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Music Without Barriers

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

Venezuelan-American Cellist, Erica Snowden-Rodriguez explores her experience as a queer Latinx womxn and how it has shaped her life and vision of the future of classical music to include, involve and empower communities on the margins of society. She also reflects on her involvement with the Sphinx Organization, a national organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of music.


Cellist works to increase diversity in American orchestras

By Kerry Clawson Beacon Journal/Ohio.com @KerryClawsonABJ ‏@KerryClawsonABJ

Posted Nov 13, 2018 at 7:11 PMUpdated Nov 16, 2018 at 4:04 PM

For Venezuelan-American Erica Snowden-Rodriguez, the Sphinx Organization made all the difference in the cellist’s pursuit of a career as a classical musician.

Snowden-Rodriguez, raised in Buffalo and now principal cellist for the Akron Symphony Orchestra, prefers Latinx, rather than the gender specific Latina or Latino. Snowden-Rodriguez was used to being one of only two Latinx musicians in high school orchestra. The other was the cellist’s sister.

Not until Snowden-Rodriguez arrived at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2005 did the musician meet a handful of other orchestra musicians of color. Then, as a junior in the Sphinx Competition in 2008, the musician was blown away seeing the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, comprised solely of young African-American and Latinx musicians, at the University of Michigan.

“It kind of changes the way the mind perceives what an orchestra looks like,″ the cellist, 31, said Tuesday at the talk “Music Without Barriers,” sponsored by the Akron Symphony Guild at BlU Jazz+ in Akron.

Snowden-Rodriquez is a self-described queer Latinx-American womxn, who first played on stage in the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra in 2009 and now tours nationwide with Sphinx Virtuosi, a chamber orchestra comprised of the nation’s top Latinx and African-American string players.

“Outreach is a major component of SV [Sphinx Virtuosi]. We visit many schools and communities that don’t have access to [classical] music like this,″ said the cellist. “This music doesn’t belong to just one people. It belongs to all people.”

Snowden-Rodriguez, who previously taught at the University of Akron and Cleveland State University and now teaches privately, lives in Akron with partner Samantha Wandtke.

The cellist recounted touring with Sphinx Virtuosi to the rundown, historically black neighborhood of Bronzeville on the south side of Chicago last year. There, the adults’ eyes were opened to the possibility of their children studying and working in classical music.

“They told me how much our visibility meant to them, because they had never seen an orchestra of all black and brown people, and rarely did an orchestra go to that community,″ Snowden-Rodriguez said.

The nonprofit Sphinx Organization, founded in 1996 in Detroit, was formed to identify and develop young Latinx and African-American musicians. The organization offers multiple programs for musicians of color of all ages.

“In 20-plus years since its inception, they [Sphinx] have really been the leader in addressing the lack of diversity and inclusion within the classical music world,” said Snowden-Rodriguez, who received a full scholarship for a master’s degree at CIM as an alum of the Sphinx Competition.

On Tuesday, Snowden-Rodriguez shared statistics from the League of American Orchestras citing just 2.5 percent Latinx musicians and 1.8 percent African-American musicians in the nation’s orchestras. Financial barriers to auditions are often part of the problem for musicians of color, the cellist said.

That’s why Snowden-Rodriguez is now active with the National Alliance for Audition Support, a national initiative started by Sphinx to increase diversity in American orchestras. The Akron Symphony recently joined more than 40 partner orchestras in the initiative, which offers African-American and Latinx musicians everything from audition preparation to financial support for travel.

Member organizations are committed to being inclusive of people of color both on stage and off. Building on that mission, Snowden-Rodriguez, on the artistic advisory board for the Akron Symphony, has had conversations with Akron orchestra leaders about programming more works by people of color and women.

The cellist will never forget seeing children of color in the audience looking wide-eyed and cheering wildly for winning violinists who looked like them at the 2008 Sphinx Competition.

“That day, that concert, I really got to see firsthand the power that this music has to touch all people, regardless of age, regardless of the color of their skin or where they come from,” Snowden-Rodriguez said.

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