Updated February 10, 2023
Left Handed Music Making
by Ryan Thomson
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.
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