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Laila Kirchner



Laila Kirchner grew up in Berlin and despite being left-handed she learned to play the cello right-handed. After studying Waldorf music education in Witten (2006-10), she studied instrumental pedagogy in Osnabrück and taught herself to play the cello left-handed as part of her bachelor's thesis in 2012, documenting the process of relearning and dealing with controversial scientific backgrounds.

Credits: Alexander Englert

Video: Laila's Tango played on various righty and lefty instruments

Photo credits: A. Englert / L. Kirchner



Conversation on September 24, 2021

translated by Laila Kirchner

Do you see yourself as left-handed or right-handed? 

As long as I can remember I've been left-handed. You can already see it in childhood pictures where I'm about three quarters of a year old and playing with toys. My parents took great care to encourage me and bought me left-handed scissors and all sorts of things because my father had been brutally retrained to the right hand at school. They did everything they could to ensure that I remained left-handed and learned to write that way. So it was a matter of course for me. Once at Waldorf school, a dominant teacher asked me: "Why don't you try writing with your right hand?" I took the pen in my right hand, scribbled a few letters and said: "I can't!" That was it.

But I also saw children at school who were really brutally retrained: "Yes, nice picture! Did you draw that with the left?" - torn up - "Again on the right!" These were dreadful and scary situations... When I contacted the girl from back then as an adult, because it had really bothered me for a long time and I was interested in how she had dealt with it, she described herself as ambidextrous and that she is allright. She tried to come to terms with it. Many people do that, they call themselves ambidextrous. 


I actually do allmost everything with my left hand, but I've got into the habit of alternating hands when cleaning, for example, so that I can simply hold out longer. Or when playing badminton, I used to switch hands to confuse the other person...
In sports class, I often had difficulties adapting and, for example, when throwing, I decided to throw with my right hand, to do it like the others. I'm not good at throwing at all: I have no strength with the right and I can't aim well with the left. Somehow, an inner pressure to conform led me to do something the wrong way round against my intuition and to do it badly.
And of course I learned to play the cello the right-handed way.



Was left-handed cello playing on the agenda when you started?

Yes, my father wanted me to learn to play the cello left-handed back in 1991 in Berlin. Unfortunately, the teacher at the district music school was still young and only knew left-handed playing from injured musicians. She didn't have the confidence to teach me that way. So I had to learn to bow on the right after all. I probably would have had the same experience with any other teacher at the time. I didn't know this as a child and actually struggled with learning to bow for four years. My right hand was consistently weaker and it was more difficult to learn with it. 
Even during my studies, I had a very poor connection to my right hand, both in terms of strength and speed as well as emotionally. I simply didn't notice it. It was like an appendage on my body and I couldn't get my consciousness into it. As a result, I was never able to understand and implement what the teachers were really telling me or what they meant, according to the bowing and shaping the sound. 
A teacher, Wolfgang Sellner from the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, who taught me during my Waldorf education studies, once made the suggestion: "Why don't you try bowing with your left hand? You're left-handed." I tried it out briefly and thought it was totally weird. I didn't want to do that. 

It wasn't until we had a lecture on left-handedness with Prof. Dr. Silke Lehmann in Osnabrück as part of our bachelor's degree in instrumental pedagogy that the scales fell from my eyes. I immediately bought Walter Mengler's book ["Musizieren mit links" (= Making music with the left)] and ordered a left-handed cello. That was the topic of my bachelor thesis.

Then I tried playing a little left-handed on my right-handed cello: A simple song, a scale and so on... I thought: "That works quite well". But when I wanted to continue practising on the right again, suddenly nothing worked anymore: I couldn't assign the strings correctly, switched to the wrong direction, read notes backwards and could no longer orientate myself safely on the instrument. I had a real cognitive overload reaction after this short left-hand playing session. I panicked and thought: "Oh God, now I've got myself such an instrument and planned this project for my Bachelor's thesis, but I also have to finish my degree."

