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Supervising the Health of Pupils.

It is very difficult to train a hand the skin of which is in bad condition. Now, the skin is one of the three organs of excretion, the other two being the lungs and the intestines. Nine young girls out of ten put nearly all the work of the intestines and lungs on their skin, and the result is a chronic disturbance of this all-important organ. Anything more sluggish than the typical school-girl (especially the typical boarding-school girl) when physical exercise is demanded of her it is impossible to imagine. She will conspire for weeks to get out of gymnastics that ought to be a delight; when sent out for the morning ten-minute walk she will shiver motionless in the winter sun when she should be romping and frisking. She behaves exactly like a pussy-cat that longs to lie supine in a warm corner all day and only wake up at night when mousing expeditions are in order. The result is a chronic decrease of functional activity throughout the entire intestinal tract, and all the soluble matter which should pass out by the digestive processes is forced out by improper channels. The lungs are the first sufferers; but the lungs themselves—unused and not expanded by deep breathing and free motion in the open air—do not do their work either. The skin is thus the vehicle of extrusion. What piano-teacher fails to recognize that unhealthy, overworked skin; or has not been made to realize over and over in her teaching the difficulty of putting music into these clogged-up systems drowsy from their own poisonous secretions, or else hopelessly nervous and unhinged? Yellow or disfigured by eczema, morbid, cross, inert or feverishly overexcited, neither mind nor body are fit for the prosecution of the art of music, which is based on the rhythmical motions of health. In such cases the beginning of art must be a prescription from the family physician for the choked and inert liver; a vigorous prosecution of exercise, gymnastic and walking; a careful drill in the principles of breathing. Whereupon health, beauty, and musical advancement will occur simultaneously.

It is not the province of this paper to meddle with the duties of the family physician; but on the subject of breathing much remains to be taught. It is usually asserted that women should breathe from the upper part of their lungs and men from the lower. True, the majority of women do breathe in this way. This is the cause of their weak physical condition. Singers do not; and what pictures of rosy health they usually present! The true way to breathe is from the bottom of the lungs. Let the anemic girl go every night to her open window in a loose dress and standing with her hands on her sides just above the waist-line, slowly fill her lungs from the very bottom in such a way that the sides are consciously expanded first and the upper part of the chest last. Let her count slowly as she does this so that the action will be rhythmical, and the exhalation take at least as much time as the inhalation, and also be felt first at the bottom of the lungs. Let her begin with half a dozen inhalations at a time, and proceed carefully to extend the number and the length of time required to complete the action. In three weeks she will experience a new sense of life and elasticity. In six she will be a renewed woman. With elasticity comes technic. It is the root of technic.

The increase of the lung-cells and their greater efficiency is an increase of the blood-cleansing process of respiration, and at the same time an increase of the vital and electrical energies of the nervous system. If the nervous system is enfeebled or disarranged, progress in technic is utterly impossible, for technic is, primarily, a correct action of the nerves, beginning with the nerves of the skin. For this particular system of nerves a good rub daily from head to foot with a flesh-brush will often do wonders. It is often better than inordinate bathing, as it stimulants and does not drain off the vital force.

The activity of the nerves of the skin at the fingertips and along the course of the muscles which control the hands and arms is one great object of piano-practice. A large part of piano-technic consists in identifying, recognizing, and correlating the peculiar sensations occasioned by the motions involved in technic and along the line of muscular action. The action of the nerves is reciprocal. The will excites the motor nerves to action. The nerves of feeling telegraph the sensation thus caused to the automatic ganglion, which sets up a responsive automatic action by which the cycle of motions is completed and repeated. A familiar example of automatic nervous action is seen in the British method of recognizing deserters. At the word “strap” the finger of a British soldier automatically seeks a certain part of his uniform which, when in the army, he is in the habit of adjusting at this word of command. The fact that there is no uniform does not alter the correlation in his mind between the command and the motions of his hand. He cannot help doing it in spite of will and reason. All the normal motions of the body are the result of such automatic correlation of nervous action, and the art of piano- playing comes under exactly the same laws.

If the skin becomes so diseased as to interfere with or weaken the familiar sensations, the technic suffers correspondingly. The better the bodily condition, the better the nerves will learn their work of automatic action and the more infallible will be their response to the play of the eye, the ear, the mind, and the emotion.

Nothing is better for flabby skin, skins hardened by bodily disorders, chapped and roughened with exposure or caustic soaps than lanolin (extract of wool-oil) rubbed well into the pores. Where the skin is not nourished from within, as often happens in cases of non-assimilation of food, it may be fed in this way with excellent result. Where hands are tight knit and must be stretched, lanolin will impart the necessary elasticity, or, better still, the “skin-foods” to be had of reliable manicure establishments.

