01/02/2013 09:17 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Play On -- A Common Vision for Philly

According to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts study, Philadelphia's children face incredible challenges. It is impossible to point the blame at any one issue and the stress our children live with increases at a rate that they can't compete with: crime, poverty, and an educational system facing serious difficulties. Philadelphia has the unfortunate title of being the poorest major city in the United States as 26.7 percent of its residents live at or below the federal poverty rate. The local poverty rate is 31 percent for families with children and 47 percent for families headed by a woman.

I've traveled to over a dozen countries around the world and have taught and performed for all types of people. One universal lesson that I have learned from all of my travels came from the children I interacted with. The amount of financial and material resources weren't nearly as destructive to a young child's life as the child feeling the world had nothing to offer them and they had nothing to contribute to the world. When you add the stress of hopelessness to the stress of poverty, then it makes it extremely difficult for a child to learn the skills they need to develop into a contributing member of society.

Concentrating on child development now will set a firm foundation for community and economic development tomorrow. The challenges our children face cost our society hundreds of millions and will cost us hundreds of billions tomorrow if we don't invest wisely in our children and families. When we fail to provide our children with the skills they need for our changing world, we put our future prosperity and security at risk.

We have approximately 234,000 children in Philadelphia where 143,000 of them will graduate from high school and 42,000 of them will graduate from college. How many of the 93,000 children that live in poverty in Philadelphia be amongst the 91,000 that won't graduate from high school? How much will we spend on these children in the future to keep their body and soul together?

We serve 250 children through Play On, Philly! and engage them in after school music instruction for three hours each weekday throughout the school year and six hours each weekday for half of the summer. What would 650 hours of music instruction each year do for a sixth grader who is scared to go home to a violent neighborhood? What would 8,000 hours of music instruction do for a child who spent twelve years in our program who doesn't know who their father is?

If we look at census and city data that is used to predict how many jail cells to build in the future and government subsidies to provide, we can understand the future risks we face as a society. That data shows us that six of our students are in danger of spending the rest of their life in prison by their nineteenth birthday, which will cost over $2 million for each person. The same data shows us that 102 of our students will drop out of high school and 141 will spend the rest of their life on a permanent government subsidy.

Researchers from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child have recently identified a balanced approach to emotional, social, cognitive, and language development which will best prepare all children for success in school and later in the workforce and community. When our students perform in an orchestra and reinforce those skills on a daily basis, we are teaching them to come together for the greater good. We show them that dedication and hard work goes hand-in-hand with building pride and self-confidence. The result of our work helps to build the essential skills they will need for success tomorrow: improving their working memory, cognitive and mental flexibility, and inhibition control.

This is the beginning of our story in Philadelphia as we share a common vision to build accessible youth orchestra programs in every community in the city. One day, it will be normal for children in the Italian district, Chinatown, or deep in West Philly to spend multiple hours each day making music with their friends and proudly performing for their communities. We are only as strong as our weakest child and every one of them can be strengthened with the passion that music brings.