Anyone else teach a lot of left-handers?

September 28, 2017, 3:09 PM · In the past couple of years, I've started to notice that I pull in left-handed students like a magnet. Looking at my current students, about 30% are left-handed, and that's not including the ones that are sort of just ambidextrous. I get so many that I actually bought left-handed violins for new students to try initially, to see if they have a much stronger aptitude in that direction if that's their desire (and yes yes, I know, playing a left-handed violin is the devil's work... most end up playing right handed anyways so don't worry).

As far as I know, about 10% of the population is left handed, so 30% seems unnaturally high. I'm thinking maybe it's a violin thing? More artistic endeavors attract left-handers?

Has anyone else experienced this in their student base? I should mention I get mostly beginners, and that my online presence is the main source of new students (rather than references or local students).

Replies (73)

September 28, 2017, 6:41 PM · Hmm.. I've noticed a lot of the people I work with are left handed.

I think when it comes to something where each hand has it's own difficult challenge the initial handiness of the player doesn't matter - left or right, the weak hand still will need to learn and compensate. I find in guitar left handed players tend to be stronger with chording and other left hand work, but require more attention for their plucking and right hand shape. The same is true in reverse.

the main reason I'm against left handed instruments is that it limits selection for no real reason. Playing 'leftie' doesn't really offer much in the way of benefits. With guitar I feel it's actually a bit of a handicap, as the left hand has the lions share of the precision work. In violin I suspect a left handed player will get the 'mechanical' aspects of left hand intonation etc down much quicker. Their ear will still need to train, but fingerings and hand shape etc should be a bit easier.

I found with strings my left hand (I am left handed) comes along much quicker than my right hand does.

Take it with a grain of salt however - I teach guitar not violin.

September 28, 2017, 9:58 PM · Each hand presents its unique challenges in instrumental technique, and left-handed instruments are scarce. Unless you have a diagnosed physical disability that forces you to play left-handed (e.g cerebral palsy), please play the normal way.
September 29, 2017, 12:19 AM · I think this effect plays a role:
Most pupils studying the violin are comming from a houshold with higher education or at least higher interest in the childs education than average.
People with more interest in the childs education are more likely to take a thought if the child is left handed during early preschool age.
It is therefore less likely to be an undetected lefty.
It may happen that people whos children dont show clear right handed tendencies are (unwillingly) pushed to feel as a lefty.

I think that left handed violinists should be aware that playing in an orchestra with a lefty violin may be a reason to not get a seat at some orchestras.

I think left handed violinists playing a lefty are great for quartett seatings! The violins can both sit at the sides and viola cello in the middle, so that all 4 instruments are showing towards the audience!

I have seen researches claiming that lefthanded people are more likely to be talented in arts, I never took the time to check them, I mean there are a lot of bs researches wondering around. I took thoughts about my son beeing left handed (he seems not to be able to choose a main hand by his own and always copyied what sourrounding people did) but when it comes to individuals it does not help to look at statistic propabilities.

Edited: September 29, 2017, 1:31 AM · I have a number of lefty students. They of course, hold the violin the usual way around, violin left hand and bow with right.

Cheers Carlo

September 29, 2017, 2:22 AM · To be honest guys, very few of my students are serious enough to ever consider getting into a paying orchestra.

Regarding left-handed violins (I had a feeling that this would come up): Generally, my recommendation has always been that left-handed people learn right-handed. I realize that everyone validates this as "well, both hands have to be doing something, so it all evens out in the end."

Here's the thing: the bow hand is a heck of a lot more complicated than the fingering-hand. I would say the violin is 80% bow, 20% fingers, particularly in the first couple years of learning. This is ESPECIALLY true when you consider that in a left-handed person, their brain develops in such as way as perceive spatial awareness in relation to their left hand, and the bow needs a lot more spatial awareness than the fingering-hand does.

I was of a more "typical" mindset regarding left handers until about a year ago, when I received a young student whose parents INSISTED she be taught left-handed. Apparently I was the only teacher even remotely willing to TRY. So far, she's done very, very, well. Meanwhile, other left handed students that I've taught right-handed have taken 3x as long to achieve the same result she has.

Now, this sample size is very small, but since then I've bought left-handed violins just for people to try, and I've found that most left-handers have a much easier time playing them. Nevertheless, they still mostly choose to play right-handed. I think they just don't want to be seen as different.

Anyways, to make a long story short, I think that whole concept of "everyone should be taught right-handed" was created by right-handed people. And yes, I realize that some left-handers can still become good violinists, but I think what most people don't consider is how many left-handers never had the chance to become good musicians because they gave up early, due to the stresses of learning an instrument with their non-dominant hand. Of course there are a few exceptions, but I bet that if there wasn't such a stigma associated with it, we would have a great deal more left-handers playing violin.

Have you guys ever tried to play left-handed as a right-hander? I have. And until you've given it an honest attempt, I can't really count your opinion as valid.

September 29, 2017, 2:35 AM · There are more top soloists who are left handed than the proportion of lefties in the population. This suggests that being left handed gives a violinist an advantage.

Cheers Carlo

Edited: September 29, 2017, 9:43 AM · I know two lefties who play violin (one of them has a right handed twin), both play right-handed. Both are wonderful players, they didn't have any problem learning "the right way".

I myself am mixed-handed.

(One of my teachers and my violin teacher's daughter are lefties, both play piano. I've seen the daughter play violin though, right-handed)

Edited: September 29, 2017, 5:37 AM · I started my musical life, as a small child, on the piano, with about 12 years of lessons. I started as a cellist when I was 11 and continued as an orchestral cellist (amateur) until fairly recently, not long after I took up the violin in retirement. The violin has now replaced my cello in orchestral playing. These days I rarely play the piano, but when I do I am aware that my left-hand technique is better than it used to be, and possibly better than my right-hand technique. I can only put this down to the intensive work my left hand has had to do on the cello and violin throughout my life.

Regarding violinists who play left-handed, the comment about spatial awareness is enlightening.

