The Sphinx Competition

The Sphinx Competition is an annual competition, held in Michigan, for young Black and Latino string students. Interview with Alexandra Switala, 2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Division Winner

By Laurie Niles
February 21, 2011 17:11

 Violinist Alexandra Switala, 17, was no stranger to the Sphinx Competition when she won the Junior Division earlier this month. Her brother, Robert Switala, won the Junior Division in 2007, and this was the fourth time Alexandra herself had competed in the competition.

She credits her previous experience with the Sphinx for helping her cultivate the right mind-set and seek out the right kind of help to put her in a position to win this year.


Alexandra Switala
Alexandra Switala, photo by Glenn Triest

The Sphinx Competition is held every year in the Detroit area to encourage minority participation in classical music. Alexandra, who is originally from Grapevine, Texas, near Dallas, spoke to me from Chicago, where she has been living in order to study with Almita and Roland Vamos.

Laurie: When did you start playing violin, and what made you decide to do so?

Alexandra: I started playing violin when I was four years old. My mom had always taken my brother and me to concerts, and she took us to a children's concert, where there were kids, a little older than us, playing the violin. I told my mom that I wanted to play the violin – actually I didn't say "violin," I just pointed and said, 'I want to play that!' So she started us with the Suzuki method. You don't start reading right away with the Suzuki method, you just learn by ear, and I really liked that because I've always been naturally musical.

Laurie: What is your history with the Sphinx?

Alexandra: I wasn't in it last year, but I was in it the three years previous to that. My brother, Robert Switala, competed in 2006. I didn't compete that year, but I saw him do it, and I saw the good friends he made and the opportunities he had. Then I went back with him the next year, 2007, and he won. I went back for the next two years after that, and I won second both years. Last year, I decided to take a break, and then I came back this year.

Laurie: You've really seen the Sphinx from every angle. Tell me, has it changed you? How has it influenced your path?

Alexandra: It has influenced me tremendously...

4 replies Interview with Violist Paul Laraia, 2011 Sphinx Competition Senior Division Winner

By Laurie Niles
February 16, 2011 13:17


Violist Paul Laraia, 21, has come a long way, from the sink-or-swim public school program where he first picked up the violin to winning the 2011 Sphinx Competition's Senior Division earlier this month in Detroit.

Paul is originally from South Jersey and is now in his fourth year at the New England Conservatory. He was one of the few kids in his elementary school with the kind of persistence and natural ability to find a path for himself in music and follow it.


Paul Laraia
Paul Laraia, photo by Glenn Triest

Laurie: What made you start playing the viola?

Paul: I started on violin, in an elementary school program where everybody gets their own violin and plays along with a CD. As long as you have a good ear, you can just fake whether or not you're reading the music, so I didn't learn how to read music until sixth grade.

It was one of those programs that starts with about 300 kids, then by fifth grade, there were three of us left. I was the only one that made it on to our middle school program. Our middle school system has a lot of elementary schools that pour into it, so there were enough violinists for a sixth-grade orchestra. But there were no violists. So my school director, who was a violist herself, convinced me that viola would be the way to get ahead.

My little brother, Steve, who is two years younger than me, started played viola. And it's really funny, now we both play viola, and he's a sophomore at NEC, too. I'm a senior. He's kind of been following in my shadows, usually doing a little bit better than how I was doing at his age! And we have a younger sister who is 16, she plays the viola, too.

Laurie: A whole family of violists! This lady must have said something really convincing, to make you convert. What was it? It had to be a little bit more than that you would get ahead.

Paul: You're right.

I was really interested in getting into this all-South Jersey program in sixth grade, and I'd never had a single private lesson in my life. My mom, being a musical muggle, and I – neither of us knew exactly what it took to get into that orchestra. We just thought, I sound good, so I should be able to get into this. I started taking lessons with high school students – $8 lessons – and started to figure out what it takes in order to get into a program like that. Basically, my teacher convinced me that I would have a much better shot, getting in on viola...


