Tag Archives: SphinxConnect

Former Detroit Symphony Fellow Embraces the Suzuki Life

You’ll often hear Suzuki teachers say that it’s not just a method, it’s more a philosophy of life. The Suzuki Method, founded in the post-WWII years by Japanese teacher Shinichi Suzuki, utilizes the concept of “character first, ability second,” with a goal of embracing the whole child and developing character rather than just the mastering of a musical instrument. It’s a teaching philosophy that violist Romona Merritt of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) believes in wholeheartedly—not least because she says it helps her be a better teacher.

“Suzuki is very much centered on a circle involving teacher, parent, and student,” says Merritt. “The parent is always involved from the very beginning, so they can observe and help their kids evolve and progress.” But a big part of the method, she adds, is also what the teacher learns. “I enjoy the pedagogy because Suzuki students actually learn how to practice. But that works both ways. When I started Suzuki, I also started to become a better teacher.”

Merritt first encountered the Suzuki Method in Birmingham, Alabama, where she played for 17 seasons in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. She grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where gospel music at home led to the discovery of the viola at age 9 through her school’s string program.

“The violin was too high,” she recalls. “The viola just fit my personality.” Following a master’s in viola performance at the University of Minnesota, Merritt was chosen in 1994 to participate in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s African-American Orchestra Fellowship program. She characterizes her two seasons with the DSO as a “pivotal point in my life.”

Romona Merritt of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) believes programs like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Fellowship are crucial for Black musicians. She aspires to be a role model for Black kids wanting to make a career in music.

DSO Fellows are not just extras or fill-ins. “You audition, and you’re there working in the orchestra for two full seasons,” Merritt explains. “You’re paid the same salary as regular DSO members, receive private instruction, and are given a mentor. There are mock auditions, and it’s an incredibly supportive environment.” She believes programs like the DSO Fellowship are crucial for Black musicians. “If you’re interested in having an orchestral career, a program like this with an orchestra that really cares about what you do is vital. You get to observe the audition process, learn how orchestra committees work, and have regular access to the hall.” Most importantly, she says, fellows are treated as equals by their DSO colleagues. “You really don’t experience any difference, even as a fellow.”

Merritt had been freelancing in grad school, but after two solid years of section playing in Detroit, she won her first orchestra job in the Grand Rapids Symphony, and a position with the Alabama Symphony a year after that. “So, it was a great intro to the career field,” she says.

These days, Merritt is back in Detroit and says her playing/teaching balance is about 50/50, subbing with the DSO, playing viola with various groups in the area, and forging ahead with Suzuki—assisted by an MPower Artist Grant from the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which has a stated goal of transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. 

“This is my second grant, both of them for teaching,” she says. The current grant will allow her to complete her Suzuki in the Schools Level Two Teacher training. “These grants are crucial,” she says. “Students can struggle if their playing foundation is unstable. Grants give teachers a means to live so that we can focus on learning how to be better teachers and help our kids establish that solid foundation.”

In return, Merritt teaches at the Sphinx Overture Summer School, which partners with Detroit Public Schools to offer free violin instruction. She was able to continue all of this during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were fortunate in that classes and instruction all went virtual, so we could keep going with this important work,” she says. More recently, she was also selected to participate in the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS) 2021 Summer Online Audition Intensive, Sphinx’s national initiative to address diversity in American orchestras through mentoring audition preparation.

Asked if she might be a role model for Black kids—and specifically Black girls—wanting to make a career in music, Merritt beams. “I really hope so. It’s inspiring to see these kids find something they love, and to understand that they can do it if they put in the effort. And it’s not just about violin, it’s about their whole being. I hope they see that it may be frustrating, and it may take hard work, but they can be a foundation for their community and others who need that same guidance.”

