Joseph Conyers in Concert and Conversation
Bassist Joseph Conyers uses music as a tool for social engagement and community building. In this Articulate exclusive, he discusses his community-based work and performs music from a variety of genres.
Joseph Conyers is a renowned classical musician who plays double bass with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is the executive director of Project 440, a nonprofit that seeks to use music as a vehicle for social change.
Conyers was born and raised in Savannah, GA. He graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 2004 and played with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony, and Santa Fe Opera before becoming assistant principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2010. Conyers has also performed as a soloist with numerous orchestras across the United States and is an artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
He cofounded Project 440 in 2007 with members of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Now based in Philadelphia, the organization teaches young people valuable life skills and the importance of service through music.
Conyers is also a competitive natural bodybuilder. He took first prize in the “Male Model” division of the 2012 Mr. And Ms. Natural Philly Competition.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the big ideas behind great creative expression. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, double bassist “Joseph Conyers in Concert and in Conversation.”
Joseph Conyers’ day job as associate principal at the Philadelphia Orchestra is the most public facing part of his musical life. But there’s much more. He’s also the founder and executive director of a community organization that works with young musicians, the conductor of Philadelphia’s All City Orchestra, and a prominent presence on social media, all this while playing an instrument he describes as his Achilles’ heel.
Joseph Conyers: Most people don’t think of the double bass as an instrument that can sing. I actually kind of find joy in proving to the rest of the world that yes, the double bass, the lowest of the low, can actually have a voice that can soothe, that can calm, and be just as lyrical as a violin or a soprano.
Conyers’ road to the double bass does not run through jazz, pop, or rock. He’s barely ever even touched a bass guitar. His musical journey began with the hymns he sang in church in his native Savannah, Georgia and blossomed in classical concerts he attended as a boy with his mom.
Emma Conyers: It was around age three, and because we have a piano, after church when we got home he would try to play those hymns that he heard.
Conyers: So while I’m going to church every Sunday and six days a week at home as a child.
AJC: Really, six days a week?
Conyers: Oh yeah, between bible study and choir rehearsal and church meeting and…it was weird that we were there all the time. My mother’s love of classical music, she sang in the Savannah Symphony Chorale, and so I literally, some of my earliest memories, I just have, I mean between outside of gospel is hearing “Carmina Burana” being blasted through the house or “Beethoven 9” being blasted in the house. So they were literally the same thing. They weren’t two separate things. They were just music. I wish there was an easy way to describe that, but it was just music. They weren’t, it wasn’t classical, it was just, it was the emotion, that human connection for me. That influence of my upbringing influences the way I play a piece like the Bottesini Elegy, which is so stunningly beautiful. The expressiveness and the lines and the subtlety of how the words connect with the music. The Bottesini Elegy has no words, but it’s very much all the music is there. So through the music we create the words.
Joseph Conyers’ perspective on music is unusual, believing as he does that beyond art or entertainment, it is an act of service. Yes, he performs in service of the audience, the composer and his fellow musicians but he’s constantly aware of the greater possibilities that music offers for connection. This might be what keeps his tens of thousands of followers coming back to view his educational videos on social media.
Conyers (in Youtube video): This is a really powerful section and you’d think I’d be right at the frog but because of the nuances of the string crossings and the axis that I want to get, I know it’s easy to be excellent at the frog but the nuances of the string crossings are easier to do a little further out in the stick.
Conyers: My Achilles’ heel as a musician is the fact that I play the bass. That’s my Achilles’ heel as a musician, because what I have inside I feel like I will never be able to get out, but the bass is my vehicle to get it out. So I learn technique and I practice my scales and hone in on the skills that are needed for me to be able to express what I have inside to get out into the world. And for me, particularly in education it changes the whole approach to learning notes because you aren’t learning notes, you’re learning, the goal isn’t to learn notes, the goal is to express.
And how Joseph Conyers thinks about what music is for is rooted in those early days in church.
