I recently heard composer Michael Pisaro talk about the value of engaging deeply with a seemingly simple activity. He said that the process of doing this is far more important than any sense of end product that it creates.
He was referring to a particular kind of noise-making that is the backbone of much of his music. He was saying that if the performers got so caught up in rubbing brushes across a surface, it almost wouldn’t matter if they missed their next entrance. To engage deeply with a seemingly simple process like this can be a profound experience.
This idea reminds me of backpacking. Engaging deeply with the act of putting one foot in front of the other is seemingly monotonous but can reveal itself to be incredibly expressive. The hiker can become acutely aware of their activity and everything happening in the moment.
The same happens with musicians which becomes clear in Pisaro’s music. The performer who can operate in the process of music making itself can have a much more meaningful experience than the performer who gets caught up in judgment and ego.
This translates into more enjoyment for the audience as well. Seeing a single note played with focused intent is far more interesting than seeing a whole Paganini Caprice played like a showoff.
I try to play my scales while striving for this kind of deep, processual engagement. I used to play scales as though there was some end goal, as if I would some day play them at a certain speed with a certain amount of accuracy and be done with them. I have come to learn that there is no end goal with scales or anything else really. There is only process and engagement.
There are stories of people who hiked the entire Appalachian trail and, upon arriving at the final terminus, turned around and started hiking back the way they came. They got to the end, the perceived endpoint, and realized that the entire time they were hiking, the real goal was the hiking itself. Although not everyone turns around upon reaching the end of the trail, I have never met someone who was finished with the AT after a through-hike. Everyone I know returns to the trail repeatedly for the rest of their life.
Hikers, musicians, and especially Michael Pisaro all know that there is no final goal, no fairytale ending to anything. There is only process and engaging with it can be the most beautiful experience.