Friday, June 03, 2011


I used to have a great deal of ambition. I saw very few barriers to my success (even with flute as my instrument) when I was young. I had the necessary social skills, and I knew many of the right people. I had the ability to work hard, and the drive to work harder than anyone I knew. Unfortunately hard work could not achieve the things I lacked (like musical maturity) and, unlike many of my peers, I was not the kind of person who never made a mistake, or who looked attractive enough for it not to matter.

When I was young I had the ability to make people believe in me. But there came a point when I realized that my ambition to be great was not about being great. It was about other people acknowledging my "greatness." I gradually became aware that I was presenting a facade, so I stopped being so ambitious and started being more honest. It was only after that point that I began to get some real insight about music, and that's when I started to get some of the musical maturity that I always wanted. Real musical maturity only comes with age and experience. The stuff that seems like musical maturity in young people is often the result of something learned from a mature teacher, and "imported" into a carefully-planned performance. I didn't learn about this kind of thing until fairly late in the game.

At this point I wouldn't trade my hard-won musical maturity, musical honesty, and my genuine love of music for what some people call "success." I do believe, at least in my case, that it would be a trade-off, and that the quality of my playing and the quality of my compositions would suffer. I know that it would be unhealthy for me to dust off my old ambition for greatness and try to wear it. It's not only out of style and out of date, it requires a whole new operating system.

Sure. I want to play better, but I want to play better for my own enjoyment and so that people who come to my concerts can have a positive musical experience. I also want to allow my colleagues to have a positive musical experience. Sure. I want to write better music, but I am long past the need for what I write to be judged. I want what I write to be enjoyable for the people playing it and for the people listening to it. Sure. I want to be a better teacher, but I want my students to come away from lessons and classes having learned something. After that, the fact that I was the one who taught them something doesn't matter. Sure. I want to be a better writer, but I believe that the purpose of being a better writer is to get a point across so it can be understood. There is a difference between integrity and ambition.

I often see the spoils of ambitious people who have never wavered in their quest for acknowledged greatness. I see it in "Great Performances" on the television, and I hear it on recordings. I see it in young conductors, and in conductors who are no longer young. I hear about it, once in a while, from people who long to be admired for what they do and how hard they work, but have been disappointed by the response of an audience, a critic, or a colleague. It often seems that people who are ambitious eventually encounter some form of deep disappointment.

My plan is to avoid disappointment. Would you call it an "ambition" to avoid disappointment?

1 comment:

R J said...

Very humane and moving, much as one would expect from your American Record Guide reviews. I was particularly impressed by this passage: "The stuff that seems like musical maturity in young people is often the result of something learned from a mature teacher, and 'imported' into a carefully-planned performance."

Didn't Alfred Brendel say somewhere (defending his dislike of piano competitions, and his refusal to participate in them as a young man) that a pianist has to be 35 years old, at least, before he or she can adequately play a slow movement?