2 replies

Sphinx Competition 2011: Masterclass with Pamela Frank

By Laurie Niles
February 10, 2011 14:04

 "Not every 'f' means loud, couldn't this 'f' stand for 'fun'?"

This was one question posed to a Sphinx Competition participant Saturday in a masterclass by Pamela Frank, concert violinist and violin professor at both Curtis Institute and the Peabody Conservatory. The masterclass was held in downtown Detroit's Courtyard Hotel.


Brendon and Pam

I strongly suspect that the "f" in "Pamela Frank" also stands for "fun" -- not that Pamela was all fun and games. But she certainly brought enthusiasm to harmonic analysis, as well as a wonderful ability to help students bridge the gap between technique and expression. It's gap that can grow wide in the development of upper-level technique, when so many hours get devoted to acquiring technique itself.

For example, a lot of us only dream of being able to get our fingers around the wickedly technical Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini, the piece that Brendon, 16, of Newport News, Va., played for Pamela. But since he had the piece in his fingers, Pamela wanted a lot more.

"If I played that well, I would have a lot more fun then you are having," Pamela said.

She started by asking Brendon to characterize the piece, how does it begin? "If you can't describe it, you can't play it."

They agreed on "happy crazy" for the opening. How does this translate to violin-playing? Crazy can be free, released.

"Free in every way: the sound and the rhythm," she said. Anything but strict, metered time. When the orchestra part is free underneath you, that is carte blanche to play around with the rhythm...

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Sphinx Competition 2011: Masterclass with Violist Michael Tree

By Laurie Niles
February 10, 2011 13:00

 As part of the Sphinx Competition last week in Detroit, participants had the opportunity to take masterclasses with members of the jury. On Saturday, two violists and a violinists played for violist Michael Tree, who is a professor at The Juilliard School and Curtis Institute and founding member of the Guarneri Quartet.

Pamela Frank and Robert Tree

Sphinx jury members Pamela Frank and Michael Tree

He spoke of the importance of being able to control one's vibrato.

"The test of a successful vibrato is that there are not gaps in the middle of notes," Tree said. "It should be even, from note to note, unless we decide otherwise." Discomfort, inconvenience or the presence of shift are not excuses to stop vibrating. "Senza," or no vibrato, can be a nice effect for a moody, distant quality, but it should be intentional. "If one fourth finger has no vibrato, suddenly, for no reason, that's hard to rationalize."

While vibrato should not be overdone in something like Bach, "I'd ask for a single drop of oil on each note."

Also, some words of wisdom on glissandi:

"Nothing is more beautiful than a glissando in the right place, at the right time, but if we surround that glissando with a lot of shifts -- which we will call transportation -- it gets predictable, and even boring," Tree said....

6 replies

Sphinx Competition 2011: Violinist Alexandra Switala wins first place Junior Division

By Laurie Niles
February 7, 2011 19:15

 The Sphinx Competition came to a close on Sunday night with a Finals Concert and announcement of its Junior Division winner, violinist Alexandra Switala, 16, of Grapevine, TX.

Alexandra, leaving the stage

Alexandra Switala, after performing at the Finals Concert

The second-place laureate was bassist Xavier Foley, 16, of Marietta, GA and the third-place laureate was Annelle Gregory, 15, of San Diego, CA.

The Senior Division first-place laureate, violist Paul Laraia of Boston, had already been named on Thursday, when he was named the only finalist. Sunday's concert was to have featured three Senior Division finalists who would have been competing for first place.

Instead, Laraia performed as the already-named Senior Division winner, and the three younger Junior Division finalists vied for first place in front of an audience of about 1,200 at Detroit's Orchestra Hall.

The concert began with Annelle Gregory playing the first movement of Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major. I appreciated the good clean introduction played by the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra -- Mozart is no throw-together affair. The highlight was Annelle's elegantly-played Joachim cadenza. It's hard to make this oft-played cadenza sound spontaneous and original, but she pulled it off, with good pacing that made room for both high-speed runs and moments of time and space.

Next up was Xavier Foley, performing the third movement of Dittersdorf's Concerto for Double Bass in E Major, which he did with great energy and a well-paced accelerando at the end that had the audience cheering and bringing him out for more applause.

