Musical Secrets – Lilias Mackinnon

Eleven points taken from the book, Musical Secrets by Lilias Mackinnon.

IT is the nature of mind to wander, and one thought inevitably suggests another. Take an object such as a pencil and try to concentrate on it for five minutes, and in five seconds you will probably find your mind full of irrelevant things.
The only way to concentrate on that pencil is to give your mind a reason for looking at it. Consider the size of the pencil, its shape, its uses, &c., and without effort you will be able to think continuously about it.
In order, therefore, to concentrate on music or anything else, you must think not only about it, but round it. Many people worry because their thoughts naturally wander, and they try to check the sequence of thought instead of rather making use of it. Indeed, the train of thought, or chain of thought, is necessary to memory, and without it the recall of anything would be an impossibility. To concentrate you must learn to direct your thoughts, and to prevent them from wandering away from a thing, you must train them instead to wander round it.

The mechanical practice of many instrumentalists is worse than a waste of time because it prevents concentration. Such practice is based on the old idea that repetition is in itself a good thing, but without conscious attention it leaves little impression on the mind. Repetition is therefore valuable or valueless according to the way in which it is employed, either intelligently or the reverse. You can hardly expect to retain an interest in material which you rehearse in an aimless way. Your mind will certainly become bored, when your attention will wander to other and fresher fields of thought. On this account, in practice both the quantity and the quality of the repetitions employed are important. To be effectual, they must be not only musical, but limited in number. Three correct repetitions made under the direction of conscious attention are of far more value than a dozen made with the mind full of irrelevant things.


For every repetition give yourself a reason. A reason will arouse your interest, and interest is the secret of concentration. Do not allow yourself to repeat a passage even once without deciding beforehand the end in view. Say to yourself, ‘What do I want to do with this passage? What does it mean musically? What shall I do with it technically?’ And if you cannot get the effect you wish, seek the cause for the failure before you try again.
When the music practised becomes familiar, then is mind-wandering most apt to take place; but a certain way of stimulating interest at this stage is to think of one aspect of the work at a time. For instance, if you are a pianist, you may play a passage once, trying to improve the phrasing; again, trying to improve the quality of the bass; yet again, perfecting the pedalling. Finally, you may relax your mind, and perform that passage subconsciously,
giving your attention solely to listening and to criticizing your own performance as an audience would.
In practice, then, make a reason for everything you do; and if you entertain your mind with intelligent methods of work, instead of tiring it with meaningless repetition, you will be surprised to find how thoroughly, like an interested child, it will give the subject all its attention. Such ‘spontaneous ‘ attention is easy and effortless, and work done under its direction will be well done and accomplished with a minimum of fatigue. On the contrary, attention induced by an effort of will is tiring and it cannot last long without repeated efforts of will to bring it back to the matter in hand.
If you wish to increase your power of concentration, you must form a habit of taking one thing at a time and of doing it thoroughly, whatever it may be. Let nothing exist for the moment but the thing in hand; make it an end in itself and it will prove to be the means to an end, the development of mental capacity in all spheres of work. Even if you have to do something which in itself is distasteful to you, give yourself a reason for the doing of it. If you remind yourself, too, that by doing that thing well you are also learning to do other things better, you will be able to focus your attention much more easily, besides improving your capacity for work in practice hours, through forming a habit of
being on the spot.
Worry is just a sign of an uncontrolled mind. the person who worries allows his mind to wander to things that do not concern the present —to things that have happened in the past, or to things that very probably may never happen at all.
If you find yourself obsessed by thoughts that are of no use to you, thoughts which instead tire your mind and sap your vitality, set to work on something of a practical nature with an immediate end in view. Just as useful as the faculty of remembering is the faculty of forgetting, of forgetting for the time everything but the matter in hand. As a muscle not used will lose its power, so a thought not dwelt upon will fade away, and a sure method of forgetting anything is to neglect it. It is important, however, to realize that a thought should not be forced into the mental
background. Rather should the mind be led away from the worrying thought by some form of distraction, the most
effectual of which is another interest.

There is no doubt that music stirs subconscious memory, and when practising, some busy people find that ideas crop up regarding irrelevant things. Such ideas may be good ideas which should not be lost, or they may be thoughts which if repressed might worry the mind of the player. Therefore, it is a wise plan to keep a book handy in which to note any good ideas that come to the surface, and in which to jot down also things that may have to be seen to at a future time. By so doing, the student will be able to give his attention more fully to the musical work before him.

Before Practising, relax physically. Think quietly about the work you choose to do and what you intend to do with it. Though you should make a general plan, it will discourage you to see all the difficulties en masse; and you must train yourself not to worry about tomorrow’s possible difficulties, but to give all your attention to the work of to-day.
Try to map out your time to the best advantage. Note what methods of work give you the best results: above all, be systematic abot the number of repetitions you employ
and the manner of spacing them. Through intelligent experiment you will find that short spells of concentrated(interested) work give the best results; and if a passage has to be repeated, say , twelve times in a morning , it is far more beneficial to divide the
repetitions into four sets (each consisting of four sets of three repeats) than it is to make twelve repetitions on end. Intelligent practice such as this will help you not only to concentrate – it will save you a great deal of time, for what is learned with
concentrated attention is never forgotten. Rather than work continuously on the same material, as so many do, it is far better to learn a number of pieces side by side. By turning your attention from one piece of music to another you will rest you mind instead of tiring it; and furthermore, you will give you subconcious mind time to solve difficulties in its own mysterious way.

Many Musicians make the mistake of forcing themselves to practise when physically or mentally tired out. This you should never do. Even more players make the mistake of practicing for too long at a stretch, forgetting that in all work it is essential to avoid ‘staleness’. Practice periods should be short and to the point; but as apparent fatigue is only boredom, if you keep a fresh and attractive piece of music at hand, you will be surprised to find how easy it is to reawaken interest with something new.
People vary considerably in the amount of work they can do without fatigue, but a good rule is to stop, not when you’re tired, but before you’re tired. If you make yourself stop practise while your interest in it is still keen, you will find it easy to pick up the
threads at a point at which you left off.


In Public the performer should have no thoughts for the opinion of the audience. His business is to interpret his music to the best of his ability, which is impossible unless he is listening attentively to all he is doing. Instead, some performers allow their minds to stray to the audience and its possible criticism, and this inattention not only affects the performance, but readers the player both self-conscious and nervous.
If you find that your mind wanders in public, your methods of practice are probably to blame. Only by making the music you play absorbingly interesting for yourself in practice hours can you hope to cure mind-wandering either when alone or when playing before others.
To be able to make the best use of your powers both mental and physical, you must be able to relax, not only your muscles, but also your mind.
To relax physically, lie down and allow trunk, limbs, and head to lie heavily of their own weight. There should be no effort in this; simply release all tension. When the body is fully relaxed as described, relax also the muscles of the face and eyes.
To relax mentally, you must be able to release all tension at the back of the eyes; and if you can succeed in doing this, you will find that conscious thought will cease. But remember that to bring about this state of mind you must eliminate all sense of effort.
Mental relaxation, as described, is an unfailing cure for insomnia: it is a necessary part of mind control, the musician who practises it daily will experience, along with an improvement in mental health, a considerably increased power of concentration available for work.
Individuals vary as regards the length of time for which they can concentrate, but the one who works in short spells and who works well can do as much and probably more than another who is always ‘at it’, and who does not give his mind a rest it requires and
the exercise it needs in the way of varied reactions. To be an interesting interpreter one must be an interesting person, and to study subjects other than music should be anything but a waste of time to an intelligent musician.


Leave a comment

Filed under Zen

Comments are closed.