Getting Attached to Strings

When Jannina Barefield, 24, takes the stage with her Bronastow Cison violin for the annual Sphinx Competition at Detroit's Max M. Fisher Music Center this week, it will be a homecoming.

It's not just because the student at Mannes College of Music in Manhattan is a Detroit native, but she's also a product of the Sphinx music organization's competitions, having competed as a teen.

For the past 10 years, the Detroit-based Sphinx organization has run a competition to identify the best young, multicultural artists in the land. Some of the nation's most elite young musicians will gather in Detroit and Ann Arbor for the event, which starts Feb. 7.

But all year round, the group runs programs with broader scope, providing instruments, instruction and performance opportunities for young, minority musicians that reach 45,000 students nationally each year.

Locally, Sphinx supplies string instruments to the Clemente Community Center in Southwest Detroit and the Boys and Girls Club on the East Side. Wayne State University hosts the Sphinx Preparatory Institute, with practice sessions for junior contenders on Saturdays. The programs give youngsters a chance to follow in Barefield's footsteps.

The competition

Barefield will take part in the annual competition, open to all junior high, high school and college-age black and Latino string players residing in the country.

At stake over the next week of competition are a $10,000 first place award, a recording contract and an opportunity to play in numerous orchestras across America. Nine senior competitors will compete Feb. 8 to become one of three finalists performing solos at the public concert on Feb. 11 at the Max in Midtown Detroit.

Barefield is the only Detroit born and raised contender. As a Sphinx semi-finalist, she has a scholarship at Mannes and a grant to teach youth both in private lessons during the school year and group lessons at Sphinx summer camp.
While the public hears the top three finalists and the 115-piece Sphinx Symphony Orchestra this Sunday, the judges will be in the background choosing a winning candidate. The orchestra is comprised of the nation's most talented African American and Hispanic musicians. Together with youthful aspirants, they will perform a new piece by African-American composer and Sphinx alumni Michael Abels — the world premiere of "Delights and Dances."

Building confidence

Aaron Dworkin, an electric and acoustic violinist, founded the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization as a way to foster the love of classical music in a world where most orchestras feature only a handful of minorities.

Dworkin, a graduate of the University of Michigan and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner, also created the organization as a means of creating mainstream performance opportunities for minority musicians.

Barefield, then 14, appeared on the stage, backed up by the Detroit Symphony, budding with confidence.

"The first time I performed at Orchestra Hall I wasn't fazed, the second time I was more self conscious," Barefield says. "Standing up there with 100 people behind you is very overwhelming, especially with an orchestra as fine as the Detroit Symphony. It is a very incredible experience to have."

As an infant Barefield's mother carried her to the Detroit Institute of Arts to listen to her dad, guitarist A. Spencer Barefield, perform with a long line of cutting-edge jazz greats: Muhal Richard Abrams, Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell and Reggie Workman. She grew up listening to rehearsals at home, clapping and tapping.

"Before she turned 3 she decided she wanted to be a bassist, like her hero Richard Davis, who performed with her dad," says her mother, Barbara Barefield, a jazz and blues photographer. "First she played her little 'Twinkle Twinkle' and moved quickly onto Bach and Sibelius."

By the time she was 10, Jannina Barefield was performing concerts in her parents' Palmer Woods living room with her Dad and other jazz stars, while taking lessons in the Suzuki Method. "All I wanted to do was play the violin," she says.
The Sphinx Competition gave Barefield exposure to peers who shared her passion. "The violin is so complicated, it uses all your senses," she says. "You play with mind and body engaged, your ears develop a keen listening for pitch, your eyes read music and your hands play. Music is mathematical, historical and physical."

Tania McGee, president of the Sphinx Foundation who joined the organization four years ago, says learning classical music as a youth leads to an appreciation of music from techno to hip hop and jazz fusion. And the Sphinx has offices in both Detroit and Harlem, performing concerts at Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall.

"We get complaints that there aren't enough Sphinx concerts in Detroit. Children and adults want to see works performed by minorities – not just Europeans," McGee says.

McGee helped arrange the Sphinx Orchestra concert this Sunday. She recruited a renowned panel of judges and tapped Kay George Roberts to be its world-class conductor. To celebrate the group's 10th year, 120 Sphinx alumni, winners of various contests through the years, will appear on stage for the final number, "Delights and Dances." Past winners have gone on to study at Curtis and Cleveland Institutes of Music, along with Julliard, New England, Manhattan, and University of Michigan music schools. They have joined the ranks of orchestras in Oregon, Grand Rapids and San Antonio.

Barefield performs in New York City with her classical chamber group, Stella Trio and looks forward to the Sphinx Competition, if not as a winner, a homecoming.

"One thing about the Sphinx competition is how all the young people like Jannina become a family," says McGee. "Once they join orchestras they will find only a handful of people who look like them. It is good to have friends."

The finals concert for the Sphinx Competition is at 2 p.m. Sunday, February 11 at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. For tickets, call (313) 877-9100.

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All Photographs Courtesy Sphinx Music

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