Conyers: I bring that same enthusiasm as a five, six, seven, eight year old alto in the choir at Connor’s Temple Baptist Church to the stage of the Philadelphia Orchestra every single time that I play. And whenever I have the opportunity to play, for me, it is because music is a gift. It’s a blessing for us to be able to connect with other people. That is what music is to me. It is never about this performance not making some people happy, it’s about connection and that connectivity, that’s to me the most important thing about it all. I love “I Must Tell Jesus”, a traditional Baptist hymn. I’ve always loved this tune. When you’re a child, it’s so funny, you hear this when you’re a kid in church and people will say, I sat and I sang these hymns when I was a kid and they meant nothing to me. And then I become an adult and now they mean everything to me. And “I Must Tell Jesus” is one of those hymns where as a kid, I loved the melody. I think I fell in love with the melody first ’cause the words weren’t that impactful. I mean, the kids might have different experiences, but as a kid, I mean, we see the world is not, life in its full experiences, particularly if you’re really young, but like the chorus “I must tell Jesus, I must tell Jesus, I cannot bear these burdens alone.” So despite all the travesties and despite all the hardships, we have a friend in Jesus. We have someone who will comfort us and take on the world’s problems for us. And it’s a relief.
Joseph Conyers’ role within the Philadelphia Orchestra is only one part of who he is. For him, music is more than notes on a page or sound in the air. It’s a tool for social change in communities that may be the least connected to classical music.
Conyers: Everyone might be onto this great search for the next Yo-Yo Ma or the next Einstein in that regard. And it could be right in the neighborhood next door, but without the opportunity, no one would ever, well, no one would ever know. So at the very least, what role can I play, given the gifts that I have as a musician, to help that kid reach their potential?
The Conyers family was solidly middle class, a fact Mrs. Conyers always wanted her kids to appreciate. On one drive through a local poorer neighborhood, she offered her then still young children an insight into all that they had been given.
Emma Conyers: There were some kids who were very disadvantaged. I reminded Joseph and his other two siblings who were in the car that although they are blessed, they could have been in that same situation as these young kids. And I wanted them to be mindful that he should always be grateful. So I was pointing to those kids and I told them, “One of those kids could be just as great as you are if they have the opportunity.”
His mother’s words stuck with young Joseph and became the foundation for his commitment to use both his opportunities and his musical gifts to help others. This dedication led to his founding of a community education and advocacy organization he’s run in Philadelphia since 2010. Project 440’s programs are not focused on developing musicianship—they don’t teach music. Instead, their youth development programs use a shared love of music from any genre, and the skills inherent in being a musician, as a jumping off point to strengthen identity, build community, and help young people develop the competencies they need to thrive.
Conyers: I think being able to highlight that this is what can happen when opportunity is given because if I hadn’t been given those opportunities, who knows what I would be doing, what, I just don’t know, but I had opportunities, I had the support of my parents, had the support of my community, and I had people to help me. Denying folks the opportunity to become their full potential is a travesty. So I’m a product of people who invested in me so I want to invest in others. So “Great is Thy faithfulness” is my mother’s favorite hymn and it’s actually a favorite hymn of many in the Baptist Church for the tune, but also for the words. And there’s a lot of hope and comfort in just the words, “All I’ve needed Thy hand hath provided to me.” It’s like…and where it fits in the music. “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.” It’s—I told you I can’t sing. Again, you can start to think about like, the words aren’t “All I wanted Thy hand hath provided,” it’s “All I needed.” And that’s a profound difference.
Joseph Conyers’ hopes for what classical music can be and do beyond the traditional confines of the concert hall comes from how he witnessed the power of music in his own life. His commitment to helping make others the beneficiaries of his talents and the opportunities he was given is constant.
Conyers: I feel like in classical music, there’s such a small approach in like what we do, in our purpose and why we’re here and what we can do. And I think that’s just because of how particularly classical music was cared for and nurtured by those with money, power, and influence. And so it’s kind of been in this weird place where there wasn’t a need to be out into the world, but I say, forget the need, look at what music can do. Michael Tilson Thomas was with Philadelphia Orchestra once and he said something that I found profound, “Music gives me the ability to say things in front of people that I would never say in words.” And with that, I mean, I imagine the conversations we can start by having people of different cultures and different experiences connect through music and then start an actual dialogue with words about how it can move forward together. That to me is potential in music and makes me super excited about what we have in this gift of music. Yes, we perform, but we can be so much more. And that’s what I want to get other young people to think about. I mean, think of a whole generation of young people coming up thinking, “Oh yes, I have this gift and yes, I can play performances and all this is great but what can be of service to the world? How can I make the world a better place? How can we use this as a tool to uplift everyone and not just myself?”
There’s more on Joseph Conyers, including his first attempts to master the bass guitar, on our website.