August 28, 2020
The Left Stuff: Left-Handedness in the Music World
You’ve got to hand it to left-handers: although they make up only 10 percent of the population, they’re well-represented in many fields. Among their ranks are four of the last six U.S. Presidents, a quarter of all major league baseball players, and entertainment stars ranging from Tom Cruise to Oprah Winfrey to both of Star Trek’s Mr. Spocks (Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto).
The left-handed music world
The left-handed dynamic plays out in the music world in varied and unexpected ways. Although “handedness” is generally defined by which hand a person naturally writes with, many musicians—left-handers and right-handers alike—operate on a spectrum that requires a great deal of dexterity from both hands.
Orchestral string players, for example, must deftly operate a bow with the right hand while the left hand utilizes a different skill set, controlling pitch and vibrato on the fingerboard. For other musicians, such as flutists, the hands are of approximately equal importance and perform one task together, selecting pitches while supporting the instrument’s weight. Variety prevails in the brass section, where trumpet and tuba players operate valves with the right hand, while horn players press their valves with the left.
Pianists, meanwhile, are trained from an early age to play independent musical lines simultaneously. It’s no surprise, then, that numerous left-handers have found a home at the piano keyboard, including some of the most famous talents of the 20th century—Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould—along with stars of today such as Daniel Barenboim and Hélène Grimaud, to name a few. There are, in fact, a number of piano concertos written for left hand alone, including one by the late former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski composed for pianist Gary Graffman, who plays solely with his left hand due to a permanent injury to his right. (Another well-known pianist who performed with only his left hand, Leon Fleisher, passed away earlier this month at age 92.)
And speaking of Minnesota Orchestra music directors: at least one was left-handed, Antal Dorati, who led the Orchestra from 1949 to 1960. “[Dorati] was left-handed, yet...taught himself to be ambidextrous, and could sign his name with both hands at the same time,” notes his former student, conductor-composer José Serebrier. Like nearly all left-handed orchestral conductors, particularly those working today, Dorati conducted using the same basic techniques as a right-handed conductor—using the right hand to hold the baton and keep time with standard beat patterns, while making additional gestures and cues with the left hand.
Customizing or conforming?
Although left-handers have their own specialized scissors and baseball gloves, handedness-specialized musical instruments are comparatively rare. Two notable exceptions are the guitar and the electric bass, which have attracted left-handers who sometimes customize their performance style by reversing the order of the strings or by holding the instrument upside down—allowing them to more easily strum with their dominant hand and change chords like the mirror image of a right-handed player.
By contrast, orchestral string players don’t generally have this option: seated closely together, they must all hold and bow their instruments the same way to avoid running into each other. Percussionists play a menagerie of instruments, but most are not customized for lefties—although left-handed drum set players may position their instruments in a different layout to better match their level of dexterity.
Minnesota Orchestra perspectives
Among the Minnesota Orchestra’s left-handed musicians are Principal Percussion Brian Mount, Co-Principal Bassoon Mark Kelley, Assistant Principal Second Violin Cecilia Belcher and third horn Ellen Dinwiddie Smith. All four took the time to discuss the topic of left-handedness.
Brian Mount playing a metal sheet at a performance of Todd Levin’s Blur during the Minnesota Orchestra’s season opening concert in September 2016. Photo by Greg Helgeson.
“To my knowledge, being left-handed played no part in determining my instrument,” says Brian Mount, noting that he started on piano, then moved to bassoon, then clarinet, and finally percussion. In addition to his role in the Orchestra, he plays guitar—right-handed—in MOB, the Minnesota Orchestra Band.
Mount, a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1997, describes his dexterity as varied, noting: “By the two most obvious metrics, I am left-handed. I eat and write with my left hand. But generally, I think I play percussion as a right-handed person. Probably the biggest tell is which hand you end your snare drum roll with. I end with my right.”
Despite this tendency, Mount has observed a few things about handedness during his career: “I have noticed that my left hand does certain things better than my right. The motion of my left hand when playing snare drum or xylophone is almost perfect. My right hand has just a little wobble in the motion. Over time I started playing some of the more difficult soft snare drum passages with a left-hand lead. Basically, if I want nuance and consistency in a soft passage, I will try to have the most difficult part in my left hand. If I need power, I always emphasize my right hand.”
Naming another example, Mount adds: “When I play a famous xylophone part (a cascade of 4ths) from Copland’s Appalachian Spring, I can ignore my left hand because I know it will behave. I have to watch my right hand like a hawk because of that little motion wobble issue.”