Merritt adds that laying this foundation means not just teaching them to be motivated and organized, but also building up their self-confidence. “I make sure that they know how and what to practice, and understand what their goals are,” she says. “Suddenly it becomes exciting, and they see results. But beyond that, they learn how to believe in themselves, how to stand up for themselves, and know that they are important.” Merritt says that’s ultimately the key to their success. “They learn to always command respect—and show everyone that they deserve that respect.”


SphinxConnect: An Epicenter for Artists and Leaders in Diversity

After 20 years of solid growth, SphinxConnect has become the quintessential gathering for black and Latinx musicians. It brings together talented artists, businesses, national funding agencies, and academics to share philosophical and practical strategies that connect talented artist-practitioners of symphonic music. The 22nd annual Sphinx Competition, held prior to SphinxConnect, offers young black and Latinx classical musicians a chance to compete under the guidance of an internationally renowned panel of judges and to perform with established professional musicians in a competition setting.

Over the years, the cooperative effort of these individuals and organizations has generated significant results that will lead to lasting solutions to questions surrounding diversity and inclusion in American orchestras. Most notably, American orchestras have now invested financially in their diversity.

The 2019 Sphinx Symphony Orchestra performing under the direction of Maestro Michael Morgan, performing at SphinxConnect in the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, Detroit, Michigan.

Key to the success of this professional growth is the chance to coordinate high level performance opportunities. Historically, several institutions have emerged as pillars to provide exceptional performance opportunities for musicians of color.

The Sphinx Symphony Orchestra is one of many ensembles that has served this purpose. Historically, organizations like Baltimore Colored Symphony Orchestra founded in 1930 under Music Director William Llewellyn Wilson; the Chicago Sinfonietta founded in 1987 by Maestro Paul Freeman; and the Symphony of the New World of New York (not to be confused with the New World Symphony in Florida) founded in 1965 by Lucille Dixon, Elaine Jones, Harry Smyles, Joe Wilder, Wilmer Wise, and Kermit Moore, under the direction of Maestros Dean Dixon, Everett Lee, and Benjamin Steinberg. This orchestra, of which I was a member from 1972-1975, served as the predecessor to today’s Sphinx Orchestra, which showcases extraordinary talents. The Sphinx Orchestra is currently led by Maestro Michael Morgan, music director of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and the Gateways Music Festival.

Diversity in Orchestras

I have been involved in orchestra diversity for many years now. I took my first deep dive into the professional world as a player in 1971. I was first immersed in this world of orchestral diversity when I was selected to participate in the Music Assistance Fund (MAF) program, which selected 15 minority players from around the US to be mentored, rehearse, and perform with the New York Philharmonic in 1973. I had previously performed in Washington, DC, as an extra player with the National Symphony Orchestra and as principal timpanist of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Opera Orchestra. The MAF experience, under New York Phil Administrator Dr. Leon Thompson, served as my launching pad to the world of diversity in American orchestras. That experience left me following the ups and downs for 46 years.

I know that diversity can be achieved with the right focus as illustrated by the exceptional work of Aaron and Afa Dworkin and the Sphinx administrative team. “Transforming lives through the power of diversity” has been the organization’s focus for more than 20 years. For those who need a vision, you need not look any farther than the accompanying photo.

The AFM’s Investment

As noted by Sphinx administrators, the AFM has a long history of supporting the organization. More than half of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra comprises AFM members who work under collective bargaining agreements across the US. This year, the AFM was represented by Symphonic Services Director Rochelle Skolnick, Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) President John Michael Smith, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Chair Meredith Snow, ICSOM Delegate Brad Mansell, ROPA Board Member Maya Stone, and me.

Like many professional minority driven projects across the US that offer professional performing opportunities to musicians of color, SphinxConnect is an AFM investment that continues to yield positive results.

The AFM Diversity Committee wants to hear about your experiences. We encourage you to tell us your union diversity stories to possibly share them and inspire others. By joining forces and resources, we can all achieve our shared goal of artistic excellence and recognition. Write to me at apollard@afm.org or to AFM Diversity Committee Chair Lovie Smith-Wright at lsw@afmhouston.com.