As an experiment I have one or twice tried playing the violin left-handedly, with the predictable sorry result. It vividly reminded me of what it is like to be a raw beginner again!

September 29, 2017, 6:09 AM · Violin is challenging for lefties, righties, and the ambidextrous. Give a well-setup "lefty" violin to any of the well-known modern players of our day, and they will instantly be reduced to "beginner" status, regardless dominant hand. I am the furtherst you can imagine from being status-quo-esque, but I see no value in "helping" a lefty with an alternate, "better suited" instrument which won't necessarily be any easier to play (plus think how easy this "standard" makes life for the player by helping them more easily acquire accessories, etc.)

(Sorry, Mr. Jennings, I didn't notice your similar comment above.)

Edited: September 29, 2017, 7:05 AM · I'm left-handed, and I play using the traditional set-up. Never had any problems with it. Being left-handed in a right-handed world has generally forced me to become somewhat ambidextrous, and I would go so far as to speculate that it's probably easier for me to use my right hand in most cases than it is for a right-handed person to use their left hand. I've still had to put practice time into my bowing technique, mind you, but I'm not sure that it was harder for me than for anyone else; none of my teachers have ever given me that impression. Fast passages usually come to me pretty quickly.

Personally, I don't see much of a need for left-handed violins. I have noticed that I seem to meet a higher-than-normal concentration of lefties both through my work as a musician and in my day job, where I teach biology and health sciences. It's an interesting correlation.

Edited: September 29, 2017, 12:03 PM · We poor right-handers have to teach our left hands to lead the dance, while our right hands can play the bow like a caligrapher's brush.

I have at most 1 in 10 left-handed students, but I should love to know if the proportion changes as we go up the pyramid to the stellar players. I have a sneaking supicion that it might be at least 50%.

Edit: Carlo has already answered this.

September 29, 2017, 8:49 AM · I never ask and it doesn't matter.

However, since we all know that a lefty was originally a twin in the womb that ate his right-handed mate,
I would think twice before turning my back on the student. Especially if they haven't had their after-school snack. And students, beware the left-handed teacher as well, especially when they say they will
schedule you during the dinner hour.

September 29, 2017, 9:10 AM · I read about a German violist (Jürgen Kussmaul) who was already a professional player when due to an accident he lost two fingers of his left hand. He learnt to play left-handed and reached a professional level again (becoming eventually professor for viola).

https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jürgen_Kussmaul

Edited: September 29, 2017, 10:07 AM · I believe that all things being equal, we either struggle with the left or right hand depending on which hand is your dominant hand. Both hands need to perform complex things in order to play violin well.

This is why I don't think it really matters. Being a lefty hasn't really set me back. I think I might have struggled more with my right hand bowing in learning proper holds, tension and such. Not a deal breaker, just takes longer to grok for us sometimes. Once groked though we should be no better or worse than a right handed person. I know I'll get it down eventually.

In my opinion,probably more important in terms of technical playing dexterity is the independent movement between fingers on the left hand.You heed fast independent moves on the left hand. Since our hands are adapted for grasping fingers have the tendency to work in tandem. For violin, this is usually a no no. Not much we can do at the hand since those commands come straight from the brain.

September 29, 2017, 10:05 AM · Sorry for the typos. Corrected but might not reflect on early browser loads.
Edited: September 29, 2017, 12:04 PM · I occasionally try to play the other way: it's very instructive, as I know exactly what to do, but am incapable of doing it. Just like a beginner.
Musn't try too often though.
September 29, 2017, 2:04 PM · These are all very valid points, but one thing I feel that most people don't consider is this: those stellar players who are left-handed; how much better would they have done if given a left-handed instrument in the beginning?

In other words, maybe left-handers do statistically have an advantage because of the way their brains are wired, but that still doesn't mean they wouldn't have done even BETTER if the bow was put in their dominant hand.

I just feel like there's zero evidence to fight the "everyone should play right handed" policy, because no teachers will even attempt it. So how could we possibly know which way is ideal? And before we talk about there being hundreds of years for people to experiment with what worked and what didn't, keep in mind that not too long in the past, being left-handed was essentially viewed as a disorder, so there's no way the teachers of the past would have attempted it.

And when we use exceptional people as examples, it's just like the whole "well (blank) worked for Paganini, so it should work for you!" argument. I'm much more curious what works for ordinary people than what works for the extremely talented. Extremely talented people could play the violin on top of their head if they wanted to, but that doesn't mean it's ideal.

All of this is sort of moot in my case because when left-handers come into my studio they almost always have purchased normal violins before coming in, and they're not about to run out and get another one. As I noted, they rarely want to be seen as different.

The question I often ask myself is "should I be forcing/encouraging them to use a left-handed violin?" This may seem like a silly question to you, but I am basing this decision off of two realities:

1) When I get beginner left-handers, they absolutely struggle more than their right-handed counterparts when initially learning the instrument. Since I get a HUGE amount of beginners who have never touched a violin before, I can definitely attest to this being the case. Left-handers struggle more.

However, they're almost always more diligent than the right-handers. So they end up getting as far, but it's usually because they're willing to work harder/longer.

2) The ONE student that I've had learn left-handed has done exceptionally well, and doesn't have any of the "bow awkwardness" that I typically see in beginner left-handers. In other words, her technique actually looks correct because when I show her how to do something, it STICKS. In the left-handers playing right-handed, I can correct their bow hand a million times, and use a million different cues to meet that end, but it always slips back into some sort of awkwardness eventually. Now, eventually they might get it, but it takes so much more effort on both of our parts.

I know this ONE girl doesn't constitute a reasonable sample size to draw any conclusions, but it certainly has opened my mind up about the whole idea, and made me wonder if our tradition of right-handed-only is correct, or if it's denying a significant amount of students the potential to succeed.

I mean, look how long it took public schools to actually allow left-handers to WRITE left-handed? My mom was a left-hander and as a result of the school forcing her to write with her non-dominant hand, her handwriting ended up sucking. I would never validate their system as correct. I would just say that they eventually figured out their tradition was stupid/archaic, and fixed it.

