On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat among a capacity crowd in a darkened auditorium. I sat on the edge of my seat as, upon the stage, about a hundred young people between the ages of ten and seventeen played complex classical musical masterpieces with stunning perfection. The music by Beethoven, Bruch, and Mahler was being played by members of a city youth orchestra. It was the youth orchestra of one of America’s most deeply troubled cities. Violent crime, high school drop-out rates, rampant drug use and the virtual abolition of normal family life plague this city. Surviving somehow, in this desert of doom and destruction, were these children who devoted hours to honing their musical talents and their parents who made music lessons a priority despite competing pulls on their time and finances. There I sat in open-mouthed astonishment in a virtual oasis, surrounded by the parents and siblings as these young virtuosos played their hearts out on stage.
But wait! Was my sense of wonder really well placed? In many parks and fields around that same city were plenty of other groups of young people. They were playing football, soccer or basketball. Of those, quite a few were on teams playing proficiently. Is there really any difference between being on a football team and playing in a youth orchestra? Don’t they both require discipline, dedication, and teamwork? Why be more amazed at music than basketball? I asked myself whether there really is any true and objective reason to value participating in a youth orchestra more than participating in athletics and sports?