Saluki horn instructor returns to the “Sphinx”

By Chase Myers, @chasemyers_DE

The percentage of African Americans participating in America’s top orchestras was 1.14 percent in 1998, according to the League of American Orchestras.

That number doubled by 2008, and the Sphinx Organization, a nonprofit group founded in 1998, is determined to keep it growing.

The organization uses competition among young musicians as a way to promote the participation of African Americans and Hispanic Americans in professional music. 

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Jennifer Presar, an instructor of horn and music theory, was invited to participate in the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra’s Finals Concert for the second time on Feb. 1. The performance was composed of all African American and Hispanic musicians.

A West Virginia native, Presar began taking piano lessons and performing in her church choir at a young age. She started playing the saxophone in the fifth grade.

Presar said her band instructor encouraged her to switch to the French horn by the summer after the sixth grade year, as the band’s horn section was practically nonexistent.  

“[The French horn] liked me and I liked it,” Presar said. “It was a much better match than with the saxophone.”

Throughout high school, Presar had to juggle her enthusiasm with music and athletics, playing basketball and volleyball.

“When I went to college, it was a decision between being an athletic trainer or a music person,” she said.

Presar received her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in music theory and composition, and received her master’s from West Virginia University as a horn performance major.

She is working on her dissertation at SIU while teaching classes and private lessons.

While researching professional African-American horn players, Presar kept coming across the name “Sphinx,” prompting her interest in the orchestra, she said.

“It is all about the diversity in the arts,” she said.  “They talk about how to keep current art open and diverse, whether its composers, artists or organizations in the community that includes this diverse population.”

Presar was invited to perform last year after reaching out and submitting a resume.

“It ends up revitalizing and reinvigorating your own creativity,” she said.  “Sphinx is also great for networking.”

Because the competitors are at such a high talent level, the Sphinx organization ends up managing some of the winners and scheduling different shows for them, she said.

The grand champion prize of $50,000 provides even more motivation for the musicians.

Presar said the competition portion, open to high school and collegiate string players, begins every fall. She said once the semi-finalists are chosen, they compete in front of a live audience from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1.

The orchestra Presar belongs to performs for the finalists along with a guest artist of a diverse cultural background, she said.

“This year [the guest performer] was a Spanish woman who plays bagpipe from her original culture in Spain, trickled down from the Celtics,” she said.

Presar said she feels honored to be a part of an organization with such an impact on the African American and Latin American music communities.

“The impetus for all of this is they want to promote great black and Latino musicians and improve their careers and make a place for them,” she said.

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