Because I had already completed a degree, I was able to shorten my bachelor's degree from four to two years. I stuck to it and worked a lot on the side. I thought: "I can't afford to have such a slump in my playing - now I'm doing an experiment like this on the side, which is also a brain experiment..." But that was totally put into perspective with the left-handed cello and the more frequent playing. Because I had two apartments in different cities, I couldn't always take both cellos with me and had to practise left-handed on the right-handed cello. As a result, I got used to being able to play both ways on each cello. Even after a year of playing exclusively right-handed, I can sit down at the left-handed cello and just start playing because my head is now used to mirroring and reversing sides. It's nothing new or overwhelming anymore.


In your Bachelor's thesis, you document your re-learning in detail and state, for example, how much time you spent practising which piece on the left-handed cello. I think it's pretty amazing that you were already playing demanding solo concertos etc. so soon. Did it go so well with the re-learning?


It was really difficult at the beginning - I had to retrain my motor skills. 
I taught myself the violin and viola, so I had already learned several stringed instruments on the right. When I started sitar lessons in India before my studies, I briefly considered learning this instrument on the left, but then decided to play on the right as usual. My teacher Ustad Rafique Khan told me much later: "Yes, of course left-handers play the sitar left-handed." - I didn't know that at the time and didn't have the self-confidence to communicate it clearly. As a result, I was always right-handed on my instruments. Swapping the usual tasks of both hands was extremely challenging. At the beginning I thought: "It will take me forever to get out of the children's song phase".

Playing on the right always stressed me out subliminally and was usually exhausting. The longer I played, the more exhausted I was. When I got better at playing on the left, I noticed that I sometimes felt like I had just practiced for two hours and got an enormous increase in strength. I didn't always have this flow experience, but I often did. In order to maintain this, to keep left-hand playing free from pressure and expectations, I decided not to completely switch to left-hand playing, but simply to continue doing it on the side without stress, without anything negative coming into it again, and so it's not so existential for me now that I have to completely relearn and that it has to work, but is quite a relaxed affair.



And motor skills went well with the coordination of the two hands?


At the very beginning I played with both hands separately: either bow or fingers. Fingering with the right hand proved to be particularly difficult. The hand wasn't stretched enough and I always gripped too tightly. That's why I practised a lot of things "in parallel": I placed my cello in the middle in front of me and did fingering exercises with both hands at the same time in order to be able to release the fingers at all. As I said, it was a complete relearning process. In theory, I knew how it should go and sound, but the two hands had to learn completely new movements and combine them with each other. Although I had a clear goal and was ambitious to make progress, I found it very difficult and boring at first. The new combination of tasks felt strange and unfamiliar for a while, but became more and more normal with time and the number of pieces.

Now, after almost 10 years, it feels quite familiar. I would say that because I now play relatively little the lefty way and have simply played much more right-handed, shifting with my right hand is not as smooth and not as practiced as with the left. Of course, it's still a question of practising and the more you practise, the smoother and more fluent it becomes. But the accuracy and the idea of being able to fall back on an existing representation, as I said, came about immediately. And it's still the case that I can sometimes play pieces better by heart on my left-handed cello than on the right-handed. But the most important retraining method for me was actually the parallel exercises with both hands. That's also how I practised vibrato.



I found that interesting in your bachelor thesis, that the vibrato works for you. It doesn't work for me with the right hand...


At first it didn't work for me either. The left bow hand went into action so that the bow vibrated and nothing happened at all with the right hand. Because I was also studying the neurological basics, I simply said to myself: "Ok, there are connections between the motor centers and I can try to learn with one hand from the other". I did dry exercises for my gripping hand everywhere - on the bus on some poles or with a blue plastic thing - when I couldn't play. And lots of parallel exercises. That way I was able to shift the vibrato from the left arm to the right.

I also changed hands more often when bowing. This has helped me both to retrain and to get a better feel for the bow in the right hand. I now know very well what a bow hand feels like and how to get the feeling into it. I could never play some of the faster bow strokes with my right hand before, without losing control and the bow falling out of my hand. If I play them briefly with my left hand, I can now play them quite well with my right hand.


Has the vibrato now become automatic, so that you no longer have to actively tell the right hand: "Do this now"?

