Left-handed violist

Edited: December 31, 2021, 8:03 AM · Came across an interesting video showing a rehearsal session of a south-german symphony orchestra directed by Carlos Kleiber. The video is also interesting in that it shows a left-handed violist (i.e., bows with left hand and fingers with right hand) playing in the orchestra. From this LINK you can see him playing briefly in close-up and then for a while at the right edge of the image. Quite curious isn't it? Happy new year!

Replies (20)

December 31, 2021, 10:45 AM · Shows what happens if you audition behind a screen!
December 31, 2021, 8:13 PM · There are some players who, for various reasons, must adapt to play the instrument in reverse.

Some years ago, I mentored several engineering students who developed a 3D-printed prosthetic arm that could hold a violin bow to allow a student to play who did not have a left hand, and had to hold it in the reverse setup with the right hand on the strings. We had the assistance of a luthier that built a high quality instrument for this student to use, including proper fittings (chinrest choices are somewhat limited, as one can imagine).

The student played in the violin section of my youth orchestra for several years without issues. People like to say that they won't work out with their stand partners owing to the setup, but with appropriate spacing it works just fine--as this video demonstrates as well.

January 1, 2022, 4:20 PM · I've only come across inverted setups for folks with injuries to their left hands.
The left handed player has a huge advantage in that their left hand leads the right hand naturally. We poor right handers have to teach our left hands to do this. I wonder ho many top violinists were/are left handed.
January 1, 2022, 4:47 PM · James Barton, 2nd violinist of the Allegri Quartet played left handed - It worked just fine. A left handed viola player fits in even better.
Edited: January 2, 2022, 3:00 AM · I think Adrian has it the wrong way round. I've argued before that players of plucked as well as bowed instruments play the way we do (there must be a reason!) because for most people the right hand is the "executive" one that determines when something happens, like the CEO of a company. The left hand represents the workers that merely take care of the details. If Adrian is right, we should find a higher proportion of natural left-handers in the string section of an orchestra than in the population as a whole. I, on the other hand, suspect the opposite may be the case and wonder how many natural left-handers have been deterred from playing violin by the scarcity of instruments that suit them?
Edited: January 2, 2022, 7:19 AM · @Steve
Of course I'm only guessing, but surely for a clear articulation the left finger must be into the string a few milliseconds before the bow moves.
In my preparatory "moonwalk" practice, and then in my "frame by frame" slow practice, my left hand precedes the right. Then I stop worrying and "just do it" up to speed, with reasonable success..

Apart from repeated notes, it's the left hand that forms the rhythms and pitches, and our more autonomous right hand can easily follow.

I have found my left handed students mastered the left hand sooner, but floundered longer in their bowing..

January 2, 2022, 9:49 AM · In the various professional orchestras I've played with, anecdotally the proportion of left-handers in the strings appears to be 30-40%.
January 2, 2022, 10:20 AM · I wonder how it works with PIANISTS - I suspect humans are quite capable of doing it whichever way round, and the handicaps to a left hander playing the violin right-handed (and vice versa) probably aren't that significant and may well be compensated. My teacher taught me to "lead with the fingers" in fast passages (I'm not sure that I still have that knack).
My father was "ambidexterous" and my brother (cellist) is unambiguously left-handed, but bows with his right hand.
January 2, 2022, 10:30 AM · @Irene - that is a high proportion of lefties, but if for most people the right hand is the "dextrous" one (as implied by the Latin derivation), how come the violin, guitar etc evolved to suit "sinistrals" better? Yet another thing we'll never know.
January 2, 2022, 11:09 AM · I wonder if it may be related in part to sheet music, in which pages are turned from the right to the left, a motion which is probably more natural for righties than lefties. Seems to be some synchronicity with bowing, page turning, and notations.

Edited: January 3, 2022, 4:04 AM · The bow hand and arm must make large and small movements with great sensitivity, somewhat like Chinese landscapes drawn with a flexible brush; the "violin" hand is perhaps more "mechanical". And the "company CEO" would be a very boring musician without those expert "workers" playing on time!

I suspect that on the guitar the left hand is greatly helped by the frets, while the right fingers need enormous dexterity: I think we see more inverted guitars than violins.

One of my teachers was left handed with huge, skillful hands, but he had had to work hard on his bowing, and could produce miracles in the bowing of his students. His wife was right handed with tiny hands and had better advice for the left hand.

Menuhin and Suzuki were surely left handed (judging by their gestures when speaking), and both had developed (in different ways) remarkable teaching skills regarding bowing.

January 2, 2022, 11:57 AM · Whenever I had to invigilate in school I always used to count the left handers. It was always 10%. I find it a big shame we force violinists to all play right-handed. :(
January 3, 2022, 6:47 PM · The left hand prepares the note, the right hand plays the note. Thus you are in control of playing with the right hand which feels natural for a right-handed person. I will elaborate below.

I am a violin teacher and I have taught many students to play the violin from scratch. Some of those were left-handed playing on a right-handed violin. So I have some experience on that particular aspect. Now there are many factors playing a role, like how strong the motivation is, how much the student practice, some has a very good flair for playing the violin and so on. But in general it is harder for the left-handed student to play on a normal right-handed violin.

There is a good reason for that. Playing an instrument is a matter of creating and/or manipulating sound. And the sound appears at that exact moment when you move the bow. This means that you take control of the sound with the bow. This control feels natural to do with the right hand if you are right handed. There are countless ways of manipulating the sound with the bow; bowing technique is a huge subject on violin playing.

