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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Which is more advantageous to violin-playing, being right- or left-handed?

April 30, 2010 at 4:55 PM

Several debates having been raging lately over left-handedness and violin playing -- so let's jump right in!

I have to confess a weakness: I get really frustrated when beginners who are left-handed immediately think they need a "left-handed" violin, assuming that playing the traditional way is somehow akin to being forced to write with the right hand, denying their natural handedness. Certainly, being forced to write with the wrong hand can be downright traumatic for people -- I'd go so far as to say it's abusive.

That said, I'm left-handed, and to me, holding the violin in my left hand has always been like having my baby come home to me. Yes, I get to hold the fiddle in my left-hand! And my dominant hand has plenty to do: fine-motor work, vibrato, etc.

Of course, the right hand has an equally important, if totally different, task. One has to be at least a bit ambidextrous to make this all work, and certainly, I've had to do a lot of work on my right hand. (Months of martele on open strings...) Actually, the work on both hands never ends!

When we did a survey of members two years ago, 28 percent of them were left-handed. That's more than a quarter of those responding! Compare that to the percentage of lefties in the general population: 7 to 10 percent (that stat was pretty consistent, but here's the source I used. Slightly higher statistics -- the highest I saw was 15 percent --  tend to come from the pro-leftie camp.)

The question is, is it an advantage to be left-handed, or is it an advantage to be right-handed? And yes, I'm making you choose! But you can argue your case below, and also share your experiences that relate to handedness.

BTW here's one funny story about my own left-handedness: once a stand partner had to "teach" me how to turn the page with my right hand, because I always had to put down everything and make a huge fuss, sitting on the left and turning it with the left hand. Never occurred to me to turn it with the right hand! It was a little embarrassing, but I was really grateful for that "lesson" because I have turned the page with my right hand -- with ease -- ever since!


From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 5:18 PM

Laurie, I'm left handed too (insert smiley face here) and I would love to hear how you turn pages.  The best I have managed is to place the bow gently on my lap, turn, and pick up again.  Bleh.

As far as left v.right, I think it all comes out in the wash.

Also, my Dad is a natural lefty, but back in his day, they made the lefty kids switch to the right.  Evidently those rulers on the knuckles sting...


From Steve Reizes
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 5:03 PM

I voted for lefty despite being a righty myself.  I've never fully understood how the string instruments ended up with the left hand on the neck.  I suppose maybe in the (very) early versions and music the left hand work was more static or somehow less complex than the bowing and plucking?

From Steve Reizes
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 5:03 PM

Grr, didn't mean to post twice, but now I can add that to turn pages, what we rightys do is take the bow point up in our palm and reach across with the right hand.  Simple.  Unless you happen to be second chair, first stand 1sts, shoved in close to the conductor who does a dramatic down sweep of his arm and gets stabbed on your bow tip...

From Min Jung Yoo
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 5:29 PM

I was left handed when I was young, but my parents made me use my right hand as I grew up...So now, I tend to use both hands to write, draw, but when it comes to playing the violin, I feel that my experience in using the left hand more often have helped me improve faster. I think it gives me greater strength in my left fingers while my right hand controls the intonation, but anyway, I flip pages with my right hand though...seems a lot convenient whether you are left handed or right handed..



From Janis Cortese
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 6:15 PM

This is so freaking preposterous.  If fingering with your dominant hand is such an advantage and bowing with the off hand is no big deal, then why aren't all right-handers doing it already? Because it's nonsense, and yallz know it, so stop saying it.

It's ridiculous to insist that other people do what the majority refuses to do themselves.  That alone tells me everything I need to know about this medieval insistence that handedness doesn't matter so just shut up and do it my way.

And I'm sorry, but WHY are you so frustrated, angry, whatever about this?  What is it about a left-hander playing a device made in a mirror image that evokes such hostility?  Just what will happen if someone plays in a manner that fells more confortable to them?  Will the Earth crack in half?  Will the sun burn out faster?  Will the music sound wrong?  What, precisely, is worth all the sturm und drang about insisting no-you-MAY-NOT?

