Sunday, August 15, 2010

'Forging New Ground: Joseph Conyers' From an interview conducted by Karan Morrow (Editor, Reverberations)

[Joseph Conyers]

Karan Morrow has provided AfriClassical with part of the article she wrote on bassist Joseph Conyers for the July 2010 issue of Reverberations, an online publication of The National Association of Negro Musicians. The complete article can be read at:

Mr. Joseph Conyers is, to say the least, an extraordinary young man. He has a list of accolades and accomplishments: trained at The Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, PA) in Double Bass Performance, graduating in 2004; a founding member of Project 440 (formerly MusicAlive!, a non-profit organization which provides inspiration, motivation and encouragement for children through the power of classical music, based in Savannah, Georgia after the city’s symphony orchestra folded in 2003, which discontinued the orchestra’s educational outreach programs); a Second Place Laureate in the Senior Division at the 2004 Sphinx Organization Competition; Principal Bass with the Grand Rapids Symphony (MI); Section Bass with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra (NM); profiled in Ebony Magazine’s “30 Leaders 30 and Younger” (2007); Section Bass with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; 2010 Sphinx Organization Competition Juror, the first Sphinx Laureate to serve on a jury panel. And he’s just getting started. His most recent accomplishment - winning the audition for the assistant principal double bass seat with the Philadelphia Orchestra (June 2, 2010).

I interviewed Joseph over the phone following a round of several performance engagements in Savannah through his non-profit organization, Project 440. A joy to speak with, Joseph is insightful, wise, passionate and has a wonderful sense of humor. So many things have been written about him, but not enough tells us who Joseph Conyers is.

While Conyers began his musical journey on the piano at age five; his older brother began the violin at age nine, and his twin sister started the cello at five years old, so his siblings had an interest in string instruments early on. When Joseph turned 11, he decided to pick up playing another instrument. “The main reason I wanted to play an orchestral instrument is because they [his brother and sister] got to play with their friends...make music WITH other people. As a pianist - I was a little jealous of this, so it helped fuel the fire for me to start a new instrument.” Without a doubt, his family was very supportive in the pursuit of music for the children. What about young musicians whose families may not support a decision to pursue classical music? Conyers offers the following: “If you are looking for more money, the easy thing to do, or want to hang out and do more with your friends, then a career in classical music may not be the right path. You must develop the discipline and patience to learn and practice your instrument. Your heart needs to be in it. You’ll have to endure the difficulty and sacrifices needed and love the art of classical music.” He further states that “...the point is that if socializing is more important than playing your instrument, then one might need to consider something else because there are many times when musical preparation can be unbelievably time consuming and choices will have to be made.” He fully embraces that his talent is God-given and that he must use it properly.

Growing up, Joseph’s musical background is also rooted in gospel. He sang in his Baptist church choir, beginning in the
alto section (he eventually moved to the tenor section when his voice changed). His preference is traditional gospel music- “ has heart and drive.” When asked if he still sings, his response, infused with a jovial laugh was “No! I’ll just keep my day job playing the bass.”

Curious about the transition from gospel music to classical music, Joseph interestingly says that the connection was easy for him. His mother listened to classical music on the radio and thought it was nice - something her children should be exposed to. His piano background helped him avoid the intonation problems that bass players sometimes have when transitioning from another instrument and made learning to play the bass easier.

As for where his family is today, Joseph’s mother is a soprano who still sings with her church choir, and has sung with various church choirs as well as in the Savannah Symphony Chorus. She taught English for over 30 years at a local Savannah high school. His father (who is from Bainbridge, GA) worked as a business administrator at Savannah State, where his parents met. His brother is an auditor for a large corporation and is based out of Los Angeles. His sister is a marketing manager in Oregon, who still plays the cello in a local community orchestra.

Conyers has had several articles written about his style of playing; the descriptions expressing the critiques of those who hear him play (Joseph’s style is so well-regarded that he had a concerto written for him while a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony). For this interview, it was more interesting to know how
he describes his style. He says, “I play to the very best of my ability.” He wants audiences to know that the double bass “is not just an accompanying or background instrument.” He says his “style” is being seriously committed to exceptional quality in his playing. “The bass is a vocal cantabile instrument and has the ability to express wonderful vocal lines. It can emulate the voice as well as the violin.” Unfortunately, solo repertoire for the double bass is lacking in variety and he would certainly like to see expanded repertoire for the double bass as a solo instrument.

A zealous, civic-minded musician, Joseph expresses a sincere and heartfelt desire for classical music to be more relevant to the world, to communities and to the overall social fabric. “It needs to be connected to society in all ways to maintain its viability. The power of music cannot be overstated.”

Joseph is excited about the possibility of his new career chapter in Philadelphia. It is a returning “home” of sorts because of his history with The Curtis Institute, and will in many ways be a reunion. He says that he is ready to “grow his own artistry” as an ensemble musician and as a solo performer.

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