Walter Bitner

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SphinxConnect 2019

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At the end of January I traveled to Detroit, Michigan to attend the largest and most impactful event of its kind: the 7th annual Sphinx conference “SphinxConnect” and the the 22nd annual Sphinx Competition. This is the fourth year in a row that I spent the first weekend of February in Detroit! and it was the third year in which I was engaged to be a speaker.

The weather forecast for the week of SphinxConnect 2019 (click images to enlarge)

SphinxConnect is always memorable – it is one of only one or two times a year that I get to connect in person with many colleagues from around the country, to share about our hopes and challenges and what we have achieved, to feel inspired and remember that there are many others who share the same concerns. This year’s event occurred during the “polar vortex” which descended on Canada and much of the northern United States this year, and it was bitterly cold. When I arrived on Wednesday night, my Uber driver told me that the previous day had been the coldest day in Michigan in recorded history.

Most of the time I was there this year I stayed indoors, and the temperature didn’t rise above freezing until Sunday, when I left to come home. Thursday was so frigid that when I did go outside – I had to walk for about five minutes each way to a FedEx a couple of blocks from the hotel – my face hurt painfully from exposure to the cold air.


with Stanford at SphinxConnect 2017

The DEI Precollege Pipeline Programs Network

I arrived early this year to meet with my friend and colleague Stanford Thompson to put our heads together before the first national meeting of the DEI Precollege Pipeline Programs Network. This is a group of interested parties involved in some way in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs that I began to pull together into a network in 2018. Our friends at The Sphinx Organization graciously offered us facilities to host our first national meeting on the first day of the conference, and Stanford and I were the facilitators.

This network has grown swiftly over the last eight months: the small group of 15 that first met informally at the League of American Orchestras conference in Chicago last year is now approaching membership of a hundred individuals from more than forty organizations across the U.S. and the U.K. Many have joined as a result of attending our meeting at SphinxConnect this year.

brainstorming Vision and Mission Statements at the DEI Precollege Pipeline Programs Network meeting, SphinxConnect, January 31, 2019

Our network held engaging conference calls with robust participation each month from September 2018 through January 2019 graciously hosted by the League of American Orchestras, the last three which were led jointly by Stanford and myself towards our meeting at SphinxConnect 2019 and a further gathering the following weekend in Atlanta. I intend to write in more detail about this network in an upcoming post – stay tuned!


SphinxConnect 2019

This year’s conference was the most impressive yet. As there are many concurrent sessions and I attend SphinxConnect each year just as much to “connect” with colleagues I only see at conferences as well as to attend sessions, I was unable to be present at every session – in several cases I had tough choices to make.

On Friday we braved the cold and made it to Parks & Rec Diner (one of my favorite Detroit restaurants) for brunch: (l to r) WB, Nashville Symphony cellist Brad Mansell, Nashville Symphony Accelerando Manager Kimberly McLemore

One of the conference’s highlights for me was the Opening Plenary, which began with jaw-dropping performances by Sphinx laureates Ifetayo Ali-Landing and Xavier Foley, followed by a brilliant address by Earl Lewis, Director of the Center for Social Solutions at the University of Michigan. Dr. Lewis is president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (2013-2018), and a professor of history and Afroamerican and African Studies. He’s an inspiring and insightful speaker, and it was a stirring way to begin the conference.

If you’re unfamiliar with SphinxConnect, check out the schedule for the 2019 conference here – you will find much more in-depth descriptions of the many and varied conversations, performances, and activities that bring this vibrant international community together each year than I can adequately describe in this brief article. Videos of the conference’s sessions and performances can be seen and heard here on the Sphinx Organization’s YouTube channel.

On Saturday afternoon, I was very fortunate to join two remarkable women I am honored to know as both friends and colleagues for a discussion about the mutual partnerships between our programs.

Bridge Partnerships was a discussion between Cassidy Fitzpatrick, Vice President for Musician Advancement for New World Symphony (who organized and moderated our session), Adrienne Thompson, Manager of Atlanta Symphony’s Talent Development Program, and myself – we discussed what a partnership between talent development programs, educational institutions and professional orchestras can look like. The discussion was based on the actual partnership between our programs, more of which you can read about here or simply, watch the video of our session below:



As it has each year, the conference ended with the exciting Senior Divison finals concert of the Sphinx Competition, now in its 22nd year (Junior Division finals are held on Friday – each accompanied by the Sphinx Orchestra, which is comprised of musicians from across the country who come to Detroit each year just for this event). This year’s performance was on Saturday evening (in the past it has been on Sunday afternoon) which was a lovely change to the schedule that allowed many of us the opportunity to return home early Sunday morning to have some time at home with our families. The Sphinx Competition is open to young Black and Latinx string players residing in the United States, and awards prizes in both divisions totaling more than $100,000 – including a $50,000 prize to the first place winner in the Senior Division.


Sphinx Competition Senior Division finalists await the judges’ decision, SphinxConnect, Detroit, Michigan, February 2, 2019


Sterling Elliot, winner of the 2019 Sphinx Competition Senior Division

This year’s competition was thrilling. All of the finalist’s performances were captivating, the Sphinx Orchestra sounded better than ever, and the Detroit Symphony‘s beautiful Orchestra Hall at Max M. Fisher Music Center was packed with tired but excited conference delegates. It was a fitting close to a fantastic SphinxConnect.

SphinxConnect has more than doubled in size since I first attended in 2016 – this year there were more than 850 attendees from all over the world: orchestra musicians, soloists, conductors, teachers, students, parents, administrators, consultants, activists, philanthropists. With its wide array of offerings, inclusive atmosphere, palpable excitement, and robust participation from delegates across every constituency, SphinxConnect will soon be the most important annual gathering in classical music – if it isn’t already.

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