Fingertips vs nails in relation to hand technique

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    Since I have an uncommon playing technique for a harpist, playing with nails on the right hand but not on the left (Andreas Vollenweider style) I’m just curious about this…

    I guess most of you guys play with your fingertips (except for wire strung and Pan American style harp players) and of course that requires the ‘classical’ harp playing technique.
    My technique requires the thumb to be less high on the right hand, it’s more in line with the other fingers, to play multi tone patterns, triple tone chords and also single note melody lines. The left hand plays bass patterns like a bass guitar to accompany my chords/melody patterns, I use lots of octaves and slap bass techniques to (mostly immediately) mute the strings (I play in a band in which I’m harpist and bass player at the same time).

    So what would you say, is the classical technique ‘better’ for the hand muscles in the long run, or would there be no difference between both techniques? It’s not that I have injuries from the style I play, but I would like to know what your opinions are on this and if there are teaching methods to support a specific point of view.


    The classical technique (fingertips, high thumb) works much better for acoustic pedal harps, since strong articulation is necessary to bring out the tone. I have never played the harp with nails, other than for effects, so I am no expert on this sort of technique. But I think that it must be harder on the muscles and tendons to pluck in an upwards fashion than downwards into the palm. Without the harp, try bringing your fingers down into the palm, and then try your own technique, and see which one feels better. The important thing is not to play with tension or uncomfortable positions.


    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for your reply. You’re right about the way the classical technique brings out the tone for acoustic pedal harps, I experienced that myself when playing pedal harps (I can still try that technique with my left hand which has no nails).
    The classical technique brings out its round and ‘wooly’ tone. My sound doesn’t require that tone and my technique obviously results in a different sound altogether, there’s more treble/sparkle because of the nails (there’s lots of ways to describe tone of course, probably enough to start a new thread, but this is just an attempt to mark the difference). And because I play electro-acoustic harp with added sound effects, the overall sound is different anyway and it is shaped to my technique.
    I do play with strong muscle grip though, it’s not that I touch the strings very lightly. So when I would play acoustically, there’s still quite some volume.

    What you say about the upwards/downwards fashion is interesting as well: when I check my thumb position on the right hand, it’s not upwards but more horizontally and maybe even a bit downwards still. You suggest I bring my fingers more into the palm, but that would often interfere with my damping technique, as I play lots of staccato chord patterns which I dampen immediately after playing, so the fingers will be on the strings right after plucking. I could try that when I play long notes though.

    Of course it’s important not to play with tension, that’s one thing for sure. Thanks for your suggestions!


    It’s a matter of repertoire. There is no one better way.
    You can’t really play the classical harp pieces using fingernails without having the pieces sound strange. The only pieces that work are pieces which assumes the melody to be consistently played on the right (or left).

    Many times in the classical repertoire (in the bigger pieces) the left and right hand fingerings intertwine within the melody line and you can’t carry out the tone od the melody consistently if one hand is playing with the tips and the other playing on the nails…

    Also classical techniques like trills, large arpeggios, scales, harmonics are played on both hands. You can’t do all these with the fingertip/nail technique without having them sound really strange.


    Hi Loon,

    I understand what you’re saying, but my initial question in this thread is not about how a specific technique sounds with both nails and fingertips, but which technique would be ‘best’ for the hands (if there’s a difference at all)…
    It just puzzles me because I can’t find articles or teaching methods which point out pros and cons of hand positions of these different techniques, and whether one of them would be less sensitive to injuries.

    Could it be that this is never really investigated, because the two techniques just existed apart from each other and their methods didn’t interfere, so the players didn’t care for the differences?


    well… to be fair, injuries result from bad ergonomics and should be addressed from this perspective, rather than from the technique/method used.


    Yeah Loon, that’s how problems most likely occur.

    But still I’m curious if the different wrist/hand and thumb/finger positions while playing with nails would affect one’s playing abilities in the long run… for instance, I never heard that Pan American harp players deal with more technique related injury problems than classical harp players. Could this ever be researched and documented?

    Don’t ask me why, but somehow it just fascinates me.
    Also because sometimes it seems like fingertips and nail players are two worlds apart, also in relation to repertoire…there’s some cultural antropology involved here as well I guess; different music styles and their specific technique developed from different countries and cultures. Still we share the same instrument, known worldwide in different types with a wide range of sounds, which is very nice.

    Gretchen Cover


    You are the only harpist on Harp Column who plays using fingernails. Because everyone else uses their fingertips, to me it is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss your particular technique. If you don’t have tendonitis or any other issues, then you must be playing correctly for your style.

    Sherri Matthew

    Hi there,

    Have to jump in… There is one more harpist nere who plays exclusively with nails – myself – but I’m a wire harpist. I don’t play pedal harp or classical repertoire at all, nor nylon-strung Irish harp, which is why I haven’t contributed to this thread so far. My area is Gregorian Chant on wire harp, not Irish folk tunes, so I’ve modified my playing technique somewhat to accomodate my arrangements.

    I’ve never had any pain issues or tendonitus from playing with nails. My hands tend to be very relaxed, close to the strings, I’m not concerned with pointing the thumbs up or anything like that and I don’t play with a lot of force. It’s a very natural, comfortable way for me to play and I can’t imagine switching over to nylon/gut/pedal/etc. because not only is this the perfect harp/music for me to work with, the others have simply never interested me. I have a 36-string Triplett Luna wire harp and it is just a dream to play. I cringe though, when I read here about some of the other harpists’ pain issues. Fingertips, posture, etc. It really makes me wonder, how much of taught formal technique is unnatural and a product of cultural forces that might maybe need to be reexamined. A possibility for cultural anthropology studies, as Marco mentions.