I don't play everything with vibrato and it's still a conscious process, but it works motorically without my left hand reacting as well. The two hands can now perform their tasks independently of each other according to the respective playing style.
Another fascinating thing is reading music. I have always had great difficulties with this, i.e. the notes are somehow blurred, even though I don't have any eye problems. I was quickly overwhelmed in terms of concentration. I don't have that at all with normal reading. Playing left-handed has made reading music much better and I now also find it much easier when playing right-handed. With hindsight, I would say that the problems could have been a side effect of this whole process of overstraining myself by playing right-handed for years, because I am simply so left-handed. And playing left-handed has now loosened that up.



Did you have other lefty players or retrainees with whom you could exchange ideas?

No one apart from Walter Mengler. I spoke to him on the phone once and also wrote to him a bit. The initial phone call in particular, in which he recommended that I should only paint a little at a time and in small portions with my left hand, was very decisive for my approach. That was the only exchange I had.
I later spoke to Johanna Barbara Sattler on the phone. She is very strongly of the opinion that you should choose a handedness. However, I realized that this wasn't possible for me at the point I was at and that it didn't feel necessary. I didn't want to give up either way of playing and felt comfortable with both.

The neurobiologist Prof. Dr. Gerald Hüther wrote to me that I shouldn't let myself be unsettled by expert opinions, but should follow my feelings. He said he also found it interesting not to lateralize himself so much and could understand how I dealt with it. That helped me a lot to accept it and not to judge it from someone else's perspective and classify it as damaging. As I came across the pianists Géza Losó and Christopher Seed during my exploration of the subject, I was naturally curious to play on an inverted piano. I was given the oppo

rtunity by the left-handed consultant and pianist Lioba Thiel in Münster, who has an electric piano with a keyboard mirror. At that point, mirroring was no longer a problem for me at all because I was used to it from the cello. As you press the keys on the piano with both hands, i.e. you're actually doing the same thing, I didn't have to learn any new movements. So I was able to play Bach ad hoc, which was a fascinating experience. I now have my own interface, which my husband, who is a computer scientist, programmed for me. Theoretically, I could play inverted regularly, but I only do it occasionally during the vacations because it really confuses me and I regularly accompany my students on the right-handed piano. It's also always a question of time management, because I do play quite a lot of instruments.

Another instrument stood on my shelf for years before I decided to learn it as part of a master's degree with a focus on composition: in my case, the tabla tarang consists of 14 drums of different sizes, which are tuned in a scale and placed around me. At first, I arranged the notes conventionally like on the piano, with the low notes on the left and the high notes on the right. But I always got depressed when I played and I didn't feel well with it. I blamed it on the sound until my father encouraged me to arrange the drums the other way round, and since then it has felt totally right. It is therefore the first instrument that I have consistently played left-handed.

I generally play the tabla tarang with both hands. I found that the statement that you are about 10% faster with the dominant hand than with the non-dominant hand is actually true for me. In other words, I can simply perform repetitive drum movements faster with my left hand. The tabla tarang is a very rare instrument that is hardly ever played in India. As a result, there is no school for it, no technique and hardly any sources of information. During the technical development, I developed hand movements that I set up according to my handedness so that everything is fast and easy to play and I don't exhaust my right hand. I also have to be able to reach everything easily. The fact that I play with my hands almost 360° around me makes it an extremely challenging instrument in terms of coordination. This has taught me a lot more about my dexterity.

Laila Kirchner, Tabla Tarang

Screenshot from Laila's video on youtube "Tabla Tarang in Dialog"

The other string instruments that you learned to play on the right, did you also try them on the left?

To be honest, I haven't had the opportunity yet. It's hard for me to imagine, because with the violin, for example, I find it very comfortable to have the instrument on the left side of my chin. As I am completely left-dominant lateralized - i.e. my eye, ear, hand and foot are stronger on the left - I also hear and see better on the left than on the right. That's the shortcoming of the left-handed cello, that I hear around the corner, so to speak. Of course, it's also a question of habit, but with the violin it feels nice to have the whole instrument and the sound production on my left. But I can understand that professional violinists are naturally better at bowing with their left than with their right hand.

Were there any negative reactions to your left-handed playing or did you have any reservations when you said you wanted to retrain?

