Captain Fiddle Music

Ryan and Brennish

Thomson

Making Music Left Handed

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Left Handed Music Making

When I perform in public listeners often ask me why I hold my violin "differently" from

other players. Many comment that they've never before seen someone play a violin left

handed, that is, holding the bow in my left hand. In comparison, If you look at any

orchestra around the world, you'll notice that every violinist is playing right handed! Its

been this way for hundreds of years. Right and left handed people alike customarily play

the violin right handed. Violin teachers instruct all of their students to play right handed

whether or not they are naturally right handed.

I had a telling experience early on in my career as a lefty violinist. I walked off stage after a

performance and a man approached me, smiled, patted me on the back, and said, "Good

job, we lefties have to stick together." I was so surprised at the notion of a "lefty club,"

that I didn't know what to say and just nodded at him. After that incident I began paying

more attention to whether people around me were left or right handed in their activities. I

eventually met several other left handed musicians, who, noting how I played, and thinking

that I was left handed by nature, confided in me that they'd always suspected that they

would have been better players if they had played left handed instead of right handed. I

became fascinated by this concept and decided to explore the roots of beliefs about

handedness.

I found it curious that people who didn't know whether I was naturally right or left handed

would say things like, "It must be really difficult to play a violin backwards," as if there was

some inherent reason why it should be easier to play it right handed. All right handed

persons know that skilled tasks are performed better with the right hand than the left, yet

many of them seem to overlook the fact that lefties have an equal and opposite reaction.

I also listened to such statements from a very unusual perspective. Unlike almost every

other violinist in the world, I had first spent many years mastering right handed violin

playing, and then spent a similar amount of time learning how to play left handed. Before

beginning this immense task I had previously developed a measure of ambidexterity by

teaching myself to write with my left hand in grade school to pass the time during boring

classes. I learned to do it fairly well, but the final results were always less satisfying than

writing with my far more coordinated right hand.

As an adult professional violinist, I was forced to switch to playing lefty due to a physical

disability of "focal dystonia" in my right shoulder and soon recognized the close similarity

between hand writing and playing a violin. Like any righty who finds it harder to do things

with their left hand, I found it harder to control the violin bow with my left hand than with

my right. But my love of violin playing made me persevere and I struggled mightily so that I

could once again perform professionally. This was my cure for my focal dystonia disability,

a devastating set back for a musician. When I returned to public performance I soon

encountered many right handed "experts" who opined with an air of authority on the topic

of playing a violin left handed.

My left handed playing was a bit rough at first and other violinists would often tell me that

I was playing the violin "wrong," and that it would be "easier for me" if I would simply just

play in "the correct way." Few of them were interested to hear my explanation as to why I

was playing left handed. They were eager to point out the "pitfalls" of playing lefty, such

as, "it looks funny," or, "it makes me dizzy watching you play," and, "no orchestra will hire

you." Their comments didn't slow me down since I had no interest in playing in orchestras,

and I was more concerned with how my playing sounded than what it looked like to watch

me play.

These critics also listed the supposed advantages for lefties who play right handed, such

as, "fingering is easier for lefties," or, "you use both hands to play, so it doesn't make any

difference which hand bows and which fingers the instrument." I discovered that these

notions were clearly erroneous when compared to my own experiences and those of many

people whom I interviewed for my book. In addition, I found many published quotes from

famous violinists and conservatory violin teachers about the much greater importance of

bowing a violin as compared to merely fingering it.

I found the common criticisms of left handed violin playing to be based primarily on

speculation which was unsupported by any systematic study or collection of evidence. And

there were financial aspects as well. Many left handed individuals have been talked into

buying a right handed instrument by violin teachers or music store salesmen who might

proclaim, for example that, "there is no such thing as a left handed violin," rather then let

a commission escape their grasp.

I began my book project with a graduate school background in the scientific methodology

of experimental design. Back in college I had nearly earned my Ph.D. when the passion

within me for actually performing music rather than just studying about it finally won out,

and I escaped to Nashville to join a full time touring band as a country fiddler. I had

learned something important from my scientific studies however. I learned that one can't

legitimately draw conclusions of "fact" unless there is a good body of evidence to support

the facts. I searched the scientific literature and discovered that scientific evidence

relating to the supposed disadvantages of left handed violin playing doesn't exist. There

were no scientific studies on record where lefties playing violin right handed were

compared to lefties playing violin left handed.

