Sphinx Program Returns, Virtually, to Juilliard

Tuesday, Oct 13, 2020
Juilliard Journal
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Kendall Gonzales, cellist, a participant in the Sphinx Performance Academy, on Zoom; the Zoom screen shows the other participants and the group's text chat box

The full-scholarship Sphinx Performance Academy for young string players was held online this summer

One highlight of this topsy-turvy summer was the Sphinx Performance Academy (SPA). This program for string players ages 11-17 was founded by the Sphinx Organization, which develops and supports diversity and inclusion in classical music. SPA came to Juilliard for the first time in summer 2019; intensives also take place at Curtis Institute of Music and Cleveland Institute of Music. The full-scholarship program for students from cultural backgrounds underrepresented in classical music included a whirlwind of virtual lessons, coaching, master classes, and mentorship. We asked a few of the faculty members and students about it.

Sami Merdinian (Pre-College ’01; BM ’04 violin), the co-founder and artistic director of the New Docta International Music Festival in Córdoba, Argentina, and a veteran SPA teacher taught at SPA Juilliard for the second time
Patricia Weitzel, a member of the Des Moines and Quad City symphonies, returned for a second year on the bass faculty
Arav Amin (MAP ’20, violin; current Pre-College student), 13, participated in SPA Juilliard for a second year
Kendall Gonzales cello, 13, previously participated in the SPA at Curtis
Kearston Gonzales violin, 15, participated in SPA Juilliard for a second year

Why were you interested in taking part in the SPA?

Sami: A combination of admiration for the Sphinx Organization’s mission, the importance of having a free summer camp for these talented Black and Latinx kids, and that it took place at Juilliard, where I spent five of the most important years of my education and which has played such an important role in my development as an artist.

Patricia: Since I already knew it was a phenomenal program, I had no hesitation in being involved again.

Arav: I participated last year and learned so much, and even though it was virtual this summer, I was really looking forward to participating and seeing all the faculty and staff again.

Kendall I loved my time at the SPA at Curtis last year—I learned so much, I met so many people who loved music, and everyone was considerate and understanding. I knew that the SPA could only get better, even with the pandemic.

Kearston: I attended last summer and really enjoyed the atmosphere—having the opportunity to meet several world-renowned musicians and incredibly talented colleagues was absolutely amazing.

Was there any benefit to this year’s program being virtual?

Patricia: Convenience! The students were able to get high quality instruction with no commute (I’m sure bass players appreciated this aspect more than others!).

Kearston: It allowed for broader communication with my colleagues and professors and with other musicians who didn’t play the same instrument.

Sami: The fact that it actually took place is so important, and all the credit has to be given to staff from Sphinx and Juilliard for their resilience and hard work to make our jobs easier in uncharted territory. Although in-person has so many advantages, this experience was very rewarding.

Kendall: Even more interaction with peers and faculty! Examples include

  • the studio classes—everyone had the opportunity to play for both the professor and peers
  • the group activities, including multiple music-related Kahoot programs; a Q&A of music history; Marvel; music comedy; and Guess That Tune
  • and the creative ice-breakers, which were all designed by our awesomesauce RAs to get everyone to not only participate but also learn—and branch out!

What surprised you most?

Kearston: How hands-on it was even though it was virtual. My mentor checked on me periodically and was always open to answer any questions, which I really appreciated because it made me feel as if we were with each other in person.

Arav: Even though SPA took place virtually, it was still very enriching and enjoyable. I missed the in-person interaction but I still feel like I learned so much.

Patricia: It can be hard for students to remain focused and engaged when spending several hours a day in front of a screen, but that wasn’t the case here—they were eager to learn and full of energy from the beginning until the very end!

Kendall: I wasn’t really surprised by anything, but if I had to choose something that was awe-inspiring, I would say the dedication of the faculty, who not only did behind-the-scenes work but also managed to be present, supportive, creative, and flexible!

Biggest takeaways?

Arav: To focus more on incorporating the stylistic aspects of a piece or composer into my playing and to be more open to new ideas introduced by my peers and teachers.

Kearston: As a musician, finding the phrases, shapes, lines, and colors in the music and improving my bow arm technique through exercises such as collé and spiccato. Personally, it would be the practice time-management skills I learned from our discussion with a performance specialist and the relaxation and control of my breath I learned from our morning yoga classes.

Sami: The sense of community; the support network between faculty and students, and especially among students; and studio classes that provided a place to listen, advise, encourage, learn, and respect. Bravo to the social activity coordinators for setting the environment, and also, obviously, to the students for being curious, and for caring so much about learning and each other.

Patricia: I hope we can use this challenging time to be creative and use technology in a way we hadn’t before to improve our experience not just now but also when we can all meet physically again!

Kendall: How to inspect my own playing and not be too harsh on myself. Our professor instructed us to become our own teachers by recording ourselves, listening, and giving our recording detailed positive feedback and criticism. Also, I have made friends for life through just 10 days of virtual meetings!

Biggest challenge?

Kendall: Making sure my computer was fully charged and that I had my pencil, notebook, and all of my music nearby.

Patricia: Technology can make a lesson very tricky—unstable internet connections can create delays, audio and video can be out of sync, etc. It can be challenging to hear many of the subtleties of each other’s playing due to sound quality. Also, I miss playing along with students!

Arav: Finding enough time to sufficiently prepare material for our private lessons in the short time we had in between them.

Kearston: Remembering to take screen-time breaks between classes, such as taking a short walk or a snack break.

Favorite moment?

Kearston: When we had group violin and viola studio class and as an icebreaker used our instruments to improvise and imitate the sounds of animals.

Kendall: A short sentence my professor said in one of my lessons: “God that’s beautiful.” I had fixed a certain passage that we had been working on for a while, and that sentence stood out because I was so elated to get the passage right, and knowing that he recognized the effort I had put in really solidified that moment as one of my favorite memories!

Arav: My private lessons with Suliman Tekalli, because I learned so much in the short amount of time we worked together. I also really enjoyed the master classes both as a participant and an audience member, and the studio classes were very helpful because of the constructive feedback from my peers.

Patricia: Overall everything went well and we didn’t run into technology issues, except in one lesson, in which a student’s video wasn’t working. Instead of canceling or postponing, I conducted it with audio only. Significant progress was achieved and we had a great lesson! It’s amazing what you can do when you focus on the available resources instead of what you don’t have.

Sami: The final concert—it was so great to hear how students incorporated new concepts that helped them express their emotions in a more clear and meaningful way. I couldn’t have hoped for a better culmination of 10 very special days, and I hope the students felt as proud as I was.