I myself was very emotional back then when I found out that there are instruments for left-handed and thought: "Wow, why didn't I know that before?" Especially when I heard that my parents had tried to make me learn on the left from the start. This point is still a very sensitive one. So I didn't have any negative preconceptions. At the time, I was taught by Prof. Matias de Oliveira Pinto, who was very supportive and even occasionally taught me on the left-handed cello. My fellow students were also curious and some of them tried to play my left-handed cello. I don't know to what extent it sensitized them and they taught left-handers the other way round, as I noticed in conversations that some of them lacked an understanding of this.

I had a very negative experience during the practical string class training that we completed at a nearby school. The teacher was not at all open to the subject. Among the cello beginners were two left-handed children who suffered from sroking to bow with their right hand. The boy was intelligent, had top marks in mathematics, but couldn't manage the cello at all. He couldn't play a smooth note, didn't learn to finger properly and often hit the bow at the second teacher who was correcting him. He kept taking the bow in his left hand and trying the other way around, purely intuitively, but was always turned around and punished for being difficult. That was very blatant! The girl adapted rather well, but always complained about the pain in her right arm. When I pointed this out, I got a real headwind from the teacher.

Later, I also heard other teachers say: "I have often taught left-handers and they had no problems; and right-handers also have problems with fingering and vibrato". These typical arguments were simply put forward to avoid having to deal with them. I thought that was a great pity, because it is a topic that, like the writing hand, should at least be explained to such an extent that every instrumental teacher should deal with it during their training and afterwards and develop a neutral attitude towards it. This means that if children or parents want to play left-handed or try it out, then the teacher should be open to it and teach it or, if necessary, pass it on to a colleague, instead of saying: "You can't do that". Unfortunately, rejection is still far too widespread because it is a comfortable habit for many teachers or they are afraid of overburdening themselves.

Do you only play the cello right-handed these days or are there also situations where you reach for the left-handed cello?

Officially, I always play right-handed. Playing left-handed wouldn't be a problem for teaching, because I can play everything my students play. Maybe not so smooth in terms of motor skills, but it's enough for teaching. It wouldn't be enough for concerts, I don't play enough for that. In concerts I like to play literature with demanding parts for the left fingering hand, where I can pluck parallel to the fingering or have lots of double stops. I can't do that on the left-handed cello with my right hand without investing a lot more time in practicing. I now also play right-handed in a calmer and more relaxed way and still enjoy it very much.

My left-handed cello is a student instrument made by Berndt & Marx, which I initially rented and then bought after comparing it with a higher-quality instrument that I didn't like as much. All in all, it is very simple. I've tried to adjust the bridge a bit, but I'm not quite happy yet because the D string is positioned so that you can quickly reach the G and A strings. I still have to optimize a few things. I built my right-handed cello myself. The step of building a left-handed instrument or buying a more expensive one is another very important decision that I simply haven't made yet. That's another reason why I still like to play right-handed. But playing left-handed is very enriching for me and is emotionally and physically beneficial.



If you practise in both directions, don't you have calluses and therefore less sensitivity on the fingers of both hands?

I don't find the cornea so thick that I don't feel comfortable with it. I just notice that it hurts when it's not there. I learned to play the sitar in India and continued to play the cello at the same time. With the sitar, you also stretch the strings with the fingers of your fretting hand to change the pitch. As a result, I had two deep black notches in the index and middle fingers of my left hand. When I played the cello (right-handed) and the thick strings slipped in there, it really hurt. That's why I made leather caps for the sitar. Indian musicians say: "You can't feel the sound anymore". But I can't damage my hands and I have to be able to play other instruments too... That's why I don't have the feeling that calluses desensitize me at all, but rather that they make it possible to press a string without pain. After not playing the left-hand cello for a long time, I notice that the calluses and also the strength in my fingers diminish again. Then my fingertips are not as well cushioned and this makes it more difficult to grip.



You write in your bachelor's thesis that you also played gigs with your left hand when you were relearning and that it actually went well. It was extremely difficult for me for two and a half years, so that nothing worked in performance situations and it felt really stupid. Was that not the case for you?

