Old tunes, new tones

Sphinx music program brings cultural diversity to classical music

Sphinx Chamber Orchestra performs works by Latino and African-American composers, as well as Mozart, Piazzolla and more.

Sphinx Chamber Orchestra performs works by Latino and African-American composers, as well as Mozart, Piazzolla and more.

Photo courtesy of Sphinx Chamber Orchestra

Chico Performances presents Sphinx Chamber Orchestra, with the Harlem Quartet, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m., Laxson Auditorium.
Tickets: $16-$28
Laxson Auditorium
Chico State campus

“An African-American girl came up to me after I played and she told me, almost in a whisper, like she didn’t want anyone else to hear, ‘I didn’t know African-Americans played the violin.’ I told her I didn’t know that either when I was a kid.”

Shelby Harris, 28-year-old African-American violinist with the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra (performing in Laxson Auditorium, Oct. 21) was recalling one of the more poignant moments of her 11-year tenure with the all-African-American and -Latino orchestra—a moment that she said gave her goosebumps.

The little girl made the whispered comment to Harris after she had finished performing before hundreds of children at a mostly black inner-city school as part of a nationwide outreach program by the Detroit/New York City-based Sphinx Organization. Sphinx oversees the orchestra and conducts these programs as part of its aim to increase the cultural diversity of performers and audiences of classical music.

“I’m sure there are thousands of black children who don’t think blacks play the violin because they just don’t see us doing it [very often],” Harris added, speaking by phone from her home in Chicago recently, after performing with the orchestra the previous night at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “There are a lot of people who think blacks and Latinos don’t play classical music. They think blacks play jazz and Latinos play salsa, or that we play traditional music from our culture.”

Harris became part of the SCO in 1998 after making it to the semi-finals of Sphinx’s annual competition to find the most talented young black and Latino string players in the nation. Both semi-finalists and “competition laureates,” as Harris described the winners, are invited to join SCO.

She started studying the violin at age 2, but Harris—whose mother used to play violin with the Rockford (Ill.) Symphony—said she wanted to start playing violin when she was a mere 1 1/2 years old.

“Actually, I like to say I started in utero,” said Harris. “My mom said I would kick whenever the drum played [during her mother’s concerts].”

When she was 1 1/2 , Harris opened her mother’s violin case while her mother was in the next room.

“I’d seen my mom open the case so many times—the clasps she’d have to unhitch, and the locks—so I did it,” she said. “My mom ran back into the room. She probably thought, ‘Oh my God, the baby’s got my instrument!’ I told her, ‘I want to play.’ I was enthralled. She told me to wait till I got a little older.”

But Harris couldn’t wait, so her mother fashioned a makeshift violin out of a Tide detergent box, a yardstick and rubber bands, with another yardstick for a bow.

“My mom was trying to fake like it was a real violin,” said Harris, “but I knew it didn’t sound like my mom’s. I wanted a real violin.”

At age 2, Harris started taking kid-friendly Suzuki-method violin lessons from a woman at the Rockford College Music Academy. “She taught me on the condition that I could speak, that I could understand, carry on a conversation,” said Harris. “I only saw one other African-African girl taking violin lessons from that same teacher, and she was 12.”

Harris said that throughout the years of lessons and music camps, African-American classical string players were few and far between. But at age 15, when she first entered the Sphinx competition, she saw “all six” of the African-American kids she’d spent time with at various Midwest music camps—they were part of the 10 Sphinx semi-finalists that year.

“Our mission,” said Harris of the Sphinx group of musicians, “is to increase black and Latino participation in major symphony orchestras. Currently, they are less than 2-percent black and less than that for Latinos.

“All cultures are reflected by their music,” she added, “and right now [major symphony orchestras] are not a reflection of our culture.”