    I’ve started a blog section on my website where I discuss arranging for wire harp. I’ve been writing this in installments, among other blog entries, with more to come, but I do mention playing with nails and will probably expand on that further.


    I would be so curious about long-run studies on different techniques!

    I myself am being trained classically for pedal harp (Salzedo technique I believe. But my teachers never place emphasis on ‘you must be this’, they just teach me how to play) and so I am a prancing fingertip fairy. 😛

    My two bits on this would be…. Injuries tend to result from over practicing, or really, not taking regular breaks to stretch and breathe during practice. Classically trained musicians TEND to practice for hours and hours and hours. Example, quote from an old thread on here, “If you wish to major in harp you must practice a minimum of three hours a day.” Practice does make perfect but it can also lead to tendinitis if you don’t stand up and get a glass of water from time to time… I’ve noticed personally that most folk (or wire or Pan American or so many others I’ve never met) harpists TEND to be far more lax and less competitive about their music. It is a much calmer atmosphere from what I understand.

    NEITHER INSTRUMENT NOR INSTRUMENTALIST IS BETTER THAN THE OTHER. Each is unique and different and beautiful!

    So my guess is that more classically trained harpists receive injuries statistically because of practice hours. It is a guess, I do no KNOW, and I am not saying everyone should burn their Salzedo method books. *laughing*

    I do recommend a very good book, “You are Your Instrument” by Julie Lyonn Lieberman. She herself is a violinist but she wrote the book for all instrumentalists and even vocalists. It is a bit new-agey in some parts, with a few weird exercises like, ” Write a diary entry of how you felt about your practice session. Convert it into a relationship with a real person.” The diary entry example that accompanied this actually made me laugh! But the advice and holistic medical advice in this book is invaluable. They had it at my local library but I ended up buying it myself.

    Interesting thread Marco!

    — Natalie

    Sherri Matthew

    Hi Natalie,

    Your point about our folk harp world being far less competitive is well said. I would never go for that sort of thing… mandatory three hours a day, etc. And yet, I got there, without rigid, must-be-adhered-to practice schedules. Music has to be in the calm atmosphere that you describe, indeed! 🙂 So I think for me, my instrument and playing technique (and by extenstion, use of chant as source material) is a reflection of that.

    My nail playing is delicate, there’s economy of motion, and I don’t have callouses from playing this way. It also doesn’t take significantly much more force to create a louder sound on this harp, just striking the string a fraction harder. Wire harp playing involves selective damping with the fingertips (slightly tipping the finger so the nail is off the wire) and placing while the fingers of the other hand are still playing. Nail breakage is about the only issue I have and I’ve got two that are growing back now. They were attacked by my car door. 🙁 Fortunately they recover pretty quickly.



    That’s wonderful! Wire harp sounds like something from another world, I feel like it could transport me to a time in ancient history or Narnia… *laughing*

    I’ve met classical harpists who are very calm and peaceful despite the more difficult pieces, I think it’s a personality thing too. My current teacher told me when I confessed to an hour of practice a day, “Oh that’s fine! It’s a good place to start and you’re making progress.” So not everyone is as tight on practice hours.

    But I stand by my original point that classical musicians tend to log more time into their instruments and thus are statistically more likely to get injuries.


    Hi Gretchen, Sherri and Natalie (I take the liberty to answer you all in one post, to be efficient…)

    Well this thread is indeed interesting, it’s fun to read every post. And Gretchen, I think you’re right that since I don’t have injuries, my technique must be correct and also feels that way.

    I’m glad to know that there are more nail players around here, Sherri 🙂 Although I only play with nails at the right hand and my left hand thumb has a short nail to pluck the highest note with a nail while I’m still able to play bass notes with the tip of that thumb, I do consider myself a typical nail player. Mostly because my right hand plays the melody which is the most ‘harp sounding part’ and the left hand plays the bass lines. The bass lines are less typical harp, soundwise, because of the chorus I apply to the sound of my electro-acoustic harp.
    I share your nail issue of course. Even while I use nail hardener to prevent breaking, incidents happen… I recently had a crack in my right thumbnail so I had to cut off a piece :/ I was able to recover the right side of the nail but it still is uncomfortable to play with half a nail and it also sounds different. That’s one thing fingertip players won’t have, although even a small cut in a fingertip can also be quite painful if on the wrong part of the finger….

    About practise…I usually play an hour a day during the week and more if possible, in the weekend it’ll be 2 hours a day or more, but never on end. I play an hour or maybe a bit more and then I do something else, maybe go out and do shoppings and when I come back I do another session…works fine for me.
    Natalie, maybe you’re right about the classical method when it comes to practice, I can’t tell from my perspective of course…then again, it’s up to every player how to deal with these practice hours. Sometimes just a little less can be much more efficient I think.

    I would love to see some more input… so far, thanks all!

    Sherri Matthew

    Hi Natalie,

    I know about hours…. I’m married to a classical musician (organist). But I’m a recording musician (multitrack studio in our house), not a live performer like he is, so time takes on a different meaning. I logged more hours than I could count doing my layered new age album, which has eight tracks on it. All I know is, it took me four years to do it and there’s other sounds and instruments on there besides my harp. Learning to listen while mixing and editing was the biggest by far use of time. But it was a very pleasant experience, one I didn’t find stressful.

    Marco, I tried the nail hardeners too and they wrecked my nails. Now I just eat foods that are high in calcium every day and that problem has gone away. I just need to watch my car door a liitle better!


    I don’t have much to contribute to the discussion, but I just wanted to tell you, Sherri, that I LOVE your arrangements on Soundcloud. OH, my goodness, they are beautiful!

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