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A class in classical music

POSTED: September 19, 2013 8:46 p.m.
Photo by Paul Floeckher/

Bassist and Project 440 director Joe Conyers encourages the children to “be unique, be yourself.”

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Not all elementary school students are able to see symphony performances.


So, on Wednesday, classical musicians came to them.


A quintet from Project 440, in conjunction with the Savannah Music Festival’s Music for Our Schools program, performed for students in kindergarten-fourth grade at Sand Hill Elementary School.


Project 440 is a group of musicians who “encourage, educate and empower communities through the unifying power of music.” The quintet performed a classical music rendition of the children’s story “The Fish Who Could Wish.”


“What’s so great about it to me is that these children don’t necessarily have exposure to that caliber of performer. They are top-notch,” said Sand Hill Elementary Principal Kristen Richards.


Thirty-five schools in and around Savannah applied to host one of the performances. SHES was one of only 10 selected and was the only one in Effingham County.


“We want to expose as many kids as possible to classical music,” said Jenny Woodruff, education director for the Savannah Music Festival. “The need is there. School music budgets are being cut all over the place.”


“The Fish Who Could Wish” tells the tale of a fish who wishes for all sorts of things, including a car and a castle. But by the end of the story, the fish has lost his individuality — and his ability to wish.


“The main point to the kids is, don’t give up on what makes you special,” said Project 440 director and bassist Joe Conyers. “Be unique, be yourself.”


That message resonates with Conyers, a Savannah native and Savannah Country Day School graduate. He said he took some kidding from his friends when he began playing the upright bass at age 11.


These days, Conyers is an accomplished musician. Along with directing Project 440, he is embarking on his fourth season as assistant principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.


“Find your passion and follow it, and work hard at it,” Conyers encouraged the students. “If you lose that one thing that makes you special, you might miss out on a really, really wonderful life. I do what I love, I’ve been doing it for 22 years and it makes me very, very happy.”


Sand Hill Elementary’s selection as one of the 10 schools for the performance resulted in part from its commitment to music education. Richards and Woodruff both praised SHES music teacher Nycole Leff for her work with students.


During the show, Conyers asked how many students play a musical instrument. Every student appeared to raise a hand.


“In her classroom, they do,” Richards said of Leff. “They play bongos and sticks and jingle bells and that kind of thing, so it was really cute that they all claim to play an instrument.”


Along with Conyers, the members of the quartet — violinists Blake Espy and Melissa White, violist Marisa Gelman and cellist Nick Canellakis — demonstrated the different sounds their instruments make. They each joked that they play the “best instrument in the orchestra” or even the “best instrument in the world.”


“The bigger the instrument, the lower the sound,” Gelman explained to the students.


Or as Conyers put it, “I’m Mr. Joe and I play down low,” as he displayed his large upright bass, nicknamed “Norma.”


The musicians discussed melody, harmony and rhythm, and how those elements work together to make beautiful music. They involved the students by having them tap their legs to keep a song’s beat or sing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”


In one of the show’s humorous moments, Conyers strummed the ominous “Jaws” theme on his bass.


“If you ever go to Tybee and you hear that music, don’t go in the water,” he playfully warned.


The quintet used no props or visual aids in its performance. It was simply five talented musicians holding the interest of elementary-school students through music, storytelling and education.


“The way they did it was so engaging. It didn’t take a full orchestra to present that,” Richards said. “I was really impressed that it only took that number of musicians, and then they were excited, animated, engaging and entertaining.”

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