Three student musicians integrated into an abstract map

Collaborating Across Diverse Communities

People sometimes ask me why I care so much about diversity and why I have dedicated my life to pursuits that further that end, and I have the easiest response to that question: “I am a black, white, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic who plays the violin. I am the definition of diversity. I don’t have a choice but to do what I do.”

Certainly by any statistical norms, being born a biracial baby in 1970 to an unwed couple in a small village outside of Monticello, N.Y., and being immediately given up for adoption did not set the stage for the highest expectations in terms of my future capabilities. I was adopted at the age of 2 weeks by a white Jewish couple in New York City who were professors in neural and behavioral science at Rockefeller University. My adoptive mother was an amateur violinist, and perhaps I wanted, no, needed to connect to her on some level that served as a substitute for not being born to her like my brother and sister. So I began to play the violin. 

When I was 10, my family moved from Manhattan to Hershey, Penn. – a drastic social change for me transitioning from the center of the world’s great metropolis to a town that had at the time only one black family in my school. I continued developing on the violin through lessons at the Peabody Preparatory Music Institute in Baltimore, served as concertmaster of the Harrisburg Youth Symphony and spent my junior and senior years of high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. After Interlochen, I began my tenure as a college student at Penn State, where I was concertmaster of the Penn State Philharmonic and then went on to complete my bachelor’s and master’s in music at the University of Michigan. 

It was not until I was working on my degrees at the University of Michigan that I first learned there were any black composers.

In all of those musical environments, I was either the only one or one of less than a handful of minorities. It was not until I was working on my degrees at the University of Michigan that I first learned there were any black composers. I literally went into a lesson one day, and my teacher said, “Do you have any interest in playing music by black composers?” I looked at him kind of startled and said, “You mean, black classical composers?”

He kind of smiled and then began to pull volumes of works off of his shelves. This then led to the incredible expansion of music I performed as I focused on the works of black and Latino composers for my undergraduate and graduate recitals. And it led me again to question why no one had told me of William Grant Still, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, David Baker, Joseph Boulogne St. George (an Afro-French contemporary of Mozart’s) or the countless other minority composers whose accomplishments litter the annals of the classical music repertory.

Why had no one told me about George Polgreen Bridgetower, a well-known black violin virtuoso who was good friends with Beethoven and premiered his famous Kreutzer Sonata with him in 1803 in Vienna – and for whom Beethoven wrote the work, which is why you see in Beethoven’s original manuscript, the inscription, “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto”?

Why had no one told me that the great Frederick Douglass played the violin or that his grandson, Joseph Douglass, was the first black violinist to tour the United States as a recitalist in the early 1900s? 

And so, it was within the context of these questions and immersion in the incredible music that I had recently been exposed to, combined with the lack of any minorities that I would see in the audiences or on stage at classical music concerts, that led me to the founding of the Sphinx Organization. I remember walking into my lesson and telling my teacher, Stephen Shipps, “I’ve got this idea.” Eighteen years later, the institution’s mission to address the stark underrepresentation of people of color in classical music has been more successful than I could have ever dreamed when I started it as a University of Michigan undergraduate. 

It was also at this time that I began to reflect on all the feedback I received from peers and adults as I was growing up. These comments were often not supportive of understanding the role of minorities in classical music but instead sought to distance me from my own racial heritage. I took up poetry as a means to express what was happening inside my head, eventually authoring a book of poems including the title poem, “They Said I Wasn’t Really Black.” 

Born from white and brown young skins,
I was so diff’rent from the pack.
Adopted by Caucasians at just 2 weeks of age,
They couldn’t of known about the other people;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

A violinist I was destined for,
Early on I showed them the knack.
It was Mozart for me and Beethoven too,
I never got to memorize Jackson 5 lyrics so;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

School bells and cafeteria food,
I sat there with my brown lunch sack.
There was no fried chicken in my zip lock bag,
No confrontation between watermelon and black-eyed peas;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

I’d stroll into the rehearsal room
Wishing I was the Daddy-Mack.
I didn’t even go to the games, let alone sport the jersey,
Hell, I wasn’t even in the band and I wonder why;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

I didn’t talk the talk and couldn’t walk the walk,
Familial prec’dent I did lack.
At first it seemed correct by design,
It took me years ’til I was uncomfortable when;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

There were those who made me feel different,
And few who I thought had my back.
I could have taken all the racial slurs
If only it wasn’t my friends around when;
They said I wasn’t really Black.

I provide all this background because I believe if we are to overcome the challenges of achieving diversity in the arts, then we must have context in which to present those ideas. And furthermore, I believe there is more at stake than simply ensuring more diversity within the arts. The arts and our performing arts institutions are most vibrant and true when they reflect all of society. 

I am certain that if you are to be relevant with your art, you need to engage those various communities that comprise the mosaic of our society – you must have the ability to engage communities that may have different perspectives, opinions, culture and even language than your own. Your art can and will transcend these differences, but you must have the preparation and ability to bring that about. 

Just to share one statistic (from the orchestral world, which has some of the best data regarding inclusion among the various disciplines, although I am always advocating for far better work to be done in this space across our field) from the League of American Orchestras’ own study: “The vast majority of new audiences over the next decade will be audiences of color, especially Latino audiences.” As an artist, do you want to be best prepared to play in those orchestras that are going to be most successful given those realities? Do you want to be best prepared to lead those organizations or even launch your own that will be best positioned to deliver the highest quality artistic content to those audiences? These are the questions you want to ask yourself as you move forward. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “The danger of a single story is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete.” The stories we weave in the performing arts today are incomplete, and I believe it is your responsibility (if you choose to be an artist-citizen of excellence) to deliver more complete stories about the lives we live. And it is my obligation as an educator to prepare students to be relevant to our full society while empowering the disciplines we teach to be relevant to our communities.

What we do know from the lessons of history is that a segmented society, where differences are not celebrated but rather mocked, attacked, dismissed or not tolerated, is not sustainable for a thriving civil democratic environment. As an artist-leader, you are the bridge that crosses these more shallow man-made barriers. You have the opportunity, influence and, ultimately, the power to bring human beings together across racial, religious, gender, socioeconomic and other boundaries. But you must not be passive. You must act. 

Aaron Dworkin

Named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow and, President Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, Aaron P. Dworkin serves as dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, …more 

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