I can hardly describe it. Of course, I was so excited before: "Oh God, I'm going to play my first concertino with the left hand". It was a class recital, but there were also listeners from outside... I had played the piece with piano for the first time shortly before. But when I played it - with the pianist who always accompanied me - it wasn't really bad any more. I also wanted to prove that it was possible. It was an experiment for myself to see whether it worked or not. And I think the fact that I didn't really have an idea of how long such a re-learning process actually takes or how you should approach it, and I was also under pressure to complete my studies and have enough material to write about in time, meant that I went through with it quite rigorously. Of course, it wasn't technically comparable or perfect at all, but it was enough to be played in a student recital as an advanced student. And that was all I was aiming for, it was totally ok.

I was always looking at: "What stage am I at right now?" In the beginning, I hopped around the conservatory and would have loved to tell everyone: "I played: Brother John". Of course, I didn't do that because I thought: "You can't do that now". But that's how I felt. I was so happy about every little step forward and every new nursery rhyme I learned. Because I also wanted to document the relearning process, I made video recordings right from the start and they

are very revealing - both then and now. "What does that look like?" or "How difficult was that for my motor skills?" - But I always had a very clear goal in mind, for example that I wanted to play in the class audition one day, or that I could take part in the technique class with my left hand. And when you realize you're making progress, you can set your goal further.


Did you also play left-handed in ensembles or in the orchestra? What were your experiences there?

After I had written my thesis and finished my studies, I thought about how I could continue to deal with the subject. I also completed my next degree on the right and only practiced on the left for myself on the side. I was concerned with the well-known reservations and arguments that left-hand players in the orchestra would disrupt the image and the other players and would need more space. To check this out, I asked the conductor Ingo Ernst Reihl if I could play left-handed in the Dortmund university orchestra for one semester. He was totally open-minded and introduced me to the orchestra: "This is Laila, she played violin, cello and viola with me, sang in the choir - and now she also plays left-hand cello". I actually wanted to do it secretly, but then everyone knew and everyone was very open.

In the beginning, playing on the left irritated both me and the other cellists and nobody liked sitting behind me. 
But soon it was normal for everyone and when I had to play spontaneously at the front desk during the concert, nobody was bothered by it. A key moment for me was that the downstroke simply felt completely different to the upstroke and that ultimately it all came down to this shared energy of the strokes. That way I felt in tune with all the string players, regardless of left or right.



Have you had any strange experiences with left-hand playing?

I found it curious that at a certain stage I was able to sit down at the left-handed cello and play a piece that I had previously only played on the right-hand side completely by heart, with expression and everything. That felt really crazy.
Once when I was teaching, I accidentally took the left-handed cello with me and the students had to come to terms with it. What most people find difficult at first, namely that you can't mirror yourself with two right-handed instruments, suddenly no longer applied. After some initial irritation, they discovered that we could now suddenly mirror each other when sitting opposite each other. One pupil said: "Oh, then I can copy you much better and imitate you."

The funniest thing was when we were asked to take a promotional photo with the orchestra, for which the photographer lined us up. Everyone was moved around a bit until everything seemed to be right in the end. Then the photographer pointed at me and told me to move a little further to the left. Then he told me to move a little further to the right... The whole orchestra sat still and waited and I was pushed back and forth. Then I was told to turn a little. Then he was halfway satisfied, but obviously not completely and simply didn't realize that it was because I was sitting and holding my instrument the other way.



Do you see any advantages in playing "the other way around"?

I see the advantage in the fact that it feels much more natural for me to stroke with my left hand. It's a balance for me, a relaxation. But I don't experience that in every situation. There are also moments when I realize that it feels and looks completely wrong. But that happens more often when I've played with the right before.
I think it's a complete advantage, if left-handers are allowed to stroke with their dominant hand directly from the start of learning. I experienced this in a cello ensemble school project in Dortmund with Mechthild van der Linde, where it was a matter of course for everyone that the left-handers stroked with their left hand and the right-handers with their right. No child was irritated by anyone at all.
For me, the ideal situation to strive for is for left-handed playing to become a matter of course in the music business, as is already the case with guitarists, for example.

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