September 29, 2017, 2:39 PM · From my perspective as a professional, left-handers playing the standard way are actually at a slight advantage. Both hands, obviously, need to be at a high level, but it's much easier to disguise sloppiness of bow technique than it is to disguise a sloppy left hand; intonation is often the first thing people pick up on.

Are you telling your left handed students that their bow hand is likely to be harder to learn than for right-handers, or implying it through your actions? If you are, stop it. I've never met a beginner who wasn't initially awkward with the bow, for the record.

And, for what it's worth, I'm left handed, write lefthanded, and my handwriting is terrible.

September 29, 2017, 3:18 PM · Irene: I'm not currently telling my left-handed students anything, really. In fact, all I do currently is offer them the chance to try a left-handed violin if they'd like, since otherwise they'd have to go out and buy one to try it. Usually they don't care to.

This thread has totally derailed at this point from one about % of left-handed students to one about whether or not they should be playing right-handed.

I will reiterate at this point that I have ONE left-handed student that plays that way. And that required a lot of insisting on their part to get through my traditionalist mindset.

Anyways, since we're on this subject now, I'll ask you this: if left-handers are supposedly at an ADVANTAGE on a normal violin, then why aren't we encouraging right-handers to play lefty?

Something else to keep in mind: if someone is using a disproportionate amount of brain resources to focus on bowing with their non-dom-hand, it's going to affect their intonation anyways - PARTICULARLY in a beginner. Not everyone has the multi-tasking abilities that you may have, so their brain resources must be managed carefully.

September 29, 2017, 5:33 PM · Do you thinks perhaps, you could be doing your students a dis-service by teaching them to hold their violins reversed? Could you be accused of applying your own dogmatic approach to left handedness and violin playing? You seem to be flying in the face of accepted wisdom and seem to have a particular axe to grind.

Cheers Carlo

September 29, 2017, 5:48 PM · Teaching a student on a left-handed violin is a very good way to ensure that the student either cannot participate in orchestra or will be relegated to the last stand, alone.

A higher-than-expected number of violinists and cellists in my orchestra are left-handed. They all play the conventional way, and they all sound wonderful.

September 29, 2017, 6:36 PM · I feel like people just aren't reading my posts. Carlo, I have taught ONE person left-handed, and that wasn't my decision; it was the decision of the parents. I'm talking about a theoretical situation where left-handers would be encouraged - or at least allowed - to play left-handed.

I don't have an axe to grind; I simply think it's a dialogue that should be opened, since it seems to get shut down so vehemently whenever it's brought up. The whole attitude of "why fix it if it's not broken?" has always been an irritating one to me, since it implies that everything is perfect and there's no need to evolve our process.

"Accepted wisdom" also once dictated that shoulder rests were entirely heretical, and that debate is still fought to this day. But there are a heck of a lot more people using them now, and I would bet that there are some who may have quit early on if it weren't for the existence of a device that brought them so much more physical comfort. They may also allow people to play into their older years much more effectively in certain cases.

I guess one of the points I'm trying to make - if there is one - is that if more people were at least open-minded to the idea of left handers playing lefty, then maybe orchestras would stop treating them so differently, and would find a way to adapt and make it work. Then maybe teachers wouldn't be so opposed to teaching that way, since it wouldn't automatically nullify their chances of ever playing in an orchestra. Everyone is opposed to change in the classical world, and it's part of what keeps it "pure," in a sense. But I think it's also part of the reason that more people don't end up sticking with it.

Maybe there are some left handers who really tried, but COULDN'T overcome the discomfort of playing righty. But no one's going to say "well, they failed because they were forced to play backwards." They're going to say "you didn't try hard enough" or "some people just aren't meant to play violin" or whatever. They're never going to blame the setup, because that would mean blaming themselves. It's much easier to blame the student's perceived lack of talent.

If one looks at history of any sort, they'll quickly find that most things we consider "standard" now were considered insane by the general public when they were first discussed. And if it weren't for people questioning the status quo despite everyone telling them to shut up, then no changes would occur.

I'm just looking for a way to open the doors to a few more players who might not otherwise feel comfortable playing. I'm not trying to apply a "dogmatic approach" -- I'm attempting to be open-minded so that some students who would otherwise be unsuccessful might have a chance to do better.

And do try to keep in mind, this is from the perspective of someone who deals with a lot of beginners, and sees a much higher dropout rate as a result. People who deal with mostly intermediate/advanced students don't see the same dropout rate because those students are already committed. The ones who have a lot of difficulty in the beginning stages have already been filtered out, and so it's hard for higher-level teachers to see it from the same perspective.

September 29, 2017, 6:39 PM · "if more people were at least open-minded to the idea of left handers playing lefty, then maybe orchestras would stop treating them so differently, and would find a way to adapt and make it work."

I think you are missing the point. The modern orchestra on the modern stage has no room to spare. Accommodating a left-handed violinist means taking up the space that would normally be occupied by two right-handed violinists, or else someone is going to lose an eye.

It isn't a hidebound devotion to tradition. It's a physical reality.

September 29, 2017, 6:46 PM · Ultimately, it is up to the student and parents to make the final call. You present to them your information, the pros and cons, the options, and let them choose what works for them. It is a personal and very individualistic decision to make.
Edited: September 29, 2017, 10:17 PM · "...please play the normal way..."

Ahem - right-handed isn't more "normal" than lefty. ;(

As it happens I write, throw, bat lefty but certain things like violin, guitar, shooting a rifle & pistol feel much more natural to me righty. Oddly playing tennis feels more natural right-handed but swinging a golf club lefty is far more natural.

Would it be impossible for a lefty player to be hired in a pro orchestra?

Edited: September 29, 2017, 10:41 PM · I've never heard of a backwards-playing violinist being hired in a professional orchestra in recent times (I had to reword that because loads of left-handed violinists get hired, but they play the standard way).

