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"The musical plan is in the bow" - violin teacher Benno Huber on handedness in violin playing

The violin bow can be controlled much better with the dominant hand, and that is eminently important. Giving and taking weight, changing bows, leading and feeling melodies... The whole world of feeling goes down if the dominant hand is not allowed to express itself, because the musical "plan" is in the bow.

How did you become aware of the topic of left-handedness?

My mother was left-handed. She was mainly a housewife and played the recorder, but at school she had to learn to do everything on the right: writing, painting, playing the recorder and much more. Nowadays she still does certain things on the left, e.g. cutting bread, threading when sewing, etc.

I am right-handed and, among other things, because of my mother's situation, at some point I started to look deeper into the subject of handedness. Our culture is conditioned to right-handedness, I say provocatively. Everyday items are usually designed for right-handers. Meanwhile, there are everyday objects that are adapted for left-handedness - see scissors, knives, watches, etc. And why, for example, do people in German say "Das mache ich mit links" ("I do that with my left hand" = "I could do this behind my back")? It means something like "lax" and "easy to manage". This duality about what is supposed to be good and bad, what is supposed to be hard and what is supposed to be easy, had been bothering me.

What is the significance of left-handedness for you as a violinist and violin teacher?

If someone is left-handed, the bow can be guided much better with the left hand, the left arm, and that is eminently important. Giving and taking weight, changing bows, leading and feeling melodies... The whole world of feeling goes down if the dominant hand is not allowed to express itself, because the musical "plan" is in the bow. There is its origin.

When I ask left-handed students to play left-handed, I sometimes encounter great resistance, because they don't want to be "different", they don't want to stand out, and so they often learn to play the violin as if they were right-handed.

To my ears, the tone of left-handed students who bow with their right hand has something wooden about it, which is difficult to get rid of. I sense right from the start that there is something inhibited in the bowing. It has something artificial and too much effort.

However, there was one left-handed student, Sofia Heuri, who learned to play the violin left-handed from the beginning. Her mother had been very keen that her daughter should start left-handed and had given me literature on the subject. In the lessons Sofia implemented everything in mirror image and she had a quick receptive ability.

I was very happy to be able to accompany her from an early age as a left-handed violinist her first years. She really came a long way on the instrument, playing several times as a soloist with the Uster Chamber Orchestra, including Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen at the age of fourteen.

Sofia first rented her instrument from the violin maker Hans-Peter Rast (now taken over by son Felix Rast) in Zurich. It was an original right-handed violin, which was converted to left-handed.

As a left-handed violinist, you don't have the same choice of instruments that a right-handed player has, and custom-made instruments - both right- and left-handed - can vary greatly. I don't think it's possible to foresee or hear in advance how an instrument will sound in the end. There has to be someone at work who says, "I really want to build this for this person as a left-handed instrument and not make a compromise" - otherwise it would be less emotional and that would be a shame. It's about the love for the instrument and for playing.

For the beginning with small instruments, i.e. ¼, ½, ¾ violins, it is sufficient to string them the other way round and then have the bridge adjusted accordingly.

However, for a 4/4 violin it is necessary to convert the instrument from the inside to the left, i.e. to mount the bass bar and soundpost mirror-inverted and to adjust the projection of the fingerboard accordingly.

How do you define the distribution of tasks between the bow and the fingering hand?

The tone is in the bow, while the fingering hand has to serve for exact pitches. The bow explicitly shapes the tone, which I can influence with the fingering hand for the purpose of vibrato. Ultimately, it is the soul of the human being that puts all this together so that the musical richness can unfold in a natural, coherent way.

Music school work often consists of assembling individual components, and only in a few cases does the student invest, practice, and take an interest enough to create a truly musical composite. This coming together is the ideal case.

A few students I see two or three times a week, as they participate in ensembles in addition to individual lessons. On the one hand, this is sometimes exhausting for me, but on the other hand, it's much better because it gets them more involved: So they come to make music more often than if they were at home and then had no interest, time and energy.

Nowadays, fast achievements and results are wrongly considered the most desirable thing, but for me as a teacher, the most important thing is that someone is happy and works on something that is unique and for which they may and should take their time. How "fast" they "work" then is not so important, but rather the real joy of what they do and that they have the time to find out how music making works out for them, because in the end it remains their own individual set-up.

In Brazil, where I grew up, regular school lessons were half-day. After that, I could go home and to music school to devote myself to playing the violin and viola - classmates who wanted to go to university took preparatory courses in the afternoon. I started playing the violin and viola very late, but it was my passion from the beginning. We went to an older house and the music teacher opened all the rooms for us. Sometimes he would come in and give us directions on how to practice certain parts. A wonderful person: he was making music with us and that's why I'm making music too! "You have to let the melodies live!" he kept saying.

This experience of having a suitable environment and the necessary time to be able to make music together was very important.

Picture: Original left-handed violin, c. 1900 / Linksgespielt


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