What is so horribly wrong with the damn left hand, people?  And don't try turning this nonsense around and asking me why I'm insisting -- I'm freaking LEFT-HANDED, and I've been a lefty for 44 years, and I know my body and what it's capable of.  Why do you hate that hand enough to feel some sort of emotional reaction at the idea of me or anyone else simply buying a device made for us?  What catastrophe will come to pass if I or anyone else PLAYS LEFT-HANDED?

I see ZERO reason not to play left-handed, other than to make yallz fragile emotions not get into a fizz, which is just not a persuasive reason for me to handicap myself.  Between becoming the best musician I can and keeping you all from having hissyfits over something meaningless, I choose the first.  Jesus, thank gawd I never showed you my corkscrew or scissors.  You'd faint.

From Emily Liz
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 6:39 PM

If I taught, I would want my kids to learn to finger with the left hand. If they ever want to be in an orchestra, it would be extremely awkward for them (and for the other players around them) to have learned the other way. I also would think that in regards to employing fine motor skills, the left hand actually does more than the right. And don't forget how one uses different muscle groups etc - it may be difficult for a rightie to teach a leftie, or a leftie to teach a rightie, without tension. I certainly don't believe that righties are holding down lefties. It's just that the vast majority of the community believes there are certain big advantages in playing a particular way. And if you want to rebel and play the other way, what's keeping you from doing it? Go ahead and play the way you want, Janis, none of us are holding you back. I'm sorry if you feel mistreated because someone taught you a way you're not happy with, but I think we've all had that experience.

From Michael Divino
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 7:29 PM

 Bias- I am a lefty through and through. 

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 7:39 PM

I'm right-handed and didn't vote, because I think there should be a "I don't think it matters" choice.  Initially, I thought left-handers must have the advantage, but I have had no impediments being right-handed. 

From Bart Meijer
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 7:45 PM

I'm left-handed, and I voted for left-handers having an advantage, but I don't know! Left hand technique, including some faulty technique, came easily to me (except for octaves and other difficult stuff), and I have to pay  more conscious attention to bowing. But from my own experience alone, I have no way of knowing how much difference handedness makes.

I know of one person, a neurologist, who made the experiment. Due to an accident he was temporarily unable to play in the conventional way, and he got himself a mirrored violin and taught himself to play on it. But he was more concerned with the transfer of skills from one hemisphere to another than with the influence of handedness as such.

It is probably safe to say that left- (right-)handedness helps with left (right) hand technique. Perhaps experienced teachers can say more.


From Randy Mollner
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 7:52 PM

Janis, I'm curious about your angry response.  It seems like other lefties here have given a LOAD of rational, well-organized reasons why they can and do, successfully I might add, play the violin in the traditional manner, which is what these discussions have asked for.

Is it your assertion that these other folks have been hoodwinked by the right-handed majority and in reality they can't REALLY play the violin well-- so  your anger is a righteous expression of outrage at this great conspiracy?  Really I don't get it.  A bunch of people say that, from their own experience, there is no reason why  one can't play the violin with either hand doing either job.  I have no problem accepting that, it makes perfect sense and is borne out by the large number of left-handed players on this site.  The fact that we all play the way we do is largely due to PRACTICAL considerations (playing in ensembles, availability of instruments, etc.) , not DOGMATIC ones ("this is just the way it's done so accept it" or "I don't take your handedness seriously" etc.)

BTW.  I agree that it is probably a little easier to bow with the dominant hand, since the movements are much more similar to activities like throwing a baseball, which the less dominant hand performs far more clumsily, the sort of activities that immediately can identify one's handedness.

From Robert Niles
Posted on April 30, 2010 at 8:57 PM

I don't often comment here, but, as a stats major, if the rate of left-handedness among violinists really is two-to-four times that of the general population (as the previous survey and info cited by Laurie are correct), then that data would suggest that left-handedness provides an advantage in playing the violin. (Or, at least, that if it does not provide an actual advantage, that there might be at least a greater comfort level with the violin among lefties.) 

If it were not, one might reasonably expect that left-handedness among violinists to be closer to the rate among the general population.