Orchestras are about blend, not about sticking out. A violinist playing left-handed would have his f-holes facing the wrong direction, which would affect blend. His bow would be moving in an opposite direction, which would be visually distracting to our audience as well as any violinists sitting behind him, and would require twice the space on stage as any other violinist. Also, section ensemble playing relies a great deal on visual cues and I can't imagine the distraction inherent in someone in my line of sight playing backwards.

I can't really imagine anyone playing backwards without a solid reason (missing left-hand fingers or some other one-sided disability) being encouraged to continue in that vein by any high-level teacher once it became clear the student was serious, but assuming for the sake of argument that someone did, I also can't imagine such a player being hired at an audition once the screen came down. There are a lot of excellent violinists striving for positions in professional orchestras--far more than there are openings for them--why would any orchestra hire someone who would necessarily disrupt seating, ensemble, balance, and so on?

Edited: September 30, 2017, 6:54 AM · "Backwards" eh? Gee, sounds downright Orwellian. So you're saying there's rampant institutional bigotry against lefties in the classical music world. A protest is clearly called for.

LEFT ON MAN!!

So the only path available is to be a soloist. ;)

September 30, 2017, 11:19 AM · In an orchestra a left-handed string player could confuse some conductors! And then there's the important matter of the ergonomics of good platform arrangement.

In an ad hoc band for folk dancers I regularly play in we occasionally have a particular left-handed fiddle player turn up; quite a good player, but to minimize potential chaos we place him at the end of the row.

Didn't one of the great quartets (Amadeus?) have a left-handed violinist/violist? Can't remember.

Edited: September 30, 2017, 12:03 PM · I'm left-handed and I'm always stumped as to why a left-hander would want to reverse violin and bow -- the normal way of playing puts a left-hander at a natural advantage!
Edited: September 30, 2017, 4:37 PM · IMHO, one must be careful as a teacher not to project one's idiosyncratic ideas onto one's students. In this case Erik, I feel you may doing them a dis-service by following your own somewhat unorthadox methods. I agree with Laurie, the left-hander is at an advantage holding the violin in the conventional fashion.

Cheers Carlo

September 30, 2017, 5:09 PM · Carlo, I'm talking about IDEAS here. I actually teach in a very traditional way.

But traditional doesn't always work well. It USUALLY works well, but it doesn't ALWAYS work well. I really push for a traditional approach before ever exploring different options. But for that small sliver of the population whom traditional isn't necessarily ideal for, I like to think of innovative new ways of teaching them, instead of just giving up.

Maybe my posts are giving off the wrong impression? I'm discussing IDEAS here, not policies that I'm already implementing. And since I've heard back from the posters here, I think that it probably isn't worth teaching on left-handed violins, given that there are just too many practical challenges associated with it. I'm glad I got extra feedback about it.

September 30, 2017, 5:24 PM · There are different degrees of handedness. Some lefties use right handed scissors and hand tools. And there are right handers that throw a ball lefty. It's interesting that Erik has seen an unusually large number of lefties. Why do you think that would be?
Edited: September 30, 2017, 5:42 PM · "I have actually bought left-handed violins for my new students to try " just an idea as you claim? or something more?

Cheers Carlo

October 1, 2017, 1:10 AM · Let me clarify: I have actually bought left-handed violins for my new students to try if they want to."

I did have one adult who was struggling an unusual amount and switched her to left-handed (because to be honest, I'd tried everything else) for a month or two. It didn't click with her, but it made some mental connections happen so when she switched back, things progressed much better. An unusual situation with an unusual solution, but it did seem to work.

Edited: October 1, 2017, 8:08 AM · I have found an example of that rare species, a left-handed professional cellist, in the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. See this video of the Brahms Requiem conducted by Herbert Blomstedt, at 19'32",
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJelOS-fjrY

Visually, a left-handed orchestral cellist can get away with it; just locate them in an inside chair in the middle or towards the back of the section. The left-handed bowing is low down and will then hardly be visible to the audience.

[Edit added. A closer inspection of the video frame of that L-H cellist reveals that he is using screw-on gearing for the pegs. Haven't seen those on a cello since I was at school.]

October 2, 2017, 6:28 AM · I hear Laurie even claiming that left-handed people are actually in an advantageous position learning the violin? That seems unlikely. The way violin is normally played most probably has arisen because it is easier that way if you are right-handed. And the bowing hand is at least as important as the fingering hand.

Carlo: who are all these left-handed soloists? I know of Kavakos and, while he is of course a great artist with extraordinary talent, I don't think he belongs to the top as far as bowing is concerned.

October 2, 2017, 9:01 AM · Erik I think it's great that you want to consider those who might be more apt to learn in a different way.

I briefly considered left handed instruments because I didn't want to learn the "wrong way".Not knowing anything about the violin at the time, I assumed it might give me an added advantage. I looked at other things too, like 5 stringed violins. I won't go there because I don't take us off course.

I think it's a good idea to throw the option out there with the pros and cons of that choice. Both short term and long term.

I think lefties can learn alternate ways to do things just as well or better than right handed people. We are trained to do it early on living in a right handed world.

One other advantage and maybe the reason some of us are good at reading people is when we face a right handed person , our dominant faces their dominant side.

I see a slight advantage in finger dexterity in my left hand compared to my right hand. So I can see why Laurie feels this can be an added advantage.

It can go both ways though. In learning piano most of the complex parts are in the right hand, yet they don't make a left handed piano to my knowledge. I have no trouble with that either. In fact, my right hand seems better suited for it.Not too many left handed piano solos.

On guitar as on violin it's an advantage for the fingerings if you have added dexterity in that hand. Using the bow is more of a hand/wrist/arm technique, so individual fingers are less important.

In a teaching situation I would think this could get complicated. Everything is reversed. When playing with others communication could get confusing when discussing fingerings. You would need the ability to work through that FAST, and as a lefty that responsibility lies with us.

In learning the standard way I could not be happier.

