Wired the other way

Every year there are a couple of left-handed starters in the Studio.  (Right now I have two or three).

Inevitably, I get asked the same question by parents:  Does the child need to learn violin “the other way round”?  I.e., hold the instrument on the right shoulder, bow with the left arm?

And the standard answer is:

Unless there is a specific disability with the left hand that it cannot cope with the fingering, no.  Lefties have it easier.  Their “clever” hand gets to do all the complicated stuff, while “righties” have to train their dumb hand to do that.

I did teach someone “left-hand fiddle”, but for one reason only:  The youngster (a 17-year-old) had already acquired an impressive left-hand technique in his right hand with lead guitar; this means the facility and everything was already trained in the wrong hand, and to retrain the other hand would have been much less effective than building on what was already there from the other instrument.  However,


… you can’t exactly put a left-hand fiddler (or probably then a “right-hand fiddler”) into a normal orchestra without great complications.

I have a friend who learned cello “the wrong way round”; once again for a very legit reason:  His left hand was seriously injured in school when he caught a ball smaller kids were messing around with, to prevent it from hitting a glass pane.  He ended up falling through the glass with his left hand (holding the ball), and mutilating his hand, losing all but rudimentary function as nerves and tendons were shredded by the glass.  So the left hand holds the bow; it can still do that.  The right does the fingering.

There was a young teenager who came to me about two years after I had started teaching, who wanted to learn the violin the wrong way round (there was nothing wrong with her hands – she was just a leftie).  This did not go well:  First, she gave the impression that she was only starting out, so I persuaded her to play the violin the correct way round (I first had to change the strings into their correct positions).  Despite doing the easier part with her right hand and having her smart hand available for the difficult stuff, she battled with the concepts making progress impossible; eventually she told me she’d already had lessons teaching her the other way round, upon which I patiently restrung her violin and turned the bridge around, so that we could build on whatever the other teacher had done.

To my surprise the progress went no better at all; it was just as much of an uphill battle, until I squeezed out of her that the totality of “left-fiddle” lessons she’d had were two.  By this time I was irritated but covered it with my trademark patient smile and restrung her violin back to the correct way and tried again, explaining to her how many advantages there were to learning it the right way round.  We battled on; by now I couldn’t even get her to hold the bow in the Suzuki open grip without being “confused”.  As yet not an overly experienced teacher, I asked myself whether I was stringing this violin the wrong way round and whether it would make more sense to go with the flow around her mental block (I would approach it differently today), and I told her to hand the violin over and restrung it yet again for “lefty fiddle”.  While I was tightening the strings, there was an almighty crack.  It took me a bit of investigation to spot the problem;  The tailpiece had cracked, it was one of those with elongated holes for the strings, and it had probably had enough of being restrung all the time.  That was the point when I, shaken to the bone, stuck the violin back into her hands and sent her on to another teacher, checking with him first whether he had courage for this child.  I never followed up on her progress.

Today there are a number of things I know that I did wrong, even though I can’t claim it was all my fault as the child deliberately misled me about previous lessons.

Firstly, I’d be a lot more relaxed and sovereign about it; not every child is talented.  Lefty, righty – it matters not;  not every child is talented for the violin.  It’s a difficult instrument.

Secondly:  That tailpiece was poor quality.  A tailpiece is made to withstand the tension of four strings.  If it can’t do that, it fails its only function.  It always rattles me when something goes wrong with a violin; last year, a little bow hit the floor nose-on and the tip snapped right off, and it took me a while to get over that even though the parents instantly replaced the bow for the talented little girl without even fussing.

Thirdly, concerning the lefty:  Left-handedness wasn’t her problem.  A mental block was, and considerable inertia (she didn’t practise at all).  Another teacher had already given up on her after two lessons, that should have alerted me (I love taking a child over from someone who gave up on them, and bringing out their best).  Today, I’d alter my pace and go into “remedy” mode right from the start.  Whether I’d have succeeded with her is still an open question, it always is.  Once a teacher realizes that she is not almighty and a lot depends on the cooperation of the child and the parents, it becomes so much easier.  Lefty, righty, regardless, if a child does not cooperate there can be no progress.

Teaching left-handed violin is actually in certain ways easier than teaching it the normal way, as you become your student’s “mirror image”.  I remember in ballet class, our teacher always mirrored the movements she wanted us to do.  And I often find that I have to correct very young children numerous times about which shoulder the violin goes on as I lift mine automatically on the left side and they mirror me.  Standing next to them rather than facing them, just to get the concept explained, helps.  Also, for bowing I’ve trained myself to be able to do the off-violin bow exercises with both hands, so that I can, if necessary, mirror them to my young students.

Nevertheless playing violin the wrong way round is a bad idea.  There are numerous drawbacks the moment such a fiddler joins an orchestra.  Also, a violin is not 100% symmetrical – if you look at the configuration of the pegs you realize that the heavy G-string has the shortest path; furthermore the bridge is highest at the G-string, and also, the sound post is positioned on the side of the E-string, clearly there are sound implications too.  So it is entirely possible that stringing a violin “upside-down” places undue tensions on parts of it.

But most importantly, it’s self-defeating!  Why would you, having that beautiful head-start of being left-handed, deliberately turn the thing around and give the difficult bit to your dumb right hand?  As a group, my lefties tend to have an easier time learning violin – the normal way round!

Violinists are actually ambidextrous, once you think about it.  Just for a lark, try writing a letter with your non-dominant hand.  It’s not as difficult as you think (and I mean both righties and lefties now). There have been reports that people start thinking out of the box when forced to write with their non-dominant hand.

Do lefties make good violinists?  Oh yes, they do!  Some of my best students over the years have been lefties. The proportion is about even; it’s not about the handedness but about talent, commitment and practising. Every time.


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