Alexandra Switala was truly in character for her Mozart Concerto No. 5...

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Sphinx Competition: Building a Life and Career in Music

By Laurie Niles
February 5, 2011 14:00

 What is the single most important factor in your success?

This was the kind of question posed on Friday to successful music professionals representing many facets of the industry at a panel discussion called "Musical Toolbox," meant to show Sphinx Competition participants what tools they need to be cultivating for a life and career in music.

And it went way beyond "Practice six hours a day."


Belen and Dworkin

2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen and Sphinx Founder and President Aaron Dworkin


The panelists certainly were the right people to ask: 2008 Sphinx Laureate Danielle Belen; EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts CEO Johann Zietsman; conductor Kazem Abdullah; composer Roberto Sierra; violinist Sanford Allen, the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic; and violinist Pam Frank, Avery Fischer prize winner, performer and professor of violin at Curtis Institute and Peabody Conservatory.

How does a person achieve success as a musician? When a performing arts directory such as Musical America contains 50 performing artists' series on a single page, how does one stand out? How does one find a niche in this field?

"I think it's important to evaluate your relationship to music," said Pam Frank. "Find your individual voice and be true to it. Do not be influenced by what others tell you to do; do not be entranced by fame."

"I think success is also in the eye of the beholder," added Karem Abdullah...

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Sphinx Competition Day 2: Violist Paul Laraia wins Senior Division, schedule changed

By Laurie Niles
February 4, 2011 22:25

The Sphinx Competition jury announced today that violist Paul Laraia, 21, of Boston, is the first-place winner in the senior division, for contestants ages 18 through 26.

Paul Laraia The jury was to have picked three finalists from among the nine semi-finalists who played on Thursday, but after long deliberations Thursday night they concluded that Paul was the only candidate that reached threshold of musical excellence required for the field, said Sphinx representative Alison Piech. The 2011 Sphinx Competition Jury includes Richard Aaron, Kazem Abdullah, Sanford Allen, Danielle Belen, Pamela Frank, Michael Tree and Astrid Schween.

"(The jurors) just thought (the other candidates) needed more work, and that is where we come in," Piech said. Part of the Sphinx mission is to provide the tools that young minority musicians need to succeed: access to instruments, summer programs, master classes, scholarships. "Because of our connections in the field, we are able to put them in touch with those who can help them."

As a result of this decision, the schedule for the competition was turned upside-down, a development which the young musicians handled with grace. Friday was to have seen the conclusion of the Junior Division of the competition(for contestants under age 18, with finalists giving an Honors Recital and a winner named at the end.

Instead, the Junior Division finalists (Violinists Annelle Gregory and Alexandra Switala and bassist Xavier Foley) will have to wait until Sunday to perform and be placed.

 On Friday, three contestants from the Senior Division, violinist Maia Cabeza, 18, of Philadelphia; violist Michael Casimir, 19, of Philadelphia, and cellist Josue Gonzalez, 23, of Cleveland were named recipients of "Senior Achievement Awards" (a $2,500 cash prize each) and competed for one "Gold Achievement Award" ($1,500 cash prize). Maia played the last movement of the Wieniawski Concerto, Michael played the second movement of the Walton Concerto and Josue played the third movement of the Lalo Concerto for Cello in D minor. The Gold Achievement Award went to violist Michael Casimir.

Senior Division winner Paul Laraia will received a $10,000 cash prize, solo appearances with major orchestras, and professional CD through Naxos label. He also will perform with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra at the Finals Concert 2 p.m. Sunday at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. The junior division finalists will also perform and be ranked, and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Michael Morgan, will play a new piece by composer Roberto Sierra.

We will feature a interview with Paul Laraia this weekend.

If there was some disappointment hanging in the air, there was also a great deal of energy...

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Sphinx Competition 2011 Day 1: Junior Division Finalists, and a tour of SHAR

By Laurie Niles
February 4, 2011 08:05

 When I decided to attend the Sphinx Competition – in February, in Michigan – I knew I'd be in for some potentially nasty weather. But I didn't expect to be flying in the day after the snow event of the year. Even the Cleveland orchestra was stranded – they canceled their Chicago performance and crashed a chamber music party at a pizza joint in Ann Arbor.