October 2, 2017, 9:39 AM · The piano argument you used above, Mr. Smith, is a good point for "normal" instruments, as advanced repertoire requires to essentially be ambidextrous, as far as piano technique is concerned. Similarly, advanced (or even not so difficult) violin repertoire requires such mastery for both hands/arms, there's little point, IMO, in trying to make violin "easier" with a lefty option that will be a nightmare to fit into the "standard" music world.

In short, it's not that I believe the normal/standard violin position is the only right option, but that the other option has such limited benefits the student may as well just "cave in" to the dreaded "standard way of doing things." I always defend the iconoclasts of the world, I myself being one, but there are so many cons vs the possible pros, it's not worth going that route for lefties, in my view.

For what it's worth, I write with the right (horrible handwriting notwithstanding), and have always thought, even from personal experience, that the bow arm is the most difficult hand/arm to master; tenths, fingered octaves, etc. are way easier compared to having a bow arm that is powerful, relaxed, nuanced, and utilized at the highest levels of music artistry.

October 2, 2017, 3:45 PM · It occurs to me that the orchestra with the L-H cellist is primarily a radio orchestra. The left-handedness of a string player may therefore generally not be visually significant.
October 3, 2017, 5:23 AM · If the look of it were the only reason someone rejects the idea offhand *ahem* , that's pretty lame in my book.
October 3, 2017, 1:16 PM · So, I think all of these points are great and valid. I really appreciate all of the responses and ideas being put out here.

But (because I just LOVE being unpopular), I still have to retort that no one here has any experience with teaching left-handers left-handed (or even KNOWING anyone who has tried it) and that any opinions seem to be based on purely hypothetical concepts.

It's moot anyways, because as Mary Ellen and some others pointed out: even if it would work better for the student, no orchestras would accept them, and no teacher is going to risk that.

My conclusion from this whole thing: it might work better, but it doesn't matter because orchestras favor conformity over efficiency in what is, admittedly, a minority of the population.

October 3, 2017, 1:59 PM · I don't understand why it would be any different if the dominant hand is the bow hand. Even if you were teaching a left-hander to play a normal violin, are any of the principles any different? Are the pieces different? If they have trouble bowing, you probably have things you give right-handed students to work on their bowing.

I mean, it takes a long time to build the coordination regardless of one's handed predispositions, and I imagine that a diligent student will progress regardless of whether the violin is set-up for their handedness or not.

Edited: October 3, 2017, 2:05 PM · It isn't favoring *conformity* over efficiency. It is favoring ensemble most of all, practicality and logistics...and while it may be your opinion that teaching left-handed students on a left-handed instrument is more efficient, that has hardly been demonstrated by the facts.
Edited: October 3, 2017, 2:35 PM · Here are some facts: I am left-handed. I play cello the usual way, but when I got a violin I learned to play left-handed and I now have three left-handed violins...BECAUSE my left hand bows much better than my right hand! I don't have the strength to finger the cello strings with my right hand, but it is no problem with the violin...I enjoy it! The more I play the violin, the more inept I become on cello...playing left-handed works out so much better for me. I started piano at 5, which I think helped to develop dexterity in my right hand.
For those who are not aware of recent developments, there ARE left-handed violinists in European orchestras--it is NOT forbidden! I am sorry that so many teachers believe everyone must play the conventional way; I play in an orchestra and in duets, trios and quartets, and have not experienced any seating problems. I would encourage anyone who wishes to play left handed to defy the prejudices that abound, and go ahead and try it before making a final decision.
October 3, 2017, 3:30 PM · Thank you for your real-world experience, Erin. And I wasn't aware of the European orchestras! That's excellent.


For those of you saying "both hands have to do stuff, so it doesn't matter either way," I want you to do a little experiment:

Let's forget about violin for a second. Pick a hobby that involves physical motion from both sides of the body, such as billiards, golf, kickboxing, or shooting rifles. I want you to try doing that hobby the opposite way from how you naturally want to do it. And I mean REALLY try, don't just try it for 5 seconds and say "well I haven't practiced that way, so OF COURSE I'm not going to feel comfortable."

But here's the thing: I promise you that you can become BETTER than you were if you work at it, use specific exercises, and so on. Hard work can make almost anything good eventually. But you will NEVER achieve the same result in 2 weeks of effort doing it the opposite way as you would with 2 weeks of effort in the dominant way.

You know how I know which students probably SHOULD be taught left-handed? When they NATURALLY grab the violin with their right hand and NATURALLY grab the bow with their left.

I have left-handed students that do this, even after being told NOT to for multiple years. They grab the bow with the left, violin with the right, and then terrifyingly juggle them into the the opposite hands. I tell them "let's get you out of this habit by having you grab the violin with your left hand so you don't have to juggle the bow/violin around and potentially drop it." But it's ALWAYS their reflex to do it that way.

Conversely, I have left-handed students that NATURALLY grab the bow/violin in the right-handed way. And generally those students don't have any extra awkwardness, so clearly they should be playing right-handed, even though they're considered left-handed in other things.

The point being, you can't tell me that playing a right-handed violin is IDEAL for everyone. What you CAN tell me is that if they work hard enough, anyone can achieve a palatable result.


And Mary Ellen: what "facts" are we discussing here? Because as far as I know, almost no other teachers have any experience teaching left-handed.

Edited: October 3, 2017, 3:49 PM · The facts are that a disproportionate number of professional violinists--people who have achieved the highest level of proficiency on the violin--are left-handed. Therefore playing the conventional way is no disadvantage, or else there would be a *lower* than expected number of lefties in orchestras, not higher.

I really think your teaching would benefit from you doing a college degree in violin. Or at the very least, taking regular weekly lessons with a high level violin teacher. High level as in has conservatory degrees of his/her own and performs professionally.

October 3, 2017, 5:32 PM · As I have implied (and I do not mean to be argumentative, so please take no offense) when I was younger, the hardest arm/hand was the right (bow arm)-and that's my "dominant" hand.

Humans can make anything they set their mind to "dominant", IMHO. Not talking science, but real-life observations. Both piano and violin are too complex/"hard" to make any initial "dominance" matter in the long run. Since I would indirectly frustrate a pupil by making life more inconvenient to him due to the lack of "lefty" instruments AND accessories in the market (not even mentioning the aforementioned situations with ensembles and orchestras), I rather "inconvenience" his dominant preference instead.

