constituents directly. Such an approach works to tie value of classical music to a value of faith within the community. The other piece of the puzzle is always the artist him/herself. Specifically, we invest time and value into the training and cultivation of the artist and their development into a community ambassador, a liaison between the art and the community. Until artists begin to envision themselves as citizens/ambassadors, one with the community which they serve, true fundamental change cannot occur.

It is by converging those aspects of communities of color that we are able to bring about a change in the perception and engagement with an art form that does not share that legacy within the community.

I also believe that technology is of significant benefit to the arts overall, and, especially classical music. Whenever I convey to those outside of our field that, basically, when one goes to an orchestra concert, one stares at the back of the lead artist for the entire concert and never actually sees their face or how they are communicating to the orchestra they are leading. This, of course, seems ridiculous. So, if technology can easily (and relatively inexpensively), permit the entire audience to actually see the Maestro’s facial expressions and direct communication to the members of the orchestra throughout the concert… why would we not utilize that at every single orchestra concert?

There are a host of additional technological aspects that can be brought to bear to enhance (and not detract) from the experience of classical music. If one wanted a “sterile” (non coughing, uninterrupted) solo personal interaction with the music with perfect intonation they would stay at home with a perfect audiophile environment. If one goes to a concert hall, one seeks a communal experience and the “live” aspect of being able to interact with the artists you are seeking to hear. Needless to say, this is ever more acute for diverse audiences of cultures where “Call and Response” is such a strong part of group interactions.

Overall, my general sense is that convergence serves as a positive for our field. However, I do not think it should be explored for the sake of convergence itself. It should be driven by the art, discipline and goals of a particular organization or even a specific initiative. A business as usual approach to the industry, in my mind, is not likely to yield success. To lead is to be relevant. To be relevant is to listen, understand, emphasize, reach out, and engage.

The world around us is changing, so understanding those changes, interpreting them as threats and opportunities is the key to survival and success for arts organizations. For example, at Sphinx, we have very specific goals as it relates to developing a broader constituency for classical music (as participants, practitioners, audiences and others) and it wouldn’t serve our mission to just begin to structurally change our approach unnecessarily. However, if we know a target audience of ours will respond if we tie into a commercial or other aspect of their recreational lives, then we should explore how to potentially redefine our work to create a pathway for entry for them into our artistic offerings.


  1. Mark Clague says:

    Wonderful post Afa. I really like the idea of musicians (and really everyone who makes up an orchestra (audience, board, ushers, staff, musicians, etc.) as ambassadors and applaud Sphinx for offering training to its musicians on how to be ambassadors. I often wonder what would happen if orchestras empowered musicians to give out a certain number of free tickets to neighbors and people they meet in the community to get them to try their first symphony concert. I think listeners need to become fans, not only of classical music, but like in sports of individual artist athletes (which in the orchestra sense means “musicians”). Your efforts remind me a bit of another Detroit musical institution, Motown, which trained its musicians to meet royalty and be TV personalities, knowing that public relations were everyone’s responsibility. Looking forward to our conversation in a few weeks.

    • Shoshana says:

      Hi Mark,

      Giving the musicians the option to use free tickets and/or discounted tickets to give to people does work when implemented properly. We did find that a percentage of the orchestra was using their tickets. The catch is to get them to invite new people each time instead of handing them out to the same friends and family that want to go. Having some form of “training” would be a good idea!

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