Articulate

S7 E11 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: July 09, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

- [Announcer] "Articulate" with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(soft music)

- Welcome to "Articulate,"

the show that explores the big ideas

behind great creative expression.

I'm Jim Cotter and on this episode,

double bass Joseph Conyers in concert and in conversation.

(intriguing orchestral music)

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.

- 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 (laughs)

can actually have a voice

that can soothe, that can calm,

and be just as lyrical as a violin or a soprano.

(bright bass and piano music)

- [Tim] Conyers's 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.

- 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.

- So while I'm going to church every Sunday

and six days a week at home as a child.

- Reading six days a week?

- Oh yeah, between Bible study and choir rehearsal

and church meeting

and it was a 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.

(soft bass and piano music)

That influence of my upbringing

influences the way I play a piece

like the Bottesini's 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.

(soft bass and piano music)

- [Tim] 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.

(energetic bass music)

- This is a really powerful section

and you think I'd be right at the throttle

but because of the nuances of the string crossings

in 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.

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.

- [Tim] And how Joseph Conyers

thinks about what music is for

is rooted in those early days in church.

- I bring that same enthusiasm

as a five, six, seven, eight year old alto

in the quiet 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.

(gentle bass and piano music)

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 and 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.

(beautiful bass and piano music)

- [Tim] 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.

- 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?

- [Tim] 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.

- 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.

- [Tim] 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.

- 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.

(gentle bass and piano music)

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 the woo and where it fits in the music.

♪ All I have needed Thy hand hath provided ♪

It's, I told you I can't sing. (laughs)

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.

(hopeful bass and piano music)

- [Tim] 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 towns

and the opportunities he was given is constant.

- 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 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 make the world a better place?

How can we use this as a tool

to uplift everyone and not just myself?"

(bright bass and piano music)

- [Tim] There's more on Joseph Conyers

including his first attempts to master the bass guitar

on our website.

- Okay.

(groovy guitar music)

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