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Why Do I Have to Cut My Nails to Play the Piano?

Picture of curved fingers on piano

Not too long ago, I received two audition recordings (audio & video) from a teacher who wanted to join our Piano Lab faculty. She'd made it through the first round of the interview process with flying colors, and so it was a complete surprise to press play and hear sloppy, inelegant playing (invariably due to faulty technique). Within seconds of viewing the video she'd sent, I knew what most of the problem was: the length of her nails as she attempted to play her piece.

That experience prompted me to write this article. As an instructor, you expect a certain percentage of students (not just female students, by the way) to need gentle reminders to trim those nails! It was surprising to find it pop up in the realm of the supposed professional, however, and it's rather scary to think that beginning pianists of all ages are potentially being misled on one of the most basic, lesson-#-1 tenets of how to play.

Well, let's get down to it. Why can't you play the piano well with longer nails? And how long is too long, exactly? I share the answers from the perspective of someone who's played keyboard instruments for well over 20 years (piano, organ, harpsichord, and digital keyboard) and taught them for nearly as long. Here are the reasons, in no particular order (because, seriously...where do I begin??):

1. You can't move without noise. Probably the most obvious problem to the layperson is the fact that one can often hear the annoying "click clack" of long nails on the hard surface of the keys. I'm not sure what would be worse: the distraction of these off-rhythm castanets to the audience or to the performer's focus!

2. You can't move fluidly on the keys. If your nails extend more than a few millimeters past your fingertips, then you have only two choices. If you play with your nails on the keys, then aside from problem # 1 listed above, you have lost one of the basic principles of control and sensitivity on the piano (not to mention, muscle memory—namely, the use of one's fingertips. Much like the way you would read braille with your fingers, the sense of touch is essential. If your nails are too long, you cannot feel the keys for the simple reason that most of the time, you won't actually be touching the keys at all with the flesh of your fingers!

Choice # 2 means playing with your fingers flat to avoid having the nails click. This is a horrible solution for a number of reasons (listed below), but fluidity on the piano is based upon agility. Imagine that your fingers are like little legs. How fluidly would you be able to walk if you couldn't use your knees?

3. You can't move quickly. How quickly would you be able to run without using your knees? And if you attempted it, how much would you stumble? There is a reason why your fingers should be gently curved when pressing down piano keys, and you've just gotten what I hope is an obvious analogy, a clear picture in your mind of what wouldn't work. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of the laws of physics.

(Of course, there are always exceptions where your fingers will stretch out for various reasons within advanced and nuanced pieces of music, but the vast majority of the time, the default finger position for the properly-trained keyboardist is a gentle curve. This is a bigger topic for which I will post another article soon).

4. You risk injury to your fingers! Really! Let's say that you are determined to try to play fast and fluid with your fingers curved, but you also stubbornly continue refusing to get rid of that fancy long-nailed manicure. Or you play flat-fingered. Either way, actually, you are bound to get those nails caught in between the keys at some point, and that will be extremely painful! Also, say goodbye to whatever dinero you spent on that manicure--it's ruined, and you'll probably need a band-aid.

So, I hope I've helped to clarify why long nails and piano/keyboard playing don't mix! If you find someone who tries to tell you otherwise, ask them to play something fast with even a bit of virtuosity, like this (and notice his curved fingers!). I guarantee they won't be able to do it with long nails, just as easily as I can guarantee that running without use of one's knees will lead to stumbling failure. Trim those nails, and watch your technique and accuracy improve immediately!

Happy Practicing, Everyone!

Kimberly Cann, Pianist & Founding Director of Piano Lab Studios

Kimberly Cann is the mother of 2-yr.-old Isabella, 10-month-old Magnus and Founding Director of Piano Lab Studios. In her spare time, she still concertizes...occasionally. :)

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