So you decided to take the plunge and learn to play the harp. Good for you! Time to clip your nails.
You read that right. Choosing to play the harp means choosing to keep your nails short. While there are styles of harp playing that do use nails, primarily outside the United States, you are most likely not learning that style right now. You can double check with your teacher, but he or she will probably appreciate you showing up to your first lesson with neatly trimmed nails.
The harp is played by placing the soft pad of the fingertip on the string at an angle. When the finger moves to play the note, the string must slide across the fingertip. A long nail will get caught, delay the sounding of the string, and cause a twang.
Here are my tips for knowing when a nail is too long and how short to cut it (yes, there is an ideal length).
When a nail is cut too short (all the white is gone), the sharp edge of the nail can start to dig into the delicate skin due to the repeated pressure caused by plucking the strings. This can cause soreness and even bleeding in extreme cases. I have seen people have to take a week off from playing to wait for their nails to grow in more to fix this. So don’t cut them too short!
I consider a nail too long when I can see it over the top of my finger when looking at it straight on. Obviously different people have differently shaped fingers and nails, so there is some variance, but you can safely assume that a nail that is visible over the finger tip is going to catch on the harp string.
I always leave a little white when I cut my nails. Not only does this help prevent soreness and bleeding, but it allows me to use my nails for special effects when the song calls for it. Plucking the string with a nail gives a harsh sound, which can be a great sound effect in many modern pieces. There are also glissandos done with the nails in some songs.
It means clipping your nails more often, but keeping them within a certain length will allow you to focus on your music, rather than on trying to avoid those nails or play softly because they hurt.
TIP: Keep a pair of nail clippers (like the kind with the attached file) with your other harp supplies. That way you will always have them handy when you notice those nails are getting too long.
WHAT ABOUT NAIL POLISH?
I personally do not care for nail polish. Having bright colors on your fingers is a huge visual distraction. However, if you can manage to block the distraction (just like when playing on a multi-colored carpet that gives a poor contrast background when looking through the strings), there is nothing wrong with wearing nail polish while you play. When I do want to get my nails painted, for special occasions, I prefer french tip, as that looks the closest to my natural nails.
Got any crazy nail stories or pictures? I would love to hear from you!