The SphinxConnect Phenomenon: Leading with Intellect to Advance the Value of Inclusion

by Alfonso Pollard, AFM Legislative-Political Director and Diversity Director

For the past 20 years, the Sphinx Organization has played a quintessential role in moving the US, and in some instances the global cultural community, toward a more enlightened future that exudes cultural inclusion. The moral and philosophical underpinning of the artistic institution’s work proves that the payoff of inclusion far outweighs the “poison pill” of cultural exclusion. The achievements of this organization’s leadership, grounded in strong musical and philosophical reinforcement, prove to supporters and funders alike that diversity brightens the latent moral groundwork upon which classical performance can grow.

It’s clear the Sphinx Organization’s influence goes far beyond community values and the classical artist of color’s need for mere involvement. The SphinxConnect conference, held in Detroit, Michigan, in early February, brought together musicians, industry leaders, educators, funders, diversity advocates, and more.

In his opening remarks, Sphinx founder and director Aaron Dworkin took the more than 500 registered SphinxConnect participants through the matrix that formed the basis for his initial journey in founding the organization. Combining his philosophical framework with his multicultural background, he saw that his pathway to success, and the pathway for hundreds of other young minority artists, didn’t lay solely in the thirst for recognition of their abilities to perform successfully. He saw the need to shine a light into a dark tunnel fraught with twists and turns. In doing so, he knew there were likely obstructions, not yet evident, which he would confront in the unexplored passage into an uncertain future.

Recognized as an international speaker and social entrepreneur, Dworkin has now significantly, if not fully, executed his journey. He continues to rely on his faith that well-trained young artists, regardless of background, when given the right tools and motivation, can perpetually hold their own. By surrounding himself with strong, forceful advocates of his project and people trained to exact his high standards, Dworkin is able help committed young performers and institutions lift the talents and human spirit of young artists of all socio-economic backgrounds.

AFM representatives at the SphinxConnect conference included (L to R): AFM Legislative-Political and Diversity Director Alfonso Pollard, Diversity Committee Member and Local 5 (Detroit, MI) Secretary-Treasurer Susan Barna Ayoub, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) President Paul Austin, Symphonic Services Division Director Rochelle Skolnick, AFM IEB Member and Local 802 (New York City) President Tino Gagliardi, and ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow.

With this philosophical foundation driving Dworkin’s efforts, the 2018 annual SphinxConnect gathering was clearly designed to give participants a measure of confidence in their performing and networking ability, as well as to act as a forum to express their inner most concerns about successfully navigating the symphony world. Dworkin lays out a tangible philosophical and artistic path toward a life-changing journey.

I represented the AFM at SphinxConnect, along with Director of Symphonic Services Rochelle Skolnick, ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow, ICSOM President Paul Austin, AFM IEB Member and Local 802 (New York City) President Tino Gagliardi, and AFM Diversity Committee Member and Local 5 (Detroit, MI) Secretary-Treasurer Susan Barna Ayoub. Skolnick also served as a panelist. There were many AFM members in attendance. The workshops and panels set the stage for enhanced skill building in performance and teaching, developing a clear artistic vision, building careers around adventuresome instrumental platforms, defining a musician’s mission in the community, understanding politics and policy in the arts, and entrepreneurship. The presentations reflected how artists should hold themselves accountable in the dynamic and constantly changing music environment. Last, but not least, participants learned the value of networking, and when necessary, how to speak truth to power.

From the 2018 attendance record, it was obvious that the Sphinx “phenomenon” has a steadfast following. Its participants look forward to attending every year. The event makes a profound statement about inclusion and the need to move the ball forward on symphonic career opportunities. From the point of view of this director, AFM 2018 SphinxConnect participants and representatives, and members of the AFM Diversity Committee, our organization is set to bring vital resources and advice to help make a positive difference.