Nothing against you, Mr. Williams. Believe and practice what you will.

October 3, 2017, 6:57 PM · Mary Ellen: is there a class in college where they discussed this specific subject? Or are you just pulling the "I have a degree and you don't, therefore my opinion on this totally unrelated subject is more valid" argument?

Obviously a college degree is amazingly useful and great, but I don't see how it relates to this particular subject.

Regarding a high-level teacher, I've noticed that those are often the worst at teaching less-talented individuals or those with somewhat impaired motor-skills, since they almost always get the most talented students. They have less experience, not more, when dealing with a more "Average" student.

Of course this isn't always the case.

I agree that I should be taking lessons. Once again though, I feel it's unrelated to the subject at hand.

Regarding the amount of left-handers that are successful, I see a lot of "correlation, not causation" here. It could easily be that left-handers just tend to stick to things for longer, they try harder, or perhaps are more musical in general (my left-handed students are almost always better about practicing every day, fyi). But there's nothing definitive or even suggestive about the amount of successful left-handers in proportion to right handers. Once again, correlation does not equal causation. Funny enough, I learned that in JC, not conservatory!

Adalberto, I appreciate your tone in conversation. Although dominance CAN be "forced" to some extent, I still think there's far more gear-grinding that occurs in doing so. A dedicated person can do anything that they set their mind to, but they can do MORE if the process feels more natural to them from the outset.

I would like to REiterate that I don't think ALL left-handers should play left-handed. It's just my theory that SOME should (and perhaps, some right-handers would benefit as well).

Edited: October 3, 2017, 8:03 PM · I agree that blending into an orchestra is an important reason to play the conventional way. I wonder though if there are other musical or technical reasons that favor playing the standard way. The keyboard set up was mentioned earlier. I think you draw an analogy between the keyboard and violin where more complex rhythms (melodic) are usually performed or directed by the right hand while the left hand plays a more simple or steady beat (i.e fingers are left down while the bow subdivides) I think it's easier to play the complex subdivision with the right hand as opposed to the left hand. Maybe that has something to do with brain hemispheres and how they interact.
October 3, 2017, 8:32 PM · Interesting points, Raymond. It's probable, based on what I've seen, that the part of the brain that deals in complex rhythms and percussion in general is the dominant-hand hemisphere (right brain for left handers).
October 3, 2017, 9:09 PM · Erik, I admire your passion and dedication to your students, but this is not the first discussion in which it has been obvious that you don't know what you don't know. You need a much more comprehensive exposure to pedagogical styles (gained by lessons with master teachers as well as observations of other master teachers), greater orchestral and chamber music experience, extensive work with students at *all* levels--you cannot possibly be teaching students who play better than you do, and knowledge of the major pedagogical literature from Leopold Mozart to Auer to Suzuki to Galamian.

It isn't the degree that makes the difference. It's the knowledge gained in pursuit of the degree.

October 3, 2017, 10:49 PM · Mary Ellen, no one knows what they don't know. You're no exception to that. Everyone is on a spectrum of knowledge, and I'm sure there are plenty of teachers whose grandeur of knowledge far surpasses your own, just as my knowledge surpasses that of some others, and the general level of your knowledge surpasses my own.

But besides considering a general, falsely-linear spectrum of knowledge, we must also consider the fact that everyone has a degree of specialty in what they do. This is dependent mostly on life experience and circumstances, as I don't think most people choose the specialty they end up in. For example, when I began teaching, I really didn't think I'd end up with mostly beginners. But as a result of my main form of advertising (my website), I get a majority of students who are just beginning. Players who are advanced usually contact the nearest orchestra to find their instructors, and this is also true of parents of kids who are very serious about playing. Since I'm not in the orchestra, I don't get those students. I get the beginners. Of course I occasionally get strays who are more advanced, and they're always a pleasure to teach. On that note, the results they get during the time they spend with me are always quite productive, whether the lessons only continue for a few weeks or for much longer. I can say with considerable honesty that I've never gotten an intermediate/advanced student who left my studio worse off than they came in. Even skilled players benefit from having a "Second eye" on their playing, but they may not stay for more than a few productive lessons.

With all of that said, I would consider my specialty to be teaching beginners and intermediate students, because they are what I have plenty of experience teaching. I would consider your specialty to be teaching advanced and expert students, since they are most likely what you have the most experience teaching.

Of course, I'm sure you have experience teaching SOME beginners, just as I've had advanced students cross my path. But I feel your skill set applies in a more direct way to more advanced students. If I was seeking a teacher and I lived in your area, I would seek you out as a teacher. But if I were a beginner, I would seek myself as a teacher.

Here's my problem: I feel like your assumption is that by being able to teach high-level students, your experience automatically makes you qualified to know everything about beginner students. To SOME degree that's true, but the crossover is definitely not 100%; I've seen plenty of very high-level teachers who clearly have no idea how to approach a run-of-the-mill, average student who is just learning how to hold the bow. I've never seen you teach so I can't truly judge, but you should also consider that you've never seen me teach.

So, I get it. "I don't know what I don't know."

But here's something I do know: relating to THIS subject, I have more experience. And my experience has shown me that some students should be playing left-handed. If we were talking about ANYTHING else, like throwing a baseball, or fencing, would it really be that crazy for an instructor to suggest that some people should do it opposite-handed? No, but since it's violin and violinists are the most stubborn and traditionalist group of people in the world, suddenly it's heresy to suggest such a thing. And by the way, I'm talking about it maybe being ideal for 5%-10% of new students. Maybe half of left-handers, IF that. I'm not talking about overthrowing the other 90% whom playing right handed is clearly ideal for.

Edited: October 4, 2017, 5:15 PM · Erik wrote, "Regarding a high-level teacher, I've noticed that those are often the worst at teaching less-talented individuals..."

