I was tutoring at a conference event recently; a slightly unusual one where I was asked to take a room full of delegates, fresh from lunch and expecting some generic team-building exercise, and teach them the basics of violin playing. I stood up and started off with the ill thought-out premise, “Your violin is held in the left hand.”
A small voice came from a lady in the middle of the group.
“But I’m left handed,” she said.
Recent surveys suggest that 13% of men and 11% of women are left-handed. This is an increase on previous figures as left-handedness becomes more accepted in society. It seems ridiculous now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, left-handed people were severely discriminated against. Many had their left-handedness beaten out of them. They were shunned in adulthood, meaning fewer left-handed people married and had children. As this prejudice began to wane in the 20th Century, the number of natural left-handers who stayed left -handed increased.
There is however, no significant data about left-handed violinists. Apart from a list of a mere dozen players on Wikipedia, there is almost no information on the subject. There is apparently no interest in which famous violinists happen to be left-handed and play right-handed, or on the proportion of left-handed musicians working in today’s orchestras. Since a paper published in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disease (Volume 195, number 10) found a conclusive link between left-handedness and creativity, stating that musicians, painters and writers were more likely to be left-handed than the control participants, it seems obvious that our orchestras may contain a higher proportion of left-handers than a less artistic workplace. So why do we all play the violin right-handed?
Although a mere 1% of people are truly ambidextrous, left-handed people have to learn to use both hands with similar dexterity as they adapt to a right-handed world, in which simple items such as scissors and can-openers are asymmetrically designed for right-handed use. Left-handed people are therefore more likely to develop motor skills in their non-dominant hand than right-handed people.
Playing the violin is not a single-handed activity. It requires advanced skill and dexterity in both hands. Some people are convinced that the dexterity required in left hand violin technique actually favours left-handed people; others say that both bowing and fingering are difficult so it makes no difference. Neither of these statements is entirely correct.
As a beginner left-handed violinist, you will find your possibilities limited. You will struggle to find a teacher who is prepared or equipped to teach you left handed. It just isn’t done. However, with an open mind, there is no reason why the mirror-image approach shouldn’t work. It’s also not unheard of. Terje Moe Hansen, Pedagogue and Professor at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, plays the violin left-handed. Here is his video lesson on perfect intonation.
The violin itself presents problems. Its set up needs to be reversed, with strings and bridge the other way round. Internally, the bass bar and sound post need to be moved to the opposite side to produce a comparative tone quality, and whilst the violin body is designed symmetrically, the peg box will need to be rebuilt and the neck tilt may need to be readjusted. Left-handed student violins can be purchased, but you will never have the pleasure of playing on an old Italian gem without completely reworking the instrument.
There is also the attitude that a left-handed violinist in an orchestra looks unnatural or untidy, and that the logistics of seating players so as not to cause colliding bow arms are difficult. In this age of equal opportunity, this should not be an issue.
Paavo Berglund, OBE, (1929-2012) who was a member of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1958, played the violin left-handed. He played a violin made for him by his grandfather and had to be accommodated at the back of the first violins to account for his reverse technique. He is most famous as a conductor, and known for his work in bringing the music of Jean Sibelius to mainstream European audiences.
Other notable left-handed players include the Viennese virtuoso, Richard Barth (1863-1867), Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Kolisch (1896-1978). Kolisch started learning the violin the conventional way, but re-learned after losing the top joint of his left middle finger as a child. He was the leader of the Kolisch Quartet and the Pro-Arte Quartet and his playing, which can be heard in this recording of Mozart, was beautiful.
Left-handed students, particularly of classical music, are almost always encouraged to play the violin right-handed. It is much more common to find players in traditional music fields such as folk and jazz who play the other way round. It seems that of those classical violinists who do play left-handed, some are actually right-handed musicians who have re-learned as a result of an injury. The author of the only extensive study on the subject, Playing the Violin and Fiddle Left Handed, professional violinist and fiddle player Ryan Thomson, is right-handed and relearned after focal dystonia in his right arm left him unable to play.
Thomson argues that as children we naturally want to hold the bow in our dominant hand. Whilst the left hand dexterity of left-handed beginners may initially help them learn more quickly, the bow is, after all, what makes the sound, and sound production is arguably the most important part of violin playing.
As a left-handed violinist myself, I have found that I have to work twice as hard on my right hand technique. It is not just a matter of dexterity and coordination; it is necessary to be able to conceive tone quality before producing it. I often find that while my brain is processing left hand finger patterns away from practice, it is my right hand fingers that move, (apparently I practice the “wrong way round” in my sleep) and it takes a secondary step having conceived the sound to process it with the right arm. Another effect of left-handedness I have noticed in myself is a tendency to slow reading. When I learned to write, I wrote mirror writing. It took a lot of practice to turn this instinct around in my head to enable me to sight read at speed. I find my more dominant right-brained instincts very useful when it comes to intuitive musicianship, but I also had to learn that certain left-brained analytical approaches, which are essential for some players, actually hamper my ability to express myself physically and musically.
Ultimately, it is difficult to find an instrument and a teacher to enable you to learn to a high level left-handed. A good violinist is never entirely satisfied and every one of us has different physical and mental characteristics to work with. Some people are more confident, some have short arms or a long neck, some read more quickly, others learn more slowly and some are left-hand dominant. I don’t believe the answer to a satisfying experience of violin playing lies in which hand does what. I think it’s about learning to work with your own body, with all its limitations and advantages. There may be benefits to learning the violin the other way round, and in the future it may be more possible, but for centuries left handed people have adapted and produced fantastic results on the violin just how it is.