I was reading the comments on my previous post (because I do that) and when I got to amber in albuquerque’s I had one of Those Moments…when suddenly, I have a Great and Tremendous Insight!
And it was this: Hey! Y’all do not actually know me in person and have my full life’s history and such!
Funny how somehow…over time…I start to feel like, well, DUH. You’re all friends of mine, you know how the furniture is arranged in my living room and why, for me, getting a nail fill isn’t just “nice to have” but “essential.”
She says, “Prescription medication is a need. Professional manicure...not so much, at least not at my house. Doesn't matter, it looks good, you may have client meetings, and even if it's just something you want, it's not a big deal.”
She’s absolutely right. For a normal person, a professional manicure is so not a “need”.
But of course…this is me we’re talking about here. It isn’t about looks, and certainly isn’t for pleasure because frankly, a nail fill is not one of life’s little pleasures.
But I do it anyway, because I need my Nails O’Steel to play my harp.
(At this point, all the harpists in the crowd are going, “Whaaaaaat?! No you don’t! You keep your nails super-short and neatly trimmed! You certainly don’t keep them medium-length by use of Space Age Materials! You know, I always knew there was something off about her…”)
Originally, I was taught to play on one of these babies:
On this lovely creature, my Most Excellent Teacher taught me to play with my elbows mostly tucked in, my wrist semi-fluid, my hands kept slightly curled unless I had to stretch them for an octave or something, and the strings plucked firmly using the pad of the finger.
No. Nail. EVER.
Nails on harp strings (especially gut strings) often make a distinctive (and unpleasant) buzzing sound. Hence, a classical harpist keeps his or her nails very short and well-filed. And I have definitely found that with gut strings – brother, you’d better avoid those nails at all costs.
When it came time to buy my very own Big Girl harp, I went with one of these:
This is a full-sized lever harp, commonly called a folk harp. It has some limitations in what kind of music I can play; it has fewer strings than the concert harp, it’s difficult to change keys or hit accidentals (you know, sharps and flats?) in the middle of a piece and is limited to only two notes per string: lever down (natural) or up (sharped).
The pedal harp’s pedals, operated by your feet so your hands don’t have to find time in their busy schedule to flip levers, give you three notes per string, the flat, natural and sharped for up, center, and down respectively.
When I first got her I naturally played the way I’d been taught by my Most Excellent Teacher: Classical style, French flavor. Pad of the finger, no nail EVER.
I was goofing around one day during the doldrums of winter with different sounds I could make and found that with a confident nail-pluck (as opposed to the embarrassed sound of an accidental nail brush on the string), I got a neat, crisp, ringing note. No buzz. Just ringing. It was a sweet, pure sound…not “unlike anything I’d ever heard” exactly, but it got me thinking.
Lots of volume. Not a lot of effort. Hits a sweet spot, sound-wise. Uses the nail of the finger (which doesn’t tend to feel pain if you rub it against nylon for six solid hours two days in a row) instead of the pad (which, uh, does).
If I could use the nail instead of the pad, it would solve a recurring problem for me. See, even with well-developed calluses, finger pads just aren’t designed to be scraping firmly and repeatedly along a taut fishing line (nylon harp strings look an awful lot like fishing line, just sayin’) for six or seven or eight hours at a crack. Inevitably, I’d get a really bad crack or split and either have to “play through the pain” (oh goody) or admit defeat and sideline myself for a few days waiting for it to settle down enough to play through it some more (wait…sit out one of the few lucrative weekends of the season? NEVER!!!!). (Musicians. Are. Insane.)
So I started growing my fingernails out to experiment. I loved the sound, but it was always a fleeting experiment. My natural nails are now as they have ever been: About as strong as wet toilet paper. No sooner did they clear the ends of my fingers than rrrrrrip! Off they tore. @*^&@!!!
I tried finger picks designed for guitars…didn’t work. At all. (And were also wildly not ‘period’, an important point for reenactment work.)
I tried liberal applications of Sally Hansen products with names like “Nails That Won’t Ever Break We Swear Honest”. They lied.
I ate gelatin and took vitamins. Stirred powders into water that claimed you would have hair fifty seven feet long and nails of a goddess in three weeks. Uh, yeah. They worked about as well as you think they would.
Finally, with a bit of trepidation because I had a really bad experience with acrylics in the early 80s (so…much…burning…!), I went into a nail salon and got a set of acrylic nails. After a lot of false starts with length and shape, I finally hit on the Perfect Deal: Half a centimeter past the end of my finger, well-rounded but not pointy.
By the end of that winter break, I’d developed a whole different style of playing. My hand has gone from “properly positioned” to really open and loose – I can play for hours without hand fatigue, even if I’ve been, uh, well…a little less than diligent about daily practicing for a while. The nails give me a big sound, as if the harp is being electronically amplified, without half the effort the pad of the finger takes for equal volume.
It’s also a bright sound. The pedal harp tends to sound like…warm, melted milk chocolate. Rich, a little heavy, kind of round.
The sound I get from my Dusty with my nails is more like soda pop. Bright, sparkling, fast in a way that has nothing to do with tempo. It dances in the air.
Uh, yeah. I kinda like it.
I can also play wicked fast. Way faster than I ever could with the pads of my fingers. And I can do other nifty sound effects, like a glissando using a nail tip or back, or a good sharp ‘drumming’ on the soundboard (rat-a-tat-tat!)…all kind of neat stuff.
I’ve been playing this way for fifteen years now. I can’t even remember how I’m “supposed” to play, you know, Classically-speaking. I remember bits and pieces, but they feel alien to me when I try to emulate them.
It’s really weird to have a nail fill on your “must have” list, just as it’s profoundly odd to have “breaking a nail” be something on the list of “events which require that I drop everything and rush to handle this” – especially for a woman like me who is, uh, well, let’s just say “somewhat careless with her overall daily appearance.” Let’s see, checkin’ the look today…oh yeah, we’ve got hair that could really use some shampoo, no makeup again, peeling flesh from the recent sunburn (nice), jeans with a lovely bleach spot. But! My (new) hair tie? Matches my t-shirt.
That’s right. I’m all put together, today.
Anyway…that’s the long-winded explanation of my putting nail fills on my “must do” list even when I’m on a money-hoarding kick that I didn’t think to mention before because, well, you know…I just sorta thought you all knew about that.
12 hours ago