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Sphinx Overture Program

The Overture Program brings music lessons directly to schools in Detroit and Flint, reaching students who have traditionally lacked engagement with classical music. Not only does it show young people that classical music is performed and taught by people of similar background, but it provides a host of benefits in terms of discipline, focus, and learning.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves.
Sphinx Organization Artistic Director and Vice President of Programming Afa Sadykhly Dworkin: The Overture program is our main grassroots educational initiative serving young people in elementary schools in Detroit and Flint. Its purpose is for young people to find their voice through music. It’s an introductory group violin lesson program in which 10-15 young people per group are introduced to the violin. They’re introduced to how it’s made, how it’s put together, and how to play it. Music is important to discipline and to quality of life. We have found participants do better academically, and music is an important part of their development as well – it’s a youth development and youth empowerment initiative, which does so through music. In Detroit, it serves approximately 120 students; in Flint, Overture serves over 160 kids. The partnership focuses on public elementary schools that do not currently offer much in the way of music.
What really differentiates this program?
One of the ways in which this is unique is that the Overture program serves kids right where they are, in school. This eliminates the issue of transportation, which we found in the early years to be an obstacle. For many of our kids and their families, transporting kids to after-school activities is difficult and challenging.
We also select instructors who are particularly empathetic to the community they are trying to serve. We don’t exclusively
It's been difficult for us to make a case to parents that classical music is essential to a kid's overall development.
employ faculty of African-American or Hispanic backgrounds, but we do hire people who are interested in engaging with communities who have had low participation and engagement with classical music in Southwest Detroit. The majority of them are bilingual. In Flint, we select instructors who are experienced working in groups with young people who have had very little engagement with school programming in music previously. We take that very seriously.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Over the course of three years, we have more than doubled our reach in terms of numbers of students both in Detroit and Flint. The program was launched with 12 students in Flint and approximately 20 in Detroit. Today, the demand for the program is incredibly high, with approximately 160 students served in Flint and over 100 in Detroit. Generations of students from Overture are now able to continue their studies at the Flint Institute of Music.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
One of the main challenges is still finding the right recipe for increased parental participation. That’s been a challenge from the beginning. It’s been difficult for us to make a case to parents that classical music is essential to a kid’s overall development. Some of the challenges we face – and this is much more mundane -- many are single parent households, or grandparents raising their grandkids.  It’s difficult to have music as a central issue, although we are increasingly seeing it is of great benefit to the students and is keeping kids involved in ways that are more substantive. To really connect parents to their child’s experience with violin, have them attend sessions, and come to concerts – we’ve come a very long way, but it remains a challenge for us. It’s something we are continuously working on and looking at different angles.
Another obvious challenge is that we would love to implement Overture in every school in Detroit and Flint. We have been happy to increase – we went from one to three, to now 12 schools in Detroit – but there is so much more that needs to be done. It could become a standardized offering.
How does your program address issues of economic, educational, racial, equity?
Overture in particular is open to anyone and everyone. It’s not by audition. We do what we have to in order to accommodate anyone who has an interest, even if we are at capacity. We look to make it accessible all the way around. It’s an entirely free program: it’s free to schools and the students and their families. We provide the instruments, and we fully service them. These are young people, so we make sure they care for their instruments. We also provide all instructional materials in order to practice at home. And, we allow them to keep their instrument if they meet the basic requirements. If a kid has over an 80 percent attendance record, we allow them to keep the instrument. We’ve found that really helps not only with motivation and retention, but the desire to re-enroll.
What are people in your program most inspired by?
I think they are most inspired by the instructors and guest artists we bring in. For example, the Catalyst Quartet is comprised of winners of previous competitions. What I have witnessed is that young people look at them and listen to them and see themselves. Because of our focus in urban areas, which are heavily African-American and Hispanic, they are able to relate to
It gives them a sense of wanting to aspire to sound that way, and a sense of awe to see someone who looks like them who is so accomplished.
the guests artists they see. They also develop a strong affinity for their instructor, and are invited to see them perform. With many of our students both in Flint and Detroit over the years they have always had free access and a special invitation to our Honors concert. They see the Sphinx Orchestra perform, and see the all African-American and Hispanic Orchestra with young people close in age to them. It gives them a sense of wanting to aspire to sound that way, and a sense of awe to see someone who looks like them who is so accomplished.
There is so much role modeling and teaching -- they feel they have something to relate to. Classical music for centuries has developed a reputation as exclusionary experience. Through Overture, we’re changing perceptions. I have heard instructors say they get as much from the program as the kids do. To take a kid who had no exposure whatsoever and not very much interest in classical music, and maybe was placed in the program by their principal, or teacher or parent, and watch the transformation -- from holding the violin for first time to producing their own sound and finding that is a voice for them to where they can stand up and play songs -- is an empowering and enriching experience. 
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  • Sphinx Organization
    The Sphinx Organization transforms lives through the power of diversity in the arts.


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