By Patrick Sullivan
It had been an intense week of rehearsals in the middle of winter. But cellist Matthew Tifford felt ready for Hansel and Gretel at the former Baltimore Opera Company.
Then disaster struck.
“The callus on my left index finger split open as I was loading my cello into the car on my way to our opening night performance,” Tifford recalls. It was the worst finger split Tifford has ever suffered. But there was a drug store on the way to the concert, so he ran in and bought some Liquid Band-Aid. “It was terrific,” he recalls. “Got me through two evening concerts and a matinee.”
For non-musicians, fingertip splits can be irritating. But for string players, they can be a serious impediment to making music. And cracks often seem to strike at the worst possible time—like right before opening night. That unfortunate timing is not a coincidence. The number of hours spent on daily playing is one major factor in producing splits, Tifford says, so when you’re working hard ahead of a big performance, you’re increasing your risk.
When it comes to cracks, geography is destiny. Living in a cold climate where furnaces dry out the inside air can wreak havoc on your instrument, of course. But it can also turn your fingers into a bloody mess. Splits are a fact of life during Maryland winters, Tifford says. “Playing stringed instruments naturally results in calluses,” he says. “When it gets really dry those calluses can crack or split.”
Prevention Is Key
Younger musicians may be especially flummoxed by this problem, so it’s important to know that experienced string players have developed a huge grab bag of tips and tricks for preventing or treating splits.
Violinist Todd Ehle now lives on the Gulf Coast in Texas, where humidity is high and fingertip cracks are relatively rare. But he grew up in Colorado, where it’s very dry, and he had his first teaching job in Wisconsin. “With technique, the harder we pound the fingers down, the more likely we are to develop cracks,” Ehle says. “So paying close attention to skin care and left-hand tension can really make a difference.”
Apply Bag Balm ointment religiously during winter months, he advises. And wear rubber gloves when doing dishes, since prolonged exposure to water makes cracking much worse. One of Ehle’s students applies Vaseline at bedtime and then wears fingertip gloves called Finger Cots overnight. “Another does something similar, but with hand lotion and white cotton gloves,” he says.
And if things get really bad? “We can apply New Skin, a product that creates a protective layer between the skin and the string,” he says.
Other kinds of self-care can help ward off cracking, some musicians say. Research suggests that sleep deprivation can hurt your blood circulation, which may increase the risk of chapping and cracking. And exercise—even just a brisk walk—can also improve circulation. But other musicians say sleep and exercise don’t seem to make any difference with fingertip cracks, even if both are good for your health in other ways.
If the problem is often regional, so are the recommendations for prevention and treatment. In North Dakota, string teacher Denese Odegaard says there’s a significant issue with painful skin cracks that appear on the sides of the fingernail. “I used to get them and they would stay all winter,” she says. But she saw significant improvement after she started using a cream called O’Keeffe’s Working Hands.
In Louisiana, violinist and teacher Annie Young-Bridges says that the damp weather means cracking isn’t as much of an issue as it’s been in other places she’s lived. “I’ve had this happen before in north Texas and North Carolina, and my best defense was wearing gloves and [applying] healing lotions in the daytime,” she says. She’s also found it helpful to use Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment or diaper-rash cream on the cracks overnight. “Here in South Louisiana we have Boudreaux’s Butt Paste,” she says.
Some musicians, it should be said, don’t experience the problem at all. “In my 20-year career, I’ve never had a problem with this and haven’t heard about it from my students either,” says violinist Charles Laux, who currently teaches strings at Kennesaw State University in Georgia but who has also lived and taught in dry places like Las Vegas, Nevada.
But many other string players have suffered at least one crack bad enough to literally be a show-stopper. And in a real emergency, many musicians reach for what may seem like an unorthodox solution: Super Glue.
Medical experts generally caution against using Super Glue to close cuts—especially deep ones—because it can irritate the skin and cause other side effects. If you’re not careful, you can even glue your injured finger to something else. But it’s frequently used by many violinists in small amounts—think a single small drop—to seal minor cracks. Dermabond is a Super Glue-like substance approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for medical use, but as Tifford points out, it costs about ten times as much.
Tifford, for one, says he’s been using Super Glue on superficial cuts for years with no problems. He says it works even better than Liquid Band-Aid, which really stings when applied to a fresh cut. Super Glue, he says, doesn’t sting at all. “Depending on the placement, the pain of a crack can severely hinder one’s ability to play,” Tifford adds. “A lotion won’t help with that. However, with Super Glue, within minutes you can be back to playing with no pain.”