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Can the arts create better people? This Philadelphia Orchestra musician thinks so.

"The goal is not to create more musicians," said Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bassist for the Philadelphia Orchestra. "We want to use music to create better people."

Joseph Conyers, Philadelphia Orchestra bassist and founder of Project 440, talks to a parent and student at the organization's recent college fair for musicians.
Joseph Conyers, Philadelphia Orchestra bassist and founder of Project 440, talks to a parent and student at the organization's recent college fair for musicians.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Marquise Bradley is a clarinet player, a 17-year-old with talent, good grades, and a dream to play in a top orchestra someday.

But no one in Bradley's family is a professional musician, and none of his neighbors in Olney could tell him the steps he should take to realize the goals he began building when he first picked up a clarinet at age 13.

Enter Project 440, a nonprofit that has helped Bradley sharpen his focus, develop leadership skills — and connect with some of the top conservatories and colleges in the country. Now, he has his sights set on Oberlin College, and has, with a group of fellow students, created his own chamber orchestra.

Project 440 is the brainchild of Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bassist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, who often explains to people that yes, he does operate a music organization that doesn't teach music.

The nonprofit — so named because 440 hertz is the pitch "A" used to tune the orchestra at the beginning of every performance — uses music to teach entrepreneurship, leadership, and service to Philadelphia students.

The organization helps young people thrive through weekly workshops in social entrepreneurship and post-secondary success, through learning about how nonprofits work and launching them on projects managing ambitious community-service activities of their own.

It's the first of its kind in the region. And to date, Project 440 has served hundreds of Philadelphia youth.

"The goal is not to create more musicians," Conyers said. "We want to use music to create better people."

Creating opportunities

Project 440 was born in Conyers' hometown of Savannah, Ga., in 2007, after the orchestra there disbanded, and Conyers and two other musicians founded the group to fill the gap with community engagement and workshops in high-visibility public spaces. They called it "Savannah Chamber Players" and quickly realized it was tough to find young musicians with the vision and ability to aid the public and feed and inspire everyday music lovers.

When Conyers came in 2010 to Philadelphia, a city with a rich landscape of arts nonprofits, the organization moved and shifted its mission to focus on educating young musicians about service to the community through their art and about the skills to succeed in the larger world. It also changed its name to Project 440.

"The arts," Conyers said, "can play a pivotal role in underserved communities, giving kids opportunities, giving them things that they keep for the rest of their lives."

Music has given Conyers myriad opportunities.

He began playing piano at age 5 and took up bass at 11, fulfilling the dream of his mother, who, as a young person in the segregated South, was stirred when she heard classical music on the radio.

"She said, 'I want my kids to do that,'" Conyers said.

Growing up, Conyers would perform with his mother, an amateur singer, playing piano when she sang Messiah in spots all over Savannah.  He went on to study music at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music and play professionally, ultimately with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He teaches at Temple University, plays internationally, and has been awarded multiple prizes for his music and his work in the community.

Conyers has long had an appetite for community work, fed in large part by a trip through an impoverished Georgia town his family took when he was a child. He recalled his mother looking at a group of children playing and saying: One of these kids could be the next Albert Einstein or Yo-Yo Ma, and we won't know, because they lack opportunities.

"That haunted me," said Conyers. "That still haunts me."

A new entry point

Conyers in 2015 took over management of the Philadelphia School District's All City programs to highlight top youth musicians, which gives him access to hundreds of students who might be interested in Project 440's programs. The organization does outreach work, too, focusing lately on the city's comprehensive high schools, where access to music programs can be more limited than at magnets.

But the organization, which operates on an annual budget of about $200,000, aims to capture not just those students interested in traditional classical music. The ones who are in rock bands, who study music production, who simply appreciate music, are welcome, too. The aim is musical literacy, in whatever form that might take.

"We can't just ram Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms down their throats," said Conyers, himself a devotee of Brahms. "The entry point has to be different."

Project 440 has two main tracks: Doing Good emphasizes leadership and community engagement and encourages students to concoct and manage their own projects; Instruments for Success leads student musicians through college prep and career exploration. Both pay students stipends for their time.

Frank Machos, the district's executive director of the Office of the Arts and Academic Enrichment, said the organization serves students well on multiple fronts.

"There's a lot of jobs that don't even exist yet, or that they're going to create themselves," said Machos, a Project 440 board member.

Project 440 staged its signature event at the Kimmel Center this week, a college fair that connected 400 students with 40 colleges, from Julliard and the New England Conservatory to Rice University and Johns Hopkins University.

Students attended workshops on topics ranging from how to record yourself for an auditions to crafting a compelling personal essay — all tailored for musicians, many of whom might not otherwise be exposed to such a range of schools.

"Most college fairs are geared toward people in traditional academic fields," said Bradley, the Olney teen and a senior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. "The representatives can tell you they have a music program, but not much more."

Last year, Bradley learned more about Oberlin, which quickly shot to No. 1 on his wish list once he learned about its well-regarded conservatory and that the college meets all financial need.

Chloe Cooper, a flute player and senior at CAPA who volunteers with Project 440 after going through its programs, has started her own nonprofit, Generation Music, to teach children about classical music and diversify professional orchestras.

"Not every school in the district has music," Cooper said. "I want other kids to have the same things I had."

Cooper, who wants to eventually go into arts administration, said she has been inspired by her work with the organization.

"I've made a bunch of connections," Cooper said. "I don't know if I'd be where I am today without Project 440."