How Music Responds on WRTI: A Conversation with Joseph Conyers, Bassist and Arts Leader

Jun 22, 2020

Joseph Conyers is acting associate principal bass of The Philadelphia Orchestra, founder and executive director of Project 440, and music director of Philadelphia's All-City Orchestra. He spoke with WRTI's Susan Lewis about guiding young musicians in ways to deal with these difficult times. 

What's going on in America now is a lot to take in.  And yet, "as someone who's African American," says Conyers, "there was no real shock ... because there's so many points of injustice in our society that have been overlooked for so long."

Despite this, Conyers is optimistic and has long believed in the power of music to change lives. Growing up in Savannah, Georgia in a family of music lovers, he was introduced to gospel music through his church, and classical music through his mother's involvement in Savannah's Symphony Choir."

"Those two worlds were actually the same for me.  My gospel—I love singing in the choir, but I also love performing as a musician in classical music. Because to me there are two different languages saying the same thing."

A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, he played with The Atlanta Symphony, Sante Fe Opera, and Grand Rapids Symphony, where he was principal bass. In 2010, he was appointed assistant principal bass at The Philadelphia Orchestra, where he's been acting associate principal bass since 2017.

But performing at a high level has always been just part of the picture for Conyers.  As a student at Curtis, "even then, I was always asking myself, well now what? Now that I know now that I can do this, what else can I be doing? How can I share this?"

"Working with young people has been the thing that has fueled me in a lot of these communities that need those services the most." 

He works with students through Project 440, named as a symbol of musical leadership: 440 is the frequency for the pitch "A" used to tune an orchestra.  A "music organization that doesn't teach music," it instead teaches young musician ways to use their talents to connect with and help communities.  

Read Joseph Conyer's moving letter to Project 440 students and more, in response to recent events in America.

In the midst of these traumatic times, "many of the students that we work with are being very active voices among their peers. In this context, some of our students just put together a full Black Lives Matter concert on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum."  

"It really is about letting them know that while it may be difficult, they have the agency to make the change they want to see. And it's generally about having the right conversations." 

Through music. 

"Because music is so awesomely ready to be used in that way."  Consider, he says,  "the light that you might a see in a child's eyes when you play music for the first time and how they make that connection.  How can you use that connection to do more things, to start conversations in a community, to get people who may not normally speak to each other to make statements to a community or for a community."

The power of music, he says, goes far beyond the concert hall, inspiring visions "of what we can be and how we can be civic musicians, or musician citizens that are actually ambassadors, not only for the art, for this idea of connectivity and bringing things to light. That's what art is." 

"It's supposed to make us uncomfortable.  Even in a movement like Black Lives Matter, this is actually a time when we can lean in, and use music as a tool to start these really important conversations. It's one thing to talk about change, but it's another thing to actually make that change. "

"Music - not just classical but all music—is conversation, and it's important, he says, to meet people on their terms.  "I think our best days lie before us, particularly in our industry.... It's an exciting time for what we can do and who we bring into the conversation. So I can't help but be optimistic."

And Conyer's go-to music these days?

"If I had to put music in a time capsule, it might be the Brahms' first violin sonata. That, and his 3rd symphony, are at the heart of Joe Conyers," he says, laughing, with his contagious warmth and sense of hope. "And they always bring me solace."