As a teacher (of chemistry, not violin) I've noticed that the less-talented individuals are often those who have the narrowest world-view, the most difficulty paying attention, the weakest curiosity. As they move along (say, into the second or third year of graduate school), these shortcomings manifest in a tendency to not know what they don't know. Those are often the ones who struggle in the prelim orals (for doctoral candidacy). They might be well-prepared in terms of college-level knowledge and laboratory skills, but they can't break through that barrier toward independence because they think they already have.

October 4, 2017, 6:00 AM · As a teacher of biology (freshman/sophomore college), I have to agree with Paul. Many of my students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and often appear at the beginning of the semester with very little confidence in their ability to learn a STEM subject. Curiosity, enthusiasm, determination, etc. really do go a long way in determining student success. Meanwhile, I've seen some pretty smart kids from more privileged backgrounds fail spectacularly due to lack of effort.

Also, I have to point out, as someone who has spent some years playing with DNA (sometimes I think I totally went into this for the cool toys), human genetics are waaaaaaaaay more complicated than we make it out to be in high school biology. Speaking anecdotally, my nature/nurture manifests as left-hand dominance and right-eye dominance. I write with my left hand, and so did my father and my maternal grandfather. However, in archery lessons, I've discovered purely by accident that I am more accurate by orders of magnitude if I shoot right-handed. I'll also rack up a much better bowling score if I throw right-handed. I can kick a ball farther and with better accuracy with the right than with the left. "Left-hand dominant" doesn't necessarily translate to "strong left side, weak right side". Also, we're still trying to figure out why there are more left-handed men out there than left-handed women (you'd think it would be about 50/50, but it's not). The more we learn about the value of nature and nurture, the more we realize we don't know, so we have to be careful when it comes to making assumptions.

October 4, 2017, 6:38 AM · Mary-Ellen suggested that Erik doesn't know what he doesn't know. Erik mentioned less-talented students. Now Paul links less-talented students back to not knowing what you don't know, indirectly linking Erik to lack of talent, which is really unfortunate. Just wanted to point that out. Erik does not deserve this.
Edited: October 4, 2017, 7:19 AM · I have the opposite experience to Erik's statement. The best teachers for beginners and intermediate students that I've seen are the highly trained teachers who have a lot of experience teaching at that level and who want to be teaching those students. But if you have a high level teacher who doesn't want to be teaching beginners or doesn't want to be teaching at all, that's a different story.

However, I don't see why a discussion about teaching left-handed students should be dismissed, as some responses here suggest. I think it's an interesting topic. What if you have a student who never wants to play in orchestras and just wants to play on their own for fun? Suppose they want to play folk music only and have no interest in classical music. Should their request to play left-handed be turned down just because maybe there is a 5% chance they will want to play in a community orchestra someday? Would that answer change if they only have 5 years left to live?

There seem to be two types of issues here:
1. Would a left-handed student play better on a left-handed instrument?
2. Should a left-handed student be taught left-handed if they request it?


October 4, 2017, 7:13 AM · I agree that it isn't fair to link Erik to the idea of less talent, and I also don't think it's fair to accuse Erik of a lack of curiosity--he wouldn't be here otherwise. I just really, really wish he would take weekly (not occasional) lessons with a high-level teacher himself.
October 4, 2017, 7:19 AM · To answer Frieda's question, what a student wants right now is absolutely not a predictor of what they might want five years from now. This is similar to saying that a twelve-year-old has no interest in any kind of scientific field, only wants to be a dancer, so should not be required to take algebra. What someone wants at 12 is no guarantee of what that person will want at 16, and avoiding algebra is completely limiting.

My answer might change in the case of an older adult and/or someone with a terminal prognosis, but Erik's original question referred to a child and that child's parents. Under no circumstances would I agree to start off a child beginner left-handed when there is no evidence that a left-hander playing the conventional way suffers any limitations, and there is ample evidence that playing on the opposite side limits or even precludes the largest part of most children's musical participation, which is orchestra.

October 4, 2017, 7:22 AM · I don't think Paul was trying to disparage Erik (at least I didn't read it that way), I think he was just objecting to the notion that high-level teachers aren't good at teaching "less-talented" students and pointing out that talent is less important in the long run than inner drive.
October 4, 2017, 9:16 AM · By the way, I have had a lot of success teaching advanced beginners and intermediate students of varying talent. It's the students who don't practice that I fail with.
Edited: October 4, 2017, 10:18 AM · Does anyone succeed with students who don't practice? =)
October 4, 2017, 11:12 AM · I think in those cases it's a question of who can motivate the student successfully.
October 4, 2017, 12:53 PM · I probably got ahead of myself when stating that high-level teachers are bad at teaching less-talented individuals. What I was really intending to get across is that a teacher's level of advancement in their personal repertoire or education doesn't necessarily mean they can just teach anyone. However, I do think a high-level teacher probably has a better statistical chance of knowing what to do with any given player that comes into their studio, provided they have the teaching experience to back up their playing experience.

Some people are just born to be good teachers, and I'm sure these people manifest as both high level and low level players. But their specialties won't necessarily overlap.


I didn't feel Paul was trying to disparage me, although I guess it's possible. Still, his points are valid.


Mary Ellen: you know, there's a part of me that really wants to take violin seriously again (more specifically, for the FIRST time, since I was trained on viola). It bites at me every day when I wake up. I feel like I could do so much more as a player if I actually gathered up my discipline, if I took weekly lessons, and if I just made the decision to be better. Most of my early life revolved around music, so the thought of giving up on improving always makes me feel homesick.

But here's my problem: every time I start taking it seriously for myself, my patience and understanding for my students completely disappears. I remember after my own lesson a few months back, it took me from thinking about things in 10x magnification to thinking about things in 1000x magnification, and my ability to relate to my mostly beginner students absolutely faded. I realize this sounds like an excuse to not work hard, but it's true. The same thing happens when I start diligently practicing again. Suddenly I'm looking UP and not DOWN, and the lessons with my own students become terribly boring and test my patience constantly. This is especially true with the students I have that have trouble getting motivated to practice. Right now, I'm patient with them and try my best to encourage, but not force, their practice. It's been working well, relatively. But if I start practicing 2+ hours a day, it becomes really, really difficult for me to relate to why they can't at least manage 15 minutes. Usually my periods of good practice are also the periods where I start "shedding" students, and I tend to regret that later because I know that with some of them, it was just a matter of time before they could stand on their own two feet.

