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»For lefties, it is in many ways easier and healthier to play left-handed.« – Prof. Elfriede Stahmer

»When I see a musician, what matters to me first and foremost is whether they make a healthy impression on me. If the relationship between body and instrument is not harmonious but strained, there is usually something fundamentally wrong. This can be, for example, playing contrary to one's handedness. Teachers should have the courage to get involved in this topic, because in the end, playing according to your handedness makes so many things easier - above all, healthier.«

Prof. Elfriede Stahmer taught methodology and didactics of violin playing at the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media from 1992 to 2018. She also held a teaching position for baroque violin at the University of the Arts Bremen. Sophia Klinke met her for a Linksgespielt interview on March 20, 2023.



How do you define the distribution of tasks among the hands when playing the violin?


From growing experience - that wasn't obvious from the beginning - it's clear to me now that the bow hand is immensely important for the sound. Everything that has to do with expression happens significantly there.

A certain agility in the fingering hand is, of course, absolutely helpful. But if this results in too much energy, it often gets in the way. I experienced this in my teaching. Over the years it has happened from time to time that I have had left-handed students. At first you're happy that they have a great fingering hand, but you get frustrated at how difficult it is for them to bow reasonably straight and produce a rich tone.



What experiences have you had with left-handed students who play their instruments conventionally right-handed?


When I was very young and the subject of handedness in violin playing was not yet strongly in my consciousness, I had a six-year-old student. He was obviously left-handed and took the bow in his left hand and the violin in his right hand every time - every lesson, again and again. In addition, he also had the phenomenon of synesthesia. For example, he spoke of blue, yellow, green and brown strings. After some time he stopped playing the violin. It would have been interesting to see if it would have worked better if he had played the violin left-handed. Chances are good that things would have been easier and smoother then.


Among my students, there was a right-handed violinist, Anne Kahl*, who studied to be a teacher and who played the violin left-handed from an early age due to a deformity in her left hand - the same thing as left-handed people who play right-handed. She was born without a thumb on her left hand and had several operations on her index finger as a child, which was then used as a counterpart to the other fingers - as a kind of thumb substitute.

So she had a thumb replacement plus three fingers on her left hand, and as a child she found a teacher who consequently taught her the other way around: left-hand bowing, right-hand fingering.

Anne played very, very musically, but tonally she always reached her limits. Nevertheless, as a right-handed player with her dominant fingering hand, she was stunningly skillful - this had amazed me very much, since she had a special change-of-position technique that I was familiar with, but which is rarely taught. But bowing left-handed as a right-hander always remained difficult.

To counteract this, we changed and tinkered a lot with her posture, because the main work was always sound improvement. We also achieved quite a bit, but it remained a double handicap, because as a righty she had to bow with the non-dominant left hand, and at the same time this hand could not sufficiently balance the weight of the bow due to the fusion of the fingers.

It was very helpful for me that there were mirrors everywhere in the university, so Anne stood in front of them. In the mirrors, it looked as if she was playing right-handed and, especially in the beginning, that was important for me as a teacher, especially in terms of posture, because the sight of her playing left-handed was unfamiliar.



Did you also meet left-handed people who play left-handed according to their handedness?


More than ten years ago, the eleven-year-old and left-handed violinist Tjarbe Björkson came to me for violin lessons. He had learned to play the violin left-handed from the very beginning, and parallel to his music school lessons, I was to prepare him for the entrance examination for the Institut zur Frühförderung musikalisch Hochbegabter (an Institute for early support of the musically gifted) (iff) at the Hanover University of Music, which he successfully passed after two years. There he studied composition and as a minor subject violin. It was very exciting for me to experience how naturally he played left-handed.

His violin teacher at the time, Elisabet Heineken from the Wunstorf Music School, has been committed to playing according to handedness for many years and has many left-hand players in her class.


Once I had an interesting encounter in the context of the preparatory training for university studies - a support project of the state government for music schools, which is intended to encourage ambitious students by offering them theory lessons as well as in-depth instrumental lessons as preparation for possible music studies. Once a year, students participating in this financially supported promotion project have to pass an examination to ensure that a certain standard is given.