Coming from sunny California, I somehow rode the back of the storm Wednesday, with my Southwest flight arriving at the Detroit airport not just on time, but a good 10 minutes before its scheduled time.

Thursday, watching the junior division contestants at the Sphinx Competition on a sunny day at the University of Michigan's beautiful Rackham Auditorium, I was glad I made the trip. If this competition is meant to draw a new group of young people and repertoire into the classical music fold, let me be the first to say, “Welcome!”

The morning contestants included Caitlin Adamson, 15, of Evanston, IL; Juan-Salvador Carrasco, 16, of Santa Monica, CA; Brendon Elliott, 16, of Newport News, VA; Xavier Foley, 16, of Marietta, GA; Annelle Gregory, 15, of San Diego, CA; Alexandra Switala, 16, of Grapevine, TX; Ray Trujillo, 15, of Elk Grove, CA; and Ade Williams, 13, of Chicago, IL. All contestants are of Black or Latino heritage.

2011 Sphinx Competition Junior Finalists

Sphinx Competition Junior Division Finalists Annelle Gregory, Xavier Foley and Alexandra Switala

Violinists each were required to play the first movement of Mozart Concerto No. 5, two contrasting movements from Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and “Here's One,” a piece by the African American composer William Grant Still.

Here are some of the highlights of the morning for me…

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Bringing you the Sphinx Competition this week on

By Laurie Niles
February 1, 2011 16:16

Tomorrow I leave for the snow-swept American Midwest -- I will board a plane for Michigan, where I plan to bring you live coverage of the Sphinx Competition in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

What is the Sphinx? The Sphinx Organization was founded in 1996 to encourage Black and Latino participation in classical music. Its founder is Aaron P. Dworkin, a violinist and a graduate of Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Michigan who more recently was nominated by President Obama to serve on the the National Council on the Arts.

The competition is held annually, with a junior division (under 18 years old) and senior division (ages 18-26). (Here's the application information, if you are curious) The competition will also include masterclasses and a panel discussion on preparing for a career in classical music, as well as the gathering of the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra of Black and Hispanic professional musicians from all over the United States (including member Samuel Thompson, at last we will meet in person!)

The Sphinx Symphony will play with the Junior Division finalists on Friday at noon EST in Ann Arbor (to be broadcast live on the Sphinx website) and with the Senior Division finalists on Sunday in Detroit. The Finals Concert will feature a performance of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonia No. 4, a piece commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium.

This year, the Sphinx semi-finalists range in age from 13 to 24, from nine states. Nine are violinists, four are violists, four are cellists, and one is a double bassist. The junior division semi-finalists are: Caitlin Adamson of Evanston, IL; Juan-Salvador Carrasco of Santa Monica, CA; Brendon Elliott of Newport News, VA; Xavier Foley of Marietta, GA; Annelle Gregory of San Diego, CA; Alexandra Switala of Grapevine, TX; Ray Trujillo of Elk Grove, CA; and Ade Williams of Chicago, IL. The senior division semi-finalists are: Maia Cabeza of Philadelphia, PA; Michael Casimir of Philadelphia, PA; Mariana Cottier-Bucco of Norristown, PA; Alexander Cox of Cleveland, OH; Josue Gonzalez of Cleveland, OH; Andrew Griffin of Houston, TX; Sheena Gutierrez of Miami, FL; Scott Jackson of Cincinnati, OH; Paul Laraia of Boston, MA; and Erica Snowden- Rodriguez of Cleveland, OH

The semi-finalists were drawn from application CDs and tapes submitted in the fall, with participation limited to current U.S. residents who are Black or Latino.

I'm looking forward to hearing these young artists, visiting with musicians in the Sphinx Symphony and watching this organization, which has become increasingly important the development of minority artists. I suspect the Sphinx has much to show us about artist development and outreach for everyone as well!


3 replies

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