A few years ago I sat in a spa chair enjoying a much needed mani-pedi. I rarely treat myself to a manicure because there just really isn’t much there to work with. I have small nail beds and have always kept them very short because of violin and piano. The manicurist looked puzzled as she trimmed and attempted to shape and sand the small nails I had. She was even more perplexed as she pulled out the motorized rotating sander (I’m sure it has a much more eloquent spa name, but I am not well-versed in such things). She examined my callused fingertips with disdain and laid that sander into them with determination. She kept shaking her head and saying emphatically, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this?” I pulled my hand away quickly trying to explain that I was a violinist and needed those precious calluses. She was utterly confused.
Those precious calluses. They are deep, thick, and oh so valuable to me. They represent hours of devotion and practice, and despite the desensitization they provide to protect my fingers, they also enable a greater expression and sensitivity in my playing.
Years ago, my teacher examined my callused fingers in a much different way than the manicurist had. He carefully observed where they fell on my fingertips to assess proper positioning with the view of enabling greater capacity in playing. He saw them as an important indicator of potential.
Callousness typically refers to harshness, hard hearted, past feeling, abrasive and cold. A toughness. This inverse relationship of hardness and insensitivity equalling greater expression, heart and ability on the violin is vital.
Beginning students experience pain and redness as they wait for calluses to build. Advanced students deepen calluses, and indeed form new ones, as different demands on their fingers in tenths, octaves, thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. become more common in their playing.
Fingernails are kept short to avoid interference with the fingerboard and ensure proper technique. My students will tell you that I am a stickler for keeping nails short. I keep clippers on the stand for them, much to their disdain. It’s an adjustment. When they are even slightly too long, they cause an inconsistency in pitch–usually too sharp but not uniformly–as well as forcing the fingers to become less vertical as they press the string. That extra millimeter diminishes finger strength as compensations are made to adjust for the small difference in length. It feels like a great sacrifice to some.
I am resigned to the fact that I will never have beautiful fingernails, but I am proud of my calluses and all they represent. There is not harshness or coldness. Just greater ability and strength in playing. Greater heart. Greater hope.