Related to that point, when I become a student again (even if only for a week), all of my energy goes into exploring what makes ME a better player, and that energy no longer goes into exploring ideas about what might motivate/help my own students.

My OCD mind tends to "practice" behind the scenes even when I'm going to sleep, sitting on the couch, watching TV, etc... But exactly WHAT it practices depends on what I've been doing recently. So if I've been playing Bach, then my fingers are playing Bach on my hand, all day long. But if I haven't been practicing recently, then the behind-the-scenes "practice" becomes thinking about students. Thinking about why something isn't working with them. Thinking about how to make a poor student an acceptable student, and how to make a good student a great student. Thinking about the possibility of left-handed players. And honestly, it makes me a better teacher for my students. Yes, it limits me to the realms of teaching beginners/intermediates, but it also makes me a specialist in that realm, because I'm really, really searching within that 10x magnification.


So I do appreciate what you're suggesting (regarding having a high-level teacher) and I take it as a sort of compliment because I assume you must think I have some sort of potential as a player if you're even suggesting it. And, like I said before, my heart really wants to be that person, to become a player everyone respects, without having to argue my way into having my opinion listened to. But it's just not fair to the students I teach, because having someone who searches so diligently within the realm of 10x magnification is rare. It's not widely-respected to be a "beginner specialist" and as a result they're kind of hard to find.

PS: Back to the original argument, I get a LOT of adult beginners (once again, my primary source of students is google searches), so that might also be influencing my opinion on left-handed violins. Kids obviously have a much better chance of rewiring their brain if given extra time to do so.

October 4, 2017, 12:58 PM · To answer the original question, I have only two out of ten students who are left-handed. I often have none at all.

I have given much thought to the question of left-handed violins, as I supposed that the ample but precise gestures required by bowing are best left to the "main" hand.

But over time, I realised that very many accomplished players, stellar and less stellar, are left-handed: presumably they have no problem getting the left hand to take charge of the right (something us poor right-handers have to work at!)

So I conclude that it is right-thanded players who should switch sides!

In my 30's I knew evrything; in my late 60's I'm still learning, so I know more...

October 4, 2017, 5:33 PM · Erik, I was not trying to disparage you. Sorry if it sounded that way. Good luck with your left-handers.
October 5, 2017, 1:10 AM · Some comments mention that left-handedness is much more common among top violinists than among the general population. I wonder whether it isn't really that they are born with mixed-handedness/cross-dominance or even ambidexterity and just happened to learn writing with the left hand (you usually recognize a leftie when you see them write).

Edited: October 6, 2017, 8:20 AM · At U of Wisconsin, I watched Rudolf Kolisch play in the Pro Arte Quartet so I never thought playing left-handed was such a freak thing. It is of course more widespread in pop music, but there are classical professionals in the same category; for more facts, see Wikipedia's entry on left-handed players. It would be nice to see more teachers take a more catholic view of the possibilities...I hope these facts help!
October 6, 2017, 9:57 AM · Unless you're a certifiable genius from day one, playing left handed means you're going to get excluded from a lot of orchestra playing.
October 6, 2017, 12:48 PM · Incidentally, wearing a watch on the right wrist is not necessarily an indication of left-handedness. I'm right-handed, but for many years have been wearing the watch on my right wrist because on one unfortunate occasion the clasp on the watch on my left wrist wrecked the expensive A-string of my cello when I was playing in a high position!
October 6, 2017, 12:52 PM · I am a righty and wear my watch on my right hand. I don't want to scratch the fiddle when shifting to stratospheric positions.

Cheers Carlo

October 6, 2017, 1:35 PM · Certifiable geniuses are also likely to be excluded from orchestral playing or else relegated to the back, on the grounds that the rest of us would prefer not to lose an eye.
October 6, 2017, 2:13 PM · I have never paid attention to the proportion of left-handed students I have or don't have.

As someone else already said there are different degrees of handedness. There are some questionnaires available if anyone wants to investigate. Do you use a knife with your left hand, brush your teeth? What hand uses scissors? Which leg do you kick with? And so on. Often people aren't as one handed as they think.

The only thing I do right handed is scissors and I don't do it well. In first grade I kept going to the teacher saying these scissors won't cut not understanding that it was because I was using them with the wrong hand. I eventually figured out I had to use the right hand to cut. Now, I don't cut well with either hand. I can only throw left handed but can catch with either hand because I am the only lefty in my family and all the mitts we had were right handed.

My sewing machine (and every sewing machine I have ever met)is right handed. Lots of other things that you wouldn't think are right handed actually are right handed. Many knives are now ambidextrous but they used to be right handed. Numerous times someone has seen me using a knife and said, "please let me do that for you."

It is something that as a lefty you just learn to deal with. I am sure learning to play violin and viola would have been easier for me had I used a left handed violin.

I have seen some left-handed students lag behind on the bow - but they catch up later. Everybody has to work to play violin. Everybody has strong and weak areas. Everybody has areas they have to spend more time with.

I don't think it is at all about fitting in or looking like the other students.

I do think that holding the violin in left hand and bow in right hand has made my brain connections stronger and will help me stay healthier as I age. At this point though, it feels normal and natural to play with bow in right hand.

As an aside, I struggled massively in my conducting class during college because I was not allowed to conduct left-handed and had to do it right handed. It was completely backwards to me. I couldn't get clear little ticks with my right hand. It was harder to focus on everything I needed to focus on as I had to spend so much mental energy on things a right handed person did naturally.

October 6, 2017, 7:57 PM · Conducting is mostly about shaking your hair around anyway. Just watch Seiji Ozawa or Gustavo Dudamel if you don't believe me.


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