Sunday, September 23, 2018

Left Handed Violins

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

Occasionally, we get calls from beginners, or their parents, desperately searching for a "left handed violin".  Andy's mother was a lefty and the cello expert at our shop is a lefty, so we know the challenges that left handed people face in many aspects of life. And we know that guitars are made left handed. But guitar construction is not the same as violin family construction or playing. So here's our contention (and Megan, a left-handed cellist absolutely agrees!)- VIOLINS (and violas, and cellos) ARE LEFT HANDED as they are standardly set up. That is, the fine finger movement and hand control necessary to play a stringed instrument is centered in the left hand. Lefties have an advantage when it comes to playing violin, viola or cello- their brains are already wired for the movements to play a violin family instrument. It's righties that have some brain training to do in this regard.

The bow is held in the right hand. While there is a lot of bow finesse to learn, it's mainly macro muscle arm and hand movements. So, again, lefties are already set up to play stringed instruments the way they are already constructed.

The insides of a violin look like this-
soundpost on the E (treble) side and a bass bar on the G (bass) side
Why isn't it as easy as just switching the strings around (as you might with a "left handed" guitar) to make an instrument that you'd finger with the right hand and bow with the left? In the above picture you see what the interior of a violin looks like. (This picture is actually the interior of a cello. The picture was taken from the large endpin hole.) The vertical piece of wood on the E (treble) side is the soundpost. The piece of wood that you see attached to the top on the G (bass) side is the bass bar. The bass bar is a permanent piece of the instrument and is glued into the top. In order to string the violin in the opposite way from standard, you'd have to take the bass bar out, make a new bass bar and glue it to the inside of the top on the opposite side. The soundpost would have to be switched also. It's possible to do all of that, but it's a major repair/restoration job.  Violin family instruments might look symmetrical on the outside, but on the inside they're not symmetrical!

File:Violin Vuillaume.jpg
Copy of a Guarneri violin by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume, set up normally

© User:Mezzofortist/ Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL
A left-handed violin. As you can see, the chin rest and pegs are mirrored
Here's a 'strange but true' anatomical fact that even showed up in Einstein's brain. Many right handed violinists develop a large knob shaped fold in the right hemisphere (which controls the left side of your body) in their brain. The enlargement is developed to compensate for the increased motor representation of the fine motor control of the left hand. Einstein was a right handed violinist. And an avid one- "I get the most joy in life out of music." Here's the reverse situation that helps to prove my point that violins, violas, and cellos already are left handed instruments- Left handed violinists DO NOT develop a similar large knob. Their brains are already set up for fine motor control using the left hand.

Regardless, some musicians play left handed, either on left handed violins or right handed violins switched around. Most of those who do are in fiddling or folk music, more 'casual' music. Very rarely do classical musicians play left-handed. Even if violinists are left-handed, and many are, they play in the standard position. This may have to do with orchestra seating arrangements, which makes it difficult to incorporate left handed players without stabbing someone's eye out. Or it may just be general classical music stubbornness.

A left handed fiddler

Ashley MacIsaac.jpg
Ashley MacIsaac is a canadian punk fiddler who plays left-handed

© User:Tabercil / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Paavo Berglund both conducted and played violin left-handed
File:Jersey Chamber Orchestra - Nicola Benedetti and Alexander Sitkovetsky.jpg
Nicola Benedetti is an outstanding left-handed violinist and soloist and plays in standard position

© Music in Action Ltd / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

But maybe it isn't just stubbornness. Besides the advantage lefties have in learning fingerings, a 2011 German study on pianists suggest lefties have no long-term disadvantages in music. When surveying the musicians, scientists found that both right handed and left handed musicians rated their expressive ability and physical discomfort when playing equally. In another test, the pianists had to play a 2 octave C Major scale on a digital piano. Using the digital piano, the scientists measured the consistency of notes, a method shown to give a good sense of  a musician's motor abilities. The musicians performed about equally when compared to each other. But surprisingly, both left and right handed players had better motor abilities in their right hand. This is most likely because the right hand is given the melody in most piano pieces. The results seems to suggest that musicians will adapt to play their instruments. When applying that to violins, it means a left handed violinist who has an advantage in learning fingerings will develop the needed ability to control the bow, and that a right handed violinist who has an advantage in learning bowing techniques will develop the needed ability to learn fingerings.

Simply put, lefties don't have any long term disadvantages when learning the violin, and they may even have an advantage when it comes to fingerings. When additionally considering the difficulties that would come with learning left-handed, like playing in ensembles and finding a "left-handed" violin, we would be hesitant to suggest playing non-standardly. Still, if playing left-handed is the only way a student will learn, I don't see why they can't. Having a musical instrument in your life is immensely valuable, and whatever needs to happen to make that possible is worth it.

Need a left handed violin, viola, or cello? Our point above? They're all left handed! Come see our instruments online or on Grand Ave. in St. Paul, MN at Fein Violins . And no, we don't have any so called "left handed" instruments.


1 comment:

  1. left-handed, play right-handed. I learned as an adult. In the beginning my instructor asked me to choose. I haven't regretted the choice. Having no basis for comparison I can't say I noticed any advantage.

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