Every year during orchestra application season, the National Repertory Orchestra receives dozens of “blind” auditions from the Sphinx Organization. With the absence of visuals, this means applicants’ musical talent is making the full impression for the selection committee.

“The Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions (SOPA) Excerpt Competition provides Black and Latinx orchestral musicians the unique opportunity to audition for a panel representing several orchestras seeking to identify musicians for invitation to auditions, pre-advancement at auditions and/or placement on substitute player lists,” says Bill Neri, Sphinx’s Director of Ensemble Advancement. “This year, over 200 candidates submitted recordings that were then reviewed by hundreds of listeners, representing orchestras and summer programs from all over the country. We are grateful to welcome the National Repertory Orchestra’s participation.”

The ultimate goal, Neri says, is “job placement for Black and Latinx musicians in American orchestras.”

“The human race is diverse; however a lot of our orchestras don’t reflect that,” says NRO Director of Operations & Education Dan Howard. “I think a successful Arts program that wants to be diverse will reflect the community in which they live and serve. Sphinx really are the champions. They’re driving this ship for diversity and equity in the arts.”

Joseph Nuñez, double bass player and second generation American who grew up in El Paso, TX, landed his first experience at the NRO after applying for a fellowship directly in 2017. In 2022, he returned again after auditioning via the SOPA competition, which Sphinx submitted to the NRO. The NRO audition committee liked what it heard and Nuñez returned for a second fellowship along with a handful of other musicians selected through SOPA.

“I’m noticing my colleagues are more representative. It’s nice to feel I have people around me at work that can relate on a cultural level,” Nuñez says. “There’s an element of that that makes music-making more fluid and more in flow when we can relate with one another. It’s comforting to know I have people with similar backgrounds and upbringings in music.”

A summer with the NRO (or two, in Nuñez’s case) tends to form lifelong bonds. When the orchestra is comprised of diverse individuals from various backgrounds, these connections can be even deeper and more multi-faceted, both on and off the stage. Take Nuñez’s friendship with fellow NRO Alumnus Justin Ochoa, for example.

“We had a similar experience growing up, being the Hispanic kid in high school band or orchestra who had something in them to aspire to be musicians,” Nuñez says. “We relate on a different personal level. Having the presence of diverse culture in an orchestra is more comfortable. Also, the truer the reflection the orchestra is of the world, the better it will be.”

Six of the NRO’s 2023 music fellows came to the orchestra via Sphinx auditions.

“There’s been a strong push to normalize audition procedures to protect the identity of the applicant and helping audition committees understand that you don’t need to see them to hear that they play music great,” Howard says. “Implicit bias is a reality and we have to consciously work to break down barriers we may not be aware are there. The truth is, if they make great music, they make great music.”

Nuñez’s benefits from his Sphinx connection have stretched beyond his acceptance into the National Repertory Orchestra. He didn’t own his own instrument until receiving a grant from Sphinx that allowed him to make a down payment for one in 2020. He also credits “a combination of hard work and the resources that the Sphinx organization provides” for becoming a full-track tenured member of the Kansas City Symphony this season. Kansas City Symphony’s Music Director is none other than Michael Stern, who is also Music Director of the NRO.

“I feel incredibly lucky,” he says. “I try to encourage my colleagues, people of color, to apply for Sphinx grants and the SOPA competition. I wasn’t aware of it at the time when I did the competition in 2021, but it shaped the trajectory of my career. I tell people to take advantage of Sphinx as much as you’re able to, appreciate the help and repay their generosity by being awesome musicians.”

As for the NRO, Nuñez has a nugget of advice to share with new applicants.

“I applied several times to get into the NRO. It’s a tough festival to get into. Don’t give up,” he says. “If obtaining a job in an orchestra is your goal, the NRO should be at the top of your list for experiences to gain. I’ve never done more performing anywhere, with any other festival. It’s the closest thing to having an orchestra job. It’s a great environment to build that experience. There’s a sense of everyone growing together and getting better over the summer.”

Photo: Joseph Nuñez by Elaine Collins