As far as I could determine no one except myself had bothered to learn to play violin both

left and right handed at a professional performing level and had studied the experience in

a systematic way. Yet evidence abounds which demonstrates that both right and left

handed individuals choose their dominant hands for many other skilled activities. Except

for a few disabled individuals I could find no record of any healthy right handed person who

voluntarily chose to play fiddle left handed on purpose. The reason is simple. Righties

prefer to hold a pencil in their dominant hand in the same way that lefties do. Most left

and right handed children alike tend to pick up and manipulate objects with their chosen

hand from an early age. When a violin bow is held out to a child for the first time, righties

usually take it in their right hand and left handed kids usually take it into their left hands

at first, before the teacher points out the lefty's "error."

I found one issue which clouds the handedness question. That's the phenomenon of

ambidexterity. Most tools and implements in this world are designed for right handers, and

by learning to use them many lefties have a great deal of experience in developing

ambidexterity, and often express pride in this ability. Some lefties often purposely choose

to use their right hands for certain activities as a child because the majority of their peers

or family members do it that way. Throwing a ball is an example. With some extra work one

can become good at manipulating the non dominant limb. I experienced this myself when I

learned to write with my left hand as a child, practiced throwing frisbies left handed in

high school, and then as an adult learned to bow my violin with my left hand. I'll admit that

I feel pride in my left handed violin playing accomplishment, the same pride that I hear

expressed when a left handed person tells me, "I write with my left hand but I bat right

handed at baseball."

Most lefties up until recent times were literally forced by well intentioned teachers and

family members to primarily use their right hand. Several of the adult lefties I've

interviewed had attended grade schools in the '50s and '60s. During that era most all school

teachers would force lefties to write with their right hands. Several people related to me

that their teachers actually tied their left hands down to their school desks with a cord, in

order to force them to use their right hands to hold the pencil. Others had their left hands

slapped with a ruler by vigilant teachers who spotted them attempting left handed writing.

When they got into music, their music teachers also steered them in a right handed

direction. Since most school teachers in the USA now allow lefties to choose their

preferred writing hand, Its amazing to me that 99.9% of violin teachers still adhere to the

archaic practice of forcing lefties to bow right handed.

One of my violin students of high school age recently described to me how she resisted

when as a child her grandmother tried to make her write and eat with her right hand. I

initially taught her basic introductory bowing and fingering exercises playing right handed

and then followed with the same instruction playing left handed on a left handed

instrument. She was asked to take both instruments home and practice each for an equal

amount of time. When she returned to my studio she appeared to have equal skill on both

instruments. When asked about the experience she stated that she preferred to play with

the left handed violin because she "could handle the bow better." She could finger the

violins equally well with either hand.

In my book I've documented several amateur left handed musicians, on violin, guitar, and

mandolin, trained to a moderate level of skill in right handed playing, who purposely took

the time and effort needed to relearn to play their instruments left handed. And not

surprisingly, they found that they could actually play better left handed. I'm in regular

contact with many individuals interested in the handedness issue. One friend, a classical

violin teacher trained at a prestigious music school, maintains a strong opposition to the

idea of anyone playing violin left handed. Another right handed friend who runs a private

violin school for children is very excited about the concept. After reading my book she has

changed more than a dozen of her naturally left handed beginning students over to playing

lefty violin.

She was delighted to report to me that the lefties are making good progress, none worse,

but most better than when they played right handed. A violin teacher and former student

of mine consulted with me when he discovered that one of his lefty fiddling students was

being banned from a public school music ensemble because he played left handed. The

school music teacher had insisted that he relearn how to play violin all over again right

handed.

Despite being a righty myself, I've become a lefty advocate, and an activist even, but I've

taken care in my book to point out reasons why lefties might at least consider playing in

the traditional right handed way, despite their natural inclinations. I think that my book

gives them the information they need to make an intelligent and informed decision.

I'm a firm believer in utilizing resources with maximum efficiency and utility in every

aspect of human endeavor, whether it be encouraging the production of fuel efficient

vehicles, turning an unused cubby into a storage space, or advocating that capable and

willing disabled persons be offered gainful employment. I'm all for progress that results in a

net gain for humanity. As a teacher and educator, my foremost task is to recognize and

nurture the skills and talents of my students. To that end I strive to facilitate their musical

progress in any way that I can, even if it means bucking a dubious establishment. Music

making is a journey, often a fulfilling lifetime pursuit. There are many possible paths, many

possible goals. The journey might lead solely to personal satisfaction and enjoyment in

private playing. It might lead to a career in professional performance. My job is to facilitate

the journey regardless of its endpoint.

Ryan Thomson is a string teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy and the author of "Playing the

Violin and Fiddle Left Handed," which is the world's first book to challenge the prescription

that all violinists must play right handed. ISBN 0-931877-42-3

Ryan Thomson

Music Department

Phillips Exeter Academy

20 Main Street

Exeter, NH 03833-2460