Co-Principal Bassoon Mark Kelley conversing with section colleague J. Christopher Marshall at a December 2017 Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s Concert. Photo by Courtney Perry.
Like Mount, Mark Kelley settled on his instrument without handedness being a factor. “The bassoon instructor at the University of Nebraska lived right behind us, and the rest is history,” he says. Adaptability is crucial for left-handers, he adds: “I think most left-handed people are ambidextrous because so much of our world is designed for right-handed people.”
For Kelley, who joined the Orchestra in 1982, the most difficult aspect of becoming a bassoonist while left-handed was not performance, but rather learning how to make reeds, a customized task which most bassoonists and oboists handle on their own. “It was difficult to learn reed-making,” he says, “because most people teaching were right-handed. So I had to figure out the opposite way to do the reed-making steps, especially when using knives and files to trim the reeds. I taught the bassoon students at St. Olaf College for many years, and it was hard to show students reed-making skills, because they were mostly right-handed.”
Left-handedness does have at least one recognizable impact on his bassoon playing, Kelley notes: “In talking to my right-handed colleagues in the Orchestra, I have found that trills using my left hand are usually easier for me than for them. And that the is opposite is true for my right hand.”
Cecilia Belcher at a Minnesota Orchestra string quartet performance during the Orchestra’s Common Chords week in Detroit Lakes in September 2015. Photo by Greg Helgeson.
Like many string players in major professional orchestras, Cecilia Belcher took up her instrument at a very early age. “I started playing the violin when I was 3 years old,” she says. “Now having a 3-year-old of my own, I’m realizing that maybe I didn’t yet know whether I was left- or right-handed when I started the violin.” She speculates that starting so young, combined with the important role the left hand plays for a violinist—the instrument is held on the left side of the body, while the left hand makes rapid and delicate motions on the fingerboard—may have help prod her toward left-handedness. “I wonder if it led my brain to be more oriented to my left side and to pick up a pencil with my left hand?” she ponders.
Belcher, who joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2014 and became assistant principal second violin in 2017, confesses that being left-handed has occasionally had its downsides, particularly during her student years. “Sometimes being a lefty has made playing [violin] more difficult,” she says. “I remember in school having to handwrite papers, and my left hand would be so tired it was tough to practice after.” She adds, however, that being a lefty offers at least one convenience as she practices and rehearses: “I can easily pick up a pencil and write notes in my music without having to put down my violin or bow.” On a more general level, she enjoys the community of her fellow lefties. “It’s fun to meet a fellow left-hander,” she says. “It’s a neat connection instantly!”
Third horn Ellen Dinwiddie Smith performing at a Minnesota Orchestra concert in January 2019. Photo by Courtney Perry.
The horn—the formal name of the instrument sometimes known as the French horn—is unique among standard brass instruments in that its valves are played by the left hand. Being a lefty factored heavily in the instrument choice of Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, the Minnesota Orchestra’s third horn, as she explains: “My 6th grade band director knew that I was left-handed, and he also gave me a ‘pitch matching’ test. Based on those factors he decided the horn was the best choice for me. When I first brought it home, I played so much that my sisters made me practice in the garage. I think I’ve improved a bit since then!”
Before Smith joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993, she found herself part of a unique musical clique: “When I played in the Fort Worth Symphony back in the early ’90s, every woman wind player was left-handed—all five of us, which I thought was unusual.” Today she holds a special distinction as the only woman in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 13-member brass section.
Despite the prominent role of the left hand in horn playing, the horn is not precisely a “left-handed” instrument, since the performer’s right hand, positioned in the horn’s bell, plays a vital role in tone color and making fine adjustments to tuning. “While I’d like to say [being left-handed] has been helpful to me personally,” Smith says, “I honestly think right-handed people do just as well playing the horn. I would say that the ability to match pitch is probably more important for a beginning student.”
Smith’s colleague Michael Gast, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal horn, is right-handed and notes that he “spent a lot of time with getting used to the left-hand thing” after switching from cornet to horn in 10th grade. He adds that “it kind of made me ambidextrous”—a common refrain in the music world for left-handers and right-handers alike.
After all, there is no single “right” way to be a musician; many have followed the left way and thrived.
[Photo at top: Principal Percussion Brian Mount playing marimba in the Minnesota Orchestra’s world premiere of James M. Stephenson’s low brass concerto Pillars in June 2018. Photo by Greg Helgeson.]
Writer and composer Carl Schroeder has worked on the Minnesota Orchestra’s administrative staff since 2007, serving as editor of Showcase magazine since 2015. He is a right-handed middle child between a lefty younger sister and an ambidextrous older sister.