Pupils vary very much at different times in the condition of the skin of their hands and arms. In certain forms of nervous and assimilative disorders the skin of the palm of the hand hardens and thickens, and when the difficulty is removed recovers its softness and elasticity. Pupils with very thin-skinned palms, with faint, red lines are usually very emotional and sensitive, but they are also frequently too weak to play the piano successfully. The more feline the qualities of skin and muscle and nervous action, the better the technic will be. If you watch a cat about to spring, it is certain that the nerves of her spinal column are in intense activity long before she consummates the action. A similar nervous activity may be detected in the back of a concert-pianist in full swing in his piece. His whole spinal column is excited, and in full rhythmical activity. In moments of climax he even springs up and down in his seat. But this capacity for rhythmical excitability does not necessarily imply a noble or sensitive imagination.

The action of the imagination on the secretions and thus upon the skin cannot be overestimated. The cold, clammy hand which leaves a slimy track on the keys is the peculiar property of the young girl whose emotional nature has been cultivated out of all proportion to her physical development. Fear affects the heart and bathes the body in cold perspiration; and these self-centered, self-conscious self-tormentors literally exude their thousand fears through the pores of their skin. Piano-playing, by furnishing an outlet for their pent-up imaginations, is often a means of cure in itself. Unfortunately these delicate constitutions are peculiarly liable to colds, and, by an easy step, to catarrhs. Deep breathing and fresh air are a cure for their woes, but they will seldom take it. They pride themselves on their “sensibility”; but this sensibility is a bar to great success in piano-playing. Clammy hands are often the result of anemia; and anemia is as dangerous as it is common. Fear is a prime cause of anemia; and so is the desire for a slender figure.

There are various peculiar manifestations of stupidity in music which are largely physical. Stupidity in combination with a brown skin and a sticky hand indicates a sluggish liver; stupidity with pale cheeks and hollow eyes, anemia; stupidity with insomnia may very likely be the result of malaria or an interesting love-affair. There was once a teacher in a country-town whose unfailing remedy for thick-headedness in her pupils was a course of wheat-phosphates. She said it never failed.

Low spirits and consequent relaxed muscles make progress in technic impossible. You cannot train an organ that is in disorder. Moreover, when mind and body are out of order the action of the muscles is not co-ordinate. The flexor muscles are contracted by an overwrought mental condition, and when the extensors are, in turn, contracted to reverse the motion of the joints in any given cycle of muscular action the flexors do not relax in time. In such cases the two opposite muscles pull against each other, and clumsiness and in severer cases cramp result. As vitality decreases the power of prompt relaxation also decreases. Grace, nimbleness, and precision depend on the exact co-ordination of the action of the opposing motor nerves. In the majority of cases a special course of relaxing exercises is of great use in developing this power. When depressed in spirits, or weary, sight and hearing are less keen. Children who read very well when fresh and very poorly when tired are a part of every teacher’s experience. Thus, at every step in the giving of piano-lessons the work of teaching grows more complex. At the bottom, temperament is the cause of clumsiness of all sorts. Laughter in large doses, fresh air in heroic doses, a pleasant book, a cheerful subject of hope, a course of dancing-lessons, salt baths, in combination, often work wonders.

The nerves of the public-school child who undergoes monthly examinations should, however, be considered apart from all foregoing statements. In the case of this most disappointing of all pupils the effort is being made to establish a co-ordinate system of mental nervous action to the exclusion and detriment of all other. Perception, sensation, emotion, and muscular activity are each forcibly held in abeyance for many hours each day while the brain is stimulated to incessant activity. The result is that the activity of the functions named is weakened, impaired, and disorganized. The blood goes to the head instead of the back when bodily action is called for; they are utterly unable to pass to that condition of bodily poise where perception and feeling work together in artistic expression. Neither technic nor tone can thrive under such conditions.

I have spoken of the causes of an unduly moist skin. There are some pupils who have an equally pernicious fever and dryness. Some pianists have a way of getting skin-cracks when they are practicing. Sometimes these cracks are deep enough to make playing impossible. They may often be traced to dyspepsia, which may or may not arise from gout. Court-plaster (not moistened with saliva) is the handiest thing to close them temporarily, but the cure should be sought in restoring the digestive functions. Anxiety, jealousy, rivalry, homesickness, and petty bickerings upset the school-girl’s stomach, create a fevered skin, and entail skin-cracks.

The nails of people in health are rosy and smooth, not brittle nor unduly thick nor thin. White nails imply anemia; fluted nails almost always indicate a disease of the matrix of the nail; but heart disease or other disturbances of the circulation will cause fluted nails. When the conditions become at all marked it is worth while to consult a physician.

Finally teachers who consider the physical conditions of their pupils will be wary of giving young girls on the verge of hysteria the passionate nocturnes of Liszt or the tragedies of Beethoven. The emotional life of the growing girl should be sweet and wholesome. She has no business with emotions that belong to maturity either in music, literature, or social life. Sufficient to the day is the suffering thereof.

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