People have a lot to say about left-handers. Some regions of the world until this day believe that left-handedness is just a bad habit, while others still believe that ‘only the devil uses his left’ – something Jimi Hendrix’s father told him when he was learning to play the guitar.
In the Western world, being left-handed is sometimes perceived as a sign that you are more intelligent and creative than the rest of the world, even though official studies have disproven this. Oh, the power anecdotal evidence has over scientific research!
Not much is said, however, about playing the piano as a leftie. Few music teachers – if any – have a way of accommodating for that. In a classroom full of ‘rightie-only’ desks, a teacher can request a left-handed one. There’s nothing much a piano teacher can do: even if you can get yourself a left-handed piano like the one concert pianist Christopher Seed owns (yes, they actually exist) or find an electronic keyboard that can reverse keyboard direction, you will be limited in terms of sheet music. You can, of course, play the pieces collected by Paul Wittgenstein, a composer who lost his right arm during World War One and then commissioned over 800 works for the left hand alone from composers like Britten, Korngold, Ravel, and Prokofiev. But unless you suffer from a significant injury in your right hand like focal dystonia, is there really a need to limit yourself to this?
To a beginner student with a dominant left hand, the piano at first glance appears to be an instrument which requires ambidexterity. Playing well demands an equal level of precision from both hands, and to an untrained eye, the left-hand appears to look even more complicated than the right-hand melody. It’s all those darn eighth notes!
As you begin to progress, however, you realize that playing is one hell of a brain workout. Maybe you ask your teacher, who assures you that learning piano is generally challenging: either way, it requires a great deal of focus and coordination. So you plough on, but it still seems so difficult! Maybe you tell yourself: well, it must be that way for everyone. It’s a familiar thing for left-handers. You become so used to accommodating a world designed for right-handers that you don’t even notice when something is unusually hard. Children in school spend their whole lives using scissors everyone in class is using. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but since few other students seemed to have any exceptional trouble with it, you just naturally assumed that cutting is uncomfortable for everybody, and perhaps only once you’re older did you realize that it was difficult because scissors are designed for right-handers. The day you try a left-handed scissor for the first time is the day you understand why your classmates were able to cut out perfectly shaped stars while you were stuck with deformed and obese starfish – it’s because cutting is supposed to be easy!
With all this in mind, is there a significant barrier to how skilled you can become at playing if you’re left-handed? Also, is it worth investing in a reversed piano?
Surprisingly, the answer to both these questions is no.
It is true that the piano is built with a right-hand bias, whether it’s the keyboard or the pedals themselves, and in terms of sheet music, the greatest volume, variation, and complexity of notes must be played by the right hand. Studies have shown that beginner students do perform better when given a reversed keyboard, and feel much less frustrated than they do when they practice on a traditional keyboard. The younger you are when you begin playing, however, the more likely you are to develop some degree of ambidexterity.
Well then, if it is more of a challenge, why doesn’t it count as a barrier to success? Researchers who studied handedness in professional pianists and string players found no difference between a left-hander’s performance whether they were playing reversed or ‘normal’ instruments; both of them performed better with the right hand. In fact, many left-handers even preferred the standard playing position. Why is that? Because practice makes perfect. Yes, that undying cliche remains as true as ever: left-handers who learn to play the piano compensate and even over-compensate by practising longer and harder than their right-handed counterparts. The result is that they are not only as present as ever in music schools, but also perform every bit as well when there.
There are even those who suggest that southpaws (as left-handers are affectionately known) are at an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Some musicians comment that even though the right hand is in charge of the central melody, chords may need more strength and flexibility to play. When it comes to baroque pieces that feature polyphonic music, some say this advantage is even more pronounced. Interestingly, there is a possibility that the Baroque composer Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach may have been a leftie himself!
Overall, as with any challenge you might face which is not shared by others in your position, the question is definitely mind over matter. Students who begin taking singing lessons and find themselves struggling with pitch, as opposed to others who instantly recognize it, might get discouraged unless they persevere and realize that humans are innately musical, and getting better really is just a matter of time. Playing the piano might not come as naturally as singing, but being left-handed is definitely not a barrier. As a leftie, you’ve probably already learned to adapt to different motor situations, musical or otherwise, and if Stevie Wonder could adapt to being blind and Beethoven to being deaf, then being left-handed shouldn’t stop you from becoming an astounding musician.
But if all else fails, and nothing’s going right, remember: you can always go left.
Bonus: if you’re curious, take a moment to check out some of these essential works for left-hand piano and this video of Christopher Seed playing his unique piano.