I was sent there as an external examiner and representative of the university and met the then fifteen-year-old cellist Caja Wohlfeil*, who played the cello fantastically and naturally in a left-handed manner. She played very musically - simply beautiful. I had also talked to her at the time about her lefty playing. Later she became a junior student with Ulf Tischbirek at the Lübeck Academy of Music, who supported her very much in her left-handed playing.


In my youth, I once saw a left-hand violinist playing in a professional orchestra, even at the first stand. He immediately caught my eye. Unfortunately, I don't remember which orchestra it was.



What is the importance of handedness in the studies of music teachers-to-be?


I'm retired now, but when I talk to prospective or already trained teachers during projects and the topic comes up, I encourage them to pursue it and not to underestimate its importance. You should have the courage to get involved, because in the end, playing to one's handedness makes so many things easier - above all, healthier.

When I see a musician, what matters to me first and foremost is whether they make a healthy impression on me. If the relationship between body and instrument is not harmonious but strained, there is usually something fundamentally wrong. This can be, for example, playing contrary to one's handedness.

Fortunately, the importance of innate, unchangeable handedness is also increasing in other professions. My impression is that time is working for us - the issue of diversity is so topical. Therefore, it can only get easier.


Elfriede Stahmer & Sophia Klinke during the interview

As part of my methodology teaching, I had a student violin provisionally converted to left-handed, with only the strings arranged the other way round and a center chinrest fitted, but inside it was a right-handed violin (bass bar and soundpost not changed).

The students are usually so filled with their aspiring job of teaching (which is of course very gratifying and hopefully will stay that way!) that they often forget about the completely different developments that a beginner on the violin inevitably faces. So I put this left-hand violin in the hands of my students and said, »Play it!«

The attempt was to spontaneously play a little song on it, and my intention to notice how difficult coordination between right and left is at the beginning. In this exercise, hand dominance didn't play a role for me at first, but I now see it differently: as a beginner, not playing according to handedness usually brings increased difficulties, as already mentioned (too much power in the gripping hand, too little expressiveness in the bowing hand), and creates unnecessary hurdles that are avoidable.


Understanding music making as a holistic experience is becoming more and more common in universities. The fact that handedness is important should definitely be recognized and included, so that prospective instrumental teachers can let left-handed students play left-handed instruments without discomfort.



What is teaching to you?


For me, teaching means the teachers' mindful accompaniment towards the students' connection with themselves. When teaching children and adolescents, the relationship to each other is usually a different, closer bond, but it is the responsibility of the teachers to show their students the way to self-connection. That they succeed in getting into the state where they experience being able to express themselves and understand the instrument as a medium that offers them the possibility of really being able to get in touch with themselves.

In addition, I see the children's sensitivity as a gift for sensitive music-making, and not to spill it under any circumstances by putting too much pressure on them to perform, because that harms a lot of things.



Is there anything else you would like to add in conclusion?

Your initiative is great! The fact that you are so intensively occupied with this and carry it out into the world broadens the horizon. And even if one is from the subject, like me, it helps to see things differently and more differentiated.


Thank you very much!




* Interviews coming soon...

 

Elfriede Stahmer grew up in Hanover and studied school music and English there. After several years of teaching at a gymnasium and directing the Hanover Youth Symphony Orchestra, she devoted herself primarily to playing the baroque violin. She received great influence from Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the violinists Sigiswald Kuijken and Monica Huggett.

She has played in numerous early music ensembles (Messa die Voce, Fiori Musicali, Capella Aggostino Steffani, Musicalische Compagney, Musica Fiata, Dresdner Barockorchester, Weserrenaissance among others), often as concertmaster. Her major interest is chamber music. In 1991 she founded the ENSEMBLE APPERTO. She has participated in numerous radio, LP and CD recordings and has given guest performances in almost all European countries as well as in America.

Elfriede Stahmer taught methodology and didactics of violin playing at the Hanover Music Academy (HMTMH) from 1992 to 2018. In 2002 she was awarded the title of professor there. She also held a teaching position for baroque violin at the University of the Arts Bremen.

 



Cover photo © Alexander Englert

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