Leadership and Diversity in the Arts: My Experience at SphinxConnect 2020

As diversity, equity, and inclusion have increasingly come to the forefront for so many classical music organizations today, there’s a forum that has become a leading space in DEI conversations for the past five years: SphinxConnect.

Held annually in Detroit, Michigan to serve as “the epicenter for artists and leaders in diversity,” this event is hosted by the Sphinx Organization—which has grown to address underrepresentation of people of color in many classical music disciplines, after primarily focusing on supporting Black and Latinx string players in its early years.

The Sphinx Organization's original signature program was a concerto competition for Black and Latinx string players; now the competition is a central event during SphinxConnect, which has brought together an increasingly broad array of classical musicians.

Continuing Chorus America’s history of participating in and supporting this event, I attended SphinxConnect 2020 Feb. 6-8 along with our associate director of development André Coleman. This year’s gathering was headlined by composer Michael Abels, best-known for scoring the Oscar-winning film GET OUT; and Philadelphia Orchestra bassist Joseph Conyers, who founded Project 440 to teach leadership, entrepreneurship, and service to young people through music education.

Here are a few memorable moments and takeaways from my experience:

Choral and Vocal Representation

SphinxConnect has been so successful in its role as a leader on diversity in orchestral music that it is rapidly attracting musicians from other areas of classical music. That’s exciting for Chorus America, because it means more representation of vocalists and choral musicians in Sphinx’s programming.

The best example of this is the prominence of EXIGENCE—the first professional vocal ensemble entirely comprising Black and Latinx singers. While the group is an important voice for diversity in the choral field, what EXIGENCE brings to Sphinx itself is also thrilling and remarkable. SphinxConnect is largely centered around two orchestral concerto competition events, so the infusion of choral performance is still a new element. Whether you’re partial to choral or orchestral music, the singing brought a different kind of energy that wasn’t there before, and that’s beautiful.

The contingent of vocalist attendees this year was relatively small, but seemingly growing in their empowerment, and very passionate about making the classical choral community more diverse and equitable.

Under the direction of Chorus America board member Eugene Rogers, EXIGENCE gave the premiere of the SATB voicing of composer Joel Thompson's groundbreaking work Seven Last Words of the Unarmed at SphinxConnect 2020.

Investing in Our Boards

During a panel discussion on programming diverse composers, Phoenix Symphony music director Tito Muñoz made a simple but spot-on plea: “We need more board members to attend Sphinx.”

Sure, sending your board (or anyone!) to some conference in Detroit is a pretty specific—not to mention prohibitively expensive, most likely—recommendation. Still, I think there’s a broader point that hits home. I venture that choruses that invest in professional development at all—even just time, without considering money—prioritize doing so for their staff over their board (if they have both). Board members play such crucial roles in choruses; these folks need opportunities to grow as well, especially on topics with no clear or easy answers that affect every aspect of our organizations.

If you have the resources, though, I absolutely recommend that board members attend this conference. You won’t regret it. On that note, I must give a shout-out to our friends at American Composers Forum—which planned its board meeting to coincide with SphinxConnect. If you want a board member’s take on the value of attending, talking to one of them is probably your best bet!

A panel of conductors participate in a session about programming and composer diversity at SphinxConnect 2020.

They Don’t Need Our Mozart—Our Mozart Needs Them

I heard a story that made me think about our relationship with audiences completely differently than I ever have before.

This piece of wisdom came from Phoenix Symphony principal clarinetist Alex Laing speaking in a session on audience development. He shared an experience visiting a Black church in his community to invite friends in the congregation to his symphony concert, something that doesn’t sound like the easiest sell. But he framed it in a new way. His message, as he told it, was, “Look, you don’t need Mozart in your life—I need you in my Mozart.”

This story hit me in a way that went deeper than “exposing” audiences to something unfamiliar. It made me consider how central music is to my life—how I’m the one that needs the making of the music to feel fulfilled. And just how important listeners are to completing that experience. This role that they serve in our performances is so different than the one we often talk about. I often enjoy moments when singing is just for myself, but it would be pretty hard to go on loving to make music every day without ever having the prospect of an audience.

Buying into this mindset involves acknowledging that our audiences—not our ensembles—hold the key to the value found in our concerts. But I think that it also makes our invitations incredibly powerful.

SphinxConnect 2021 is January 28-30, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan.

Mike Rowan is associate director of communications at Chorus America.