Alumnus creating ‘transformative experiences’ at University of Michigan

To Aaron Dworkin (IAA 86-88), it’s not enough for musicians to play the notes in tune, or in the right rhythm. The new dean of University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance believes students must embrace an entrepreneurial spirit to have a successful career.

“You need to be able to build an enterprise around yourself if you want to have that dream we all have of your art-making being your life,” Dworkin said.

Those entrepreneurial skills can have an impact beyond the individual artist. “It is all the more critical that we take it upon ourselves to make the argument for our relevance, that we connect our art-making with our communities and society,” Dworkin said.

That’s the kind of innovative thinking that has shaped Dworkin’s own career. When he first attended Interlochen, he was a violinist. But he didn’t stop there. He’s written spoken word and poetry, written a memoir, and created an organization that supports diversity in the arts. He serves on the National Council of Arts and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. His family foundation supports justice, building communities, and LGBT issues.

Perhaps that is why he is so passionate about giving students at University of Michigan the tools they need to follow whatever path they choose. He’s only been in the job since July, but he has big plans. For those students who want to start or lead arts organizations, “we need more and better training because those are unique skill sets.” He sees the need for every artist, no matter their field of study or career path, to be able to create their own opportunities.

Dworkin’s innovative ideas extend to creating a culture for interdisciplinary work, including how chamber music is defined and developed. This is not your grandmother’s chamber group. For example, imagine a dancer, a violinist and a spoken word artist teaming up for a work written specifically for them by a composer in residence.

“What I want to do is be able to create a climate and a culture that not only permit outlier students to do that kind of hyper-innovative work, but where there is an intentional aspect of our community that provides students the opportunity and knowledge and skill sets to be innovative with their artistic pursuits,” Dworkin said.

“I’m hoping I can create the kind of transformative experience for students at the collegiate level that Interlochen provided for me at the secondary level.”

He credits Interlochen for changing him—and for helping him see the possibilities of a career in arts education. “Interlochen piqued some exposure to business and organizations that I really needed so that I could have a life that has involved arts entrepreneurship.”

His foundation began with the music—“my perspective on music and what it meant to me, I came to while I was at Interlochen”—but became much more than that. In fact, he says, Interlochen “saved my life. It was a profound turning-around experience for me, and it really helped set the stage for the life that I’ve had in the performing arts.”

Interlochen was a proving ground, to be sure, but it was also the first time in his life that everyone around him was involved in the arts in some shape or form. What mattered was what you had to say through your art, rather than your social group standing, he said.

Dworkin attended Interlochen his junior and senior years of high school, studying violin but also becoming immersed in the academics. He still has his destiny paper from a memorable course with Howard Hintze, and his Interlochen report card, complete with teachers’ comments, is on his wall.

“I have that (report card) as a guide that I keep with me always and also show my students. There were times when I wasn’t the best student, and my teachers let me know that,” he said, laughing.

At Interlochen, he was also exposed to how arts and social justice interact, and when he was a student at University of Michigan, Dworkin created the Sphinx Organization, which he called his life’s work. His wife, Afa, is president and artistic director of the group, which works to transform the lives of people through the power of diversity in the arts.

He passed on his love for music to his sons, Noah, 16, a violinist and violist who has spent two summers at Interlochen, and Amani, 8, a violinist. Dworkin is so busy that he does not have much time to practice his violin these days. But he does multidisciplinary art, integrating imagery and poetry with classical music.

His focus and motivation remain with the students. “In the end, I want to be able to transform their lives, empower them to have an amazing life adventure that is immersed in their own artmaking.”

—Linda Bergstrom