Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Walking the Ambit

My daughter Kerala’s most recent writing piece is a farewell to ambition. At least as our society defines it. She tells of how she was obsessed with getting the good grades and getting into the “good schools” and moving up the ladder in the “good jobs” and worked so hard to prove herself in everything she did. And succeeded. Until in her 40’s she’s realized that the shiny gleam of the trophies—real and symbolic— have lost their luster and were all surface polish. She is now looking into the inner gold that is never tarnished by time. Indeed, the 40’s is often the time when one pauses on the ladder, notices when it is up against the wrong wall and climbs back down into the intimate and more soul-satisfying details of a live well-lived. 


I was witness to her perfectionism throughout her childhood, admired it, supported it and was proud of all her successes. I now feel all those same things about the turn in the road she is taking. But reading her article made me realize how my own journey was the polar opposite of hers!

As a kid, I cared little for grades and my main concern was to have fun wherever I was, even if it sent me out into the school hallways for punishment. I was sloppy in my piano practice, wanting to just get the feel for the pleasure of music rather than do the hard, detailed work that would land me on a concert stage. I was immensely happy and even proud that at Antioch College, I got credit (literal credits) for canoeing, hitchhiking, camping and wine-tasting. I had no focused college major, just barely managed to cobble together a BA in Education with a minor in Music. After graduation, I moved out to San Francisco with no concrete plan whatsoever about a career, content with the help of food stamps and San Francisco’s now unbelievable cheap rents in the early 70’s to piece together a little income accompanying modern dance classes and teaching a few piano lessons. I spent a lot of time just wandering around exploring the city with a book of poetry in my pocket. 


When after two years, I finally stumbled upon an actual full time job teaching music at The San Francisco School, I still had no greater aspirations than having a good time with the kids and my fellow teachers. It wasn’t until I discovered that I actually was a pretty good music teacher for both kids and adults wanting to learn the Orff approach that my ambitions rose a bit. I started teaching Orff workshops, eventually took the official Orff training, got hooked into a larger network and invited to present around the country and some 15 years later, around the world. My appetite for it all grew and my ambition enlarged and though I didn’t exactly feel driven in an obsessive kind of way, I certainly was determined to drive that car into places where it often didn’t go— jazz centers, cultures worldwide, books published, documentary film made and beyond. 

The root of ambition is “ambit”— the circuit, circumference and edge of a place, but also our capabilities. Walking the ambit is measuring one’s own size, finding the borders of our personal powers— and then sometimes stepping out of them into new territory. “Ambire” in ancient Rome meant the politician going around soliciting votes. Both definitions ring true for me. Mostly, I am so deeply happy wherever and whenever I do this work, grateful just to be in the moment of music-making with whoever is in the room. At the same time, I’m always letting the people know about the opportunities for more— here are my books, check out my film, watch my Ted talk and consider the Orff Levels training in California or Jazz Orff Course in New Orleans this summer. At 72 years old, I not only haven’t given up ambition— both in the sense of measuring my place in this work and enticing people to support my efforts to do more— but sometimes feel its insatiable appetite growing even stronger as I near the end of my ability to do it. Unlike my daughter, who began ambitious and now is talking herself down from the ledge, my life has been the opposite, moving from “whatever” to “more!!”

In the end, I think we both will—or have— arrived at the same place. We both still crave success, but both agree that it needs a new definition. Or rather an old one, as so eloquently defined by Emerson over 150 years ago:


“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether it be a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived here. This is to have succeeded.”

Amen to that. 


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