The other explanation would be some association between left-handedness and musicality or ethnicity or something else associated with people being more likely to take up the violin. It'd be interesting to see the rate of left-handedness among musicians who play other instruments.

My $0.02

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 5:03 AM

Robert,  I'm a statistician also.  As an undergraduate in math, I noticed an unusually high number of lefties.  (Believe me, not a well-designed study.)  I think there has already been discussions on about the correlation between science types and musicians.  Maybe this is another correlation.

From Søren Basbøll
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 5:55 AM

A few years ago I heard a string quartet near Paris, I think its name was Castagneri. The special thing about this quartet was that the second violin was lefthanded and played a lefthanded violin. So the seating was from left to right: 1. violin, viola, cello and 2. violin.

I had the impression that I heard the viola for the first time.

So they transformed this unusual situation into an advantage, as they could get the best acoustical polar distribution while keeping the visual contact undisturbed.

Just thought it is interesting, I have not heard of such a situation before.



From Sari Beastall
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 9:38 AM
Bit of a stupid question, really. No one can say which is better unless they have experienced both and even the ambidexterous don't have that experience as a true comparison would involve someone playing with a dominant left hand and inferior right hand; then vice versa.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 9:43 AM

I, too, am interested in the fact that the proportion of lefties who play violin is higher than the proportion of lefties in the general population.  We should first assume that this difference is statistically valid in studies of sufficient population size to give valid results, If so and if that difference is because of right or left brain dominance, then the proportion of lefties playing other instruments or singing regularly / well should also be higher than the proportion of lefties in the population, as Robert said.  It would be interesting to see some data on that.  There may be some instruments that are configured in a way that they nearly force the player to be right handed, but I'm not aware of an.

I have a friend who is devoted to music.  She is, by birth, right handed.  She had a stroke when she was a junior in college, and it robbed her of fine motor skills with the right side of her body.  Right after her stroke, she could not talk, although she felt that she was doing everything needed to speak correctly.  Then her speech therapist sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to her, and she sang back.  After that she could talk normally.  She believes that the speech therapist initiated a right brain / left brain crossover.  A less scientific explanation is that her love of music was so strong, that it gave her a jump start.  She taught herself to do almost everything with her left hand and now considers herself a leftie.  She no longer plays the violin, but she plays  the piano and organ regularly in church.  She devised a method whereby she uses one finger of her left hand to lay the melody and picks out the chords with the other fingers of her left hand.  I'm proud of her.

It's interesting that there are several piano concertos for the right hand.  This may mean that the right hand is better suited to playing the piano than the left hand is, or it may simply reflect the fact that a number of prominent pianists lost the use of their left hand and needed music that they could play with their left hand,

Sandy Marcus, where are you?  You've written some good comments on statistics in the past.


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 1, 2010 at 6:14 PM

I am right handed, so is my brother, and we have always voiced how playing our instruments with our Left hand on the finger board always felt so natural!

From James Patterson
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 6:16 AM

My recollection is that the well known concertos for one hand are for the left hand.  Many were written for a World War One era pianist who lost his right hand in the war.  

In the course of looking this up, I found the following list of piano music for one hand....

Could be more than anyone wanted to know! 


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 2, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Since the left hand plays such a prominent role in playing the violin (The right hand also but often people notice the fingers dancing on the fingerboard) I'm kind of surprised that no one took up the violin due to that fact?

From Julian Stokes
Posted on May 3, 2010 at 4:37 PM

I voted right. But then, being right handed, how would I know any different? It's always been a puzzle to me about stringed instruments how the very important work of fingering is given to the left.

However, though I am right handed, compared with a lot of my acquaintances, I am considerably less one sided.  My left is the hand of choice for strength. I lead with my left foot on the bike and I naturally do some tasks with the left hand that others use their right for.

From a brain development point of view I am sure a certain amount of ambidexterity is a "Good Thing".

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 4, 2010 at 3:24 AM

 I also don't know how you'd know, but I'm a righty and I am always telling my lefty daughter that she has the advantage.  

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