By Robert Campbell
Jazz pianist, now primarily a teacher in Redmond, WA.
December 22, 2017
Do I really need to cut my fingernails to play the piano well? Yes, you do. Or at least you should.
I almost always talk to my students about hand position from our very first piano lesson. The only time I don’t is when they have had a different teacher prior to taking piano lessons with me. Not that I am blaming their first teacher for the problem, as there are a few of my own students that need a bit of reminding on a regular basis. However, you just cannot expect a new student with a few bad habits to change everything in a few lessons. It takes a little patience. So, why did this post begin about fingernail length and then veer off into hand position? Well, that is because a proper hand position is absolutely dependent upon short fingernail length.
Now, here is a caveat. I actually do not force my teenage female students to cut their nails. I just highly recommend it. My first piano teacher (who was a fantastic teacher and pianist) was very strict. I remember showing up to a lesson at age 8 with long nails. She explained what she was going to do, then grabbed me by the wrist, placing my hands over a waste basket. She then proceeded to take out a pair of very long, heavy duty fabric type scissors. I thought my fingers were gonners. Having lived though that experience, I handle my own studio a little differently (I do not cut my students’ nails).
So, just what does a good hand position look like? Turn your hands over and curve your fingers until all of your fingertips come into a straight line (the end of your thumbs will be flush with the sides of your index fingernails). Your fingers should be very rounded, as well as your hands. This is really the ideal hand position when you play scales and many melodic passages. You should be contacting the keys with your fingertips. It takes a little time to get used to playing like this because it is so different from how we typically use our hands. Perhaps one example might be how we hold onto a pull-up bar. When we can maintain our fingers in a fairly straight line, it allows for very even playing without arms, elbows, and wrists adding unneeded movements that only take away from the evenness of our piano playing. You may also notice that having curved fingers allows our thumbs to cross under the other fingers with ease as there is plenty of room. It kind of reminds me of those surfers that ride inside the pipe once the wave is breaking over them. I have never tried that personally; once would probably be enough. Our pianistic hand position also allows for our other fingers to glide over the thumb so much more effortlessly.
If our nails are too long, we will be clicking on the keys when we play. Even more likely, we will flatten out our fingers because playing on the fingernails is very awkward feeling. It’s kind of like the first time you go ice skating. Because long nails tend to cause the fingers to flatten out, this also leads to our thumbs going “overboard”. Just try it. Of course this rounded hand position will not be appropriate in in all circumstances (playing octaves or other stretches that require an extended hand, for example). For most other playing, however, cutting our nails gives us the opportunity to play smoother and faster, with more efficiency and relaxation. And that sounds pretty good. So maybe you should go cut your nails.