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Fingernails and Learning the Piano

September 12, 2009
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As a piano teacher I have often needed to discuss with students what is ok and what is not regarding nail length. It is common for students, especially girls, to want to learn to play the piano but also have long nails. Is having long fingernails compatible with learning to play the piano?

Ideally, the best nail length is one which allows students to feel the piano keys with the soft padding on the tip of the finger (this is the area located just above the tip of the nail). Here is an example of nails which are a good length for playing the piano.

If nails are longer than that, they prevent students from feeling the keys with the tips of their fingers, which in turn means that the students miss out on a variety of technical advantages. For instance, short nails allow a student to:

  1. Play with a Curved and Relaxed Hand Position. When hands are kept in a relaxed, curved position it allows all of the fingers to be roughly the same length, which provides equal ability for all of the fingers. Additionally, a curved hand keeps the hand feeling relaxed; meaning that there is less tension and stress on the hand and arm.
  2. Maintain greater Control. A pianist who is able to use the pad of the fingers can “grasp” the keys with greater ease. No slipping around!
  3. Play with Speed! A pianist with short nails can play faster, easier.
  4. Play with Expression. It is significantly easier to play with expression with shorter nails. The sensation of the keys allows a pianist to play a wider range of dynamics (loud and soft) and articulations (crisp, smooth, etc). It is also easier to play all the way down to the key-bed (where the key bottoms out on the keyboard) which creates a richer sound. Overall, it just sounds better!
  5. Finger Memory. It’s easier for a pianist to remember where their fingers are supposed to go when they have FELT it!

On top of missing out on the advantages above, playing with longer nails can create some unpleasant consequences. For example:

  1. Clicking. Have you heard the clickety-clack of a person’s nails tapping on a computer keyboard, or at the cash register, or on a desk, etc? The same thing happens at the piano too. Long nails make a clicking sound as they come in contact with the keys. So, not only are you hearing the music, but you’re hearing the clicking sound of the nails as well. That is often distracting and irritating, both for the pianist and for the listener!
  2. Slipping. Nails and keys are slippery and it can make it difficult to play with accuracy if you’re slipping around the keys. This is especially challenging when trying to learn to play scales or other technical exercises which require great speed.
  3. Injury. Long nails can get caught in the keys. Ouch! There was a time when I had not cut my nails and I was playing a quick passage when my nail got caught between the keys and ripped. It ripped into the nail bed area…and oh, did that hurt!

Despite the negatives of having long nails and the positives of having short nails, is it possible to still learn to play the piano with long nails? Of course! But, it is unlikely that the student will play up to their best ability or be able to create the best pianistic sound with long fingernails. Like so many other things in life, it’s a trade-off between ability vs. beauty. Deciding where your values lie on this issue is personal. However, as a teacher it is your responsibility to provide your students with the best chance for success. It is important that your students understand the options and consequences of each choice, so discuss it with them. And, provide a good example for them by keeping your nails at an appropriate length!

If you are faced with a situation where a student wants to learn to play the piano well AND have long nails consider some of the following ideas to help you reach a happy compromise:

  1. Find acceptable opportunities for your students to have long nails, such as holidays, graduations, weddings, and other special occasions. This gives the student the opportunity to enjoy long nails at times, but also spend the majority of the year learning to play the piano in the best possible way.
  2. Host a “nail/spa” workshop at your studio on occasion. Show students that short nails can still be stylish, and reward them for making good piano nail decisions. Pamper your students with hand massages, nail buffing and shaping, nail polish and decals, etc. And, of course, take the opportunity to work in some MUSIC learning at the same time. While they’re waiting for polish to dry, play some theory games. Or, listen to recordings of concert pianists playing famous pieces!
  3. Have a long nail month, once a year. Allow students to wear their nails long for one full month. And, use the month as a teaching opportunity — show your students the disadvantages of having long nails, teach them how to cope with the extra distraction, etc.
  4. Compromise on the length. Try to get a student to agree to keep their fingernails relatively short, even if they have a little bit of growth beyond the tip of the finger.
  5. And more…be creative!

Not being able to have long nails growing up was sometimes disappointing, but overall I didn’t mind it because I wanted to play the piano more than have long nails. However, I know that not everyone feels that way. In college one of the vocal majors, who was required to take one semester of piano for her degree, refused to take the class because she was required to cut her nails. I was shocked that she refused to take a required class simply because she was unwilling to cut her nails! If you have a student who is strongly attached to his/her long nails I believe it is better to find a way to work with them than to turn them away from music! But, it is not good to ignore the issue and allow them to try to learn to play the piano with long nails, without even knowing the consequences of their choice. Students with long nails will not learn the piano up to their best potential. So, talk with your students, and make the situation the best it can be by finding a compromise that will work for both of you.

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