The left hand does have some role in the quality of the sound, like you do need to place the left hand fingers correctly in order to play in tune but the sound won't appear until you move the bow. You can also vibrate with the left hand and thereby have a left hand influence on the quality of the sound, but the main control of the sound is in the right hand with the bow.

I guess that those professionals you see playing on a left-handed instrument are probably someone for whom it was too awkward to play on a normal right-handed instrument. But it means that they can not just go out and choose one of those beautiful instruments that exist when they want to buy an instrument. There is a very limited amount of choises and they might need to ask a luthier to build one. For a kid wanting to play it is too expensive, so therefore you would try out a right-handed instrument if at all possible.

Edited: January 4, 2022, 10:03 AM · I find the left hand preparation of a note is similar to the inner ear of a singer, which makes the vocal cords stretch or thicken (hopefully to the right extent!), while the bow is like the singer's breath.

I am very much right-handed, and I too have taught many beginners. I find that the left-handed ones progress faster at the beginning, provided we use short bow strokes. Then we can profit from their livelier left hands to concentrate on broader, deeper bow strokes.

Though I started at nearly 15yo, my piano lessons had established useful brain connections for the left hand, and initial progress was rapid. But at 73yo, I must still daily retrain my left hand to lead the right, telling the bow when and how to play..

Edited: January 10, 2022, 12:35 PM · I think it’s good to see a left handed player but that video is from 1970, which is long time ago!

Left handers shouldn’t be forced to play right handed (or left handed for that matter). If they want to play left handed, they should be encouraged and enabled and viola/violin makers, teachers, and performing groups should accommodate them in a spirit of inclusivity. After all, there are about 750,000,000 of them and they can do many other things with their left hands already (write, play tennis, play billiards, use a computer mouse, open doors, turn pages of a book).

I wonder though if the right handed bias is somewhat related to the keyboard, where its strings and keys are lined up from left to right, lowest to highest, where melodic material is more aligned with right hand.

January 11, 2022, 3:06 AM · This is a fascinating thread! I am a leftie, and my father always claimed that I attempted to put the violin on my right shoulder in my first lesson, and that he corrected me. However, I don't remember him being present in my first lesson - I don't remember either of my parents being there in fact: I DO recall imbibing the scent of wood and rosin that went to my head like vintage rum.

As a fifth child after a line of right-handers, my family was fascinated/apprehensive, especially when I started writing right to left. None of this anxiety was transmitted to me however, and my primary school, enlightened by 1950 standards, conveyed to my parents that none of this mattered and that certainly there was no reason to force me into right-handedness. I can still write backwards as a party trick! I play the recorder 'correctly' - left hand upper, and I don't think I sing left-handed!

I have only ever seen one right-shoulder violin/viola ever: a musician in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO, more conveniently) in the 70s, during Louis Frémaux's time as principal conductor. I was told that she'd lost some left fingers, retrained and resumed her place in the viola section: an example of great determination and personal bravery.

Raymond - I turn pages and use a computer mouse with my right hand. I find that I can more easily pencil notes into my music with my left, so that's an advantage if I am sitting in orchestras as the outside player. A left-handed violinist friend says she thinks that we LH players have poor bow skills. As a pretty ordinary amateur I need to confess that I haven't got a ton of skills in any particular way!

January 11, 2022, 7:52 AM · "I wonder how it works with PIANISTS." Not sure about right-vs-left handed, but I know a woman who is petite with small hands and there are full-fledged, well-made pianos with smaller keyboards, and I know she was shopping around for one. I told her I was both supportive and skeptical because she would only be able to play, for example, chamber music or anything else in her own home then. So what is needed is a good digital stage piano or MIDI controller that has the smaller but still well-functioning, realistically-feeling-and-responding keyboard, and I don't know if those are readily available (but I haven't looked).

When one considers the number of excellent pro violinists who are left-handed but play in the conventional left-shoulder way, it seems to me that there is no barrier to a "southpaw" learning the violin properly. It might depend on how unbalanced one's "handedness" is, however. There are many right- AND left-handers who are pretty close to ambidextrous, and others who are "all thumbs" with their "inferior" hand. My guess is that we will continue to see everyone trained in the conventional way unless there is some truly insurmountable need for accommodation such as missing fingers, etc.

Edited: January 12, 2022, 6:32 AM · to Raymond: that the video is from 1970 makes it actually *more* interesting in my view, given that perhaps pedagogical openness was less when that particular player shown in the video, was a child. anyway we don't know the background of the story, I just found it an interesting piece of documentation.
January 12, 2022, 7:35 AM · I am strongly right-handed. Playing bowed string instruments is about the only useful thing I can do with my left hand. I suspect I can do that only because I have been doing it since I was 4 years old. This thread has me considering the difficulties I know I would have if I tried to learn play my instruments "other-handedly" as an adult. I'm even awkward using a back brush with my left hand.

I am not a piano player, but I dabble from time to time and my left hand seems to be as agile as my right for the kinds of things pianists do. This must be because of similarity of finger movements to violin playing.

I recall talking with Jay Ifshin (Ifshin Violins) years ago about left handed violins. They were able to have their workshop in China make one-off left-handed instruments on special order of their Jay-Haide brand.

About 20 yeas ago I had a left-handed, 50-year old cello student from whom I learned something about the difficulties (adult) lefties have learning to use a bow with their right hand. We worked together on his cello lessons for about 5 years. This man was/is a professional piano teacher with a studio of 60 - 70 students children and adults (including my grandson and his father).

January 13, 2022, 9:30 AM · There is a small but growing movement for scaled piano keyboards, with significant research to support it:


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