Start by Changing a Kid

[Originally posted by Josh Yarden at AllCityPhiladelphia.org, July 25th, 2015]

Q & A with Joseph Conyers and Vinny Luciano, a master and an apprentice. 

There was certainly no lack of nice, interesting and talented people on the All City Italy Tour. Almost every conversation turned into a worthwhile discovery. Here’s one story that really goes to the heart of what All City is all about.

imageI had an opportunity to have breakfast with Joseph Conyers, Asst. Principal Bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra and All City Music Director Designate, and Vincent (Vinny) Luciano, an All City alum from CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts), currently majoring in bass performance at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. Vinny is in Mr. Conyers’ bass studio at Temple, but their connection began while Vinny was still in high school.

Q: Vinny, what did All City offer you as a high school student?

A: First thing, you get out of your own school and play with kids from all over the city. You learn not to take anything for granted. Performing at the Kimmel Center was really inspiring, sitting and playing on the same stage where the Philadelphia Orchestra plays.

Q: How did you come to take lessons with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra?

A: I was in All City from my freshman year, and I participated in the WaBass program at the Curtis Institute. Some of the students at Wabass were really great and inspiring. I took one lesson with Joe there, and then met him again when I was a junior. I approached him after he taught a master class at CAPA, and I said, “I know you’re really busy, but do you have time to take on another student?”

Q: Was that a difficult request to make?

imageA: I’m pretty shy one-on-one, so I was very nervous about asking, but I really wanted to take lessons.

Q: Joe, how did you decide to take on another student?

A: I knew Vinny wasn’t taking regular lessons, and having heard him play, I saw a lot of potential.

Q: How do you detect that?

A: Initiative, enthusiasm… Drive.

Joe paused to think for a moment before answering, and I realized that what he didn’t say was as important as what he did. He didn’t say anything about measuring talent or ability with any sort of standardized playing test. I followed up.

Q: How do you know when you are listening to a diamond in the rough?

A: You can see when someone is trying to make musical gestures, striving… that sparkle in the eye.

Q: What do you do, Joe, if a student doesn’t turn out to have what it takes?

A: I’m pretty direct. I’m pretty busy, with no time for baby sitting… I always give people many chances, and there have been close calls, but I’ve never dropped a student, because they eventually rise to the level of the high bar I set for them.

Q: What if they can’t reach the bar?

A: I’m thinking about my students wanting to get a job. That’s the end game, and I know what it’s going to take to get there. The student has to be aware. Otherwise they’re on cloud nine and they’ll show up unprepared for an audition. I sit behind the screen at blind auditions, and when I hear someone who wasn’t properly prepared, I sometimes want them to go back to where they studied and ask for their money back!   There is a level of musical understanding that should be brought to the table at every audition, and I expect at least that minimum level of understanding to be exhibited by all of my students.

The story of Vinny’s path from being a shy freshman at CAPA, hoping to learn to play the base, to becoming a musician and a freshman at Temple University majoring in bass performance offers an important lesson, and it’s not just a music lesson. It’s a life lesson as well: If you really want something, don’t just wish you had it. Reach out and ask for it. Then prove you deserve it. 

All City invites high school students into a world of advanced musicianship where they have an opportunity to pursue excellence. Of course, becoming a musician is not for everyone. As the members of the orchestra experiment with their natural talent and discover their potential to become musicians, they also learn that they can apply this dedication to the pursuit of any dream. 

As Joseph Conyers put it: “Start by changing a kid, then a family, then a community. You can literally change the world.”

Q: Joe, what is it like to take on the leadership of All City in addition to being a musician in the Philadelphia Orchestra and the director of Project 440?

A: I’ve been in the field for 10 years as a professional musician. I love playing, and I love teaching, and this is a good move for me professionally. I’m still discovering aspects of the music and aspects about myself, after 23 years of playing the bass. I know that music can help kids look inside themselves.

One thing Project 440 pushes is using music as a tool for service. It offers education and beauty as well as leadership building, by sending the students out into their community as ambassadors for music, striving for excellence, offering inspiration for their peers, so they see what someone can achieve.

I know that not all the students are going to become professional musicians, but I want them to discover what it means to strive for greatness. There is so much talent in Philadelphia. This is the public school system, the heart and soul of the city. I love the fact that we can celebrate their achievements and encourage them to keep discovering.

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