Phil Smith is the principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. In his first professional audition, while still a student, he won a place in the Chicago Symphony. A few years later, while still in his 20s, Phil became the New York Philharmonic’s principal trumpet as a result of his second professional audition. Concertgoers routinely pay a lot of money to hear Phil perform. But he also regularly plays in front of Salvation Army kettles and in Salvation Army bands, sometimes in the vicinity of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the home of the Philharmonic. In that context, he is routinely ignored, sometimes by the very people who pay big money to see him perform in the nearby concert hall. Those who hear him in a different context simply don’t recognize the value of what they are hearing. The great violinist Joshua Bell has had a similar experience, the recounting of which won a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain what obscenity is by saying, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it…” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964)). If value exists and if we can attribute at least some of it to skill, will we be able to recognize it when we see it? Our success depends upon our being able to do so.