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"One life is not enough to learn music" Meet the passionate left-handed violinist José Antonio

Interview with lefty violinist José Antonio Herrera López (43) from Valencia, Venezuela

"You will always have detractors along the way, I think that is part of the challenges of life. If you assume them with dignity and positive mind, they are left behind and you overcome them. What I will always stay with is the beautiful experience of being able to make music and enjoy it."

Left-handed violinist José Antonio Herrera Lopez

Do you consider yourself left-handed or right-handed?


I consider myself an ambidextrous person, since I can do many things with both hands and both feet, among them writing, eating, throwing things, kicking a soccer ball for example. But in truth, I think I was born left-handed, and living in a family of right-handed people, well I think they induced me to be right-handed.

My mother, who played the musical instrument called "Venezuelan cuatro" for fun and self-taught, is the one who started me in my musical career and when she lent me her instrument for the first time, the posture I adopted immediately was that of a left-handed person, so she started teaching me how to play the cuatro left-handed.


What is the situation for left-handed people in Venezuela?


I think that the situation for left-handed people here in my country is not very different from the rest of the world. In a society of right-handed people, we left-handed are people who come to look like "oddities". There are advances and things gained to the world of left-handed people, for example in schools and universities you get to see chairs or "desks" as we call them here, special for left-handed people. Banks have designed checkbooks for left-handed people, there are spaces that have designs in the infrastructure for left-handed people, but they are not common.

Music does not escape this reality: being left-handed in music, playing any instrument to the left in my country - at least in formal or academic music - is a rarity, almost a heresy (hahaha).


Do you know any other left-handed violinists or other musicians in your country?


I know several left-handed musicians, most of them popular or folk musicians, performers of popular instruments such as the cuatro, guitar, mandolin, Venezuelan maracas, Venezuelan harp, but in the academic or symphonic part I do not know left-handed violinists or people who play the instrument to the left. In fact, many violinists or performers of symphonic instruments such as viola, cello, double bass and friends or fellow violinists tell me that I should take the knowledge I have on the instrument to the right hand, that it would be easy for me and so I would look "normal". Then I ask them if they see me as "abnormal" when playing my instrument with my left hand and with laughter they tell me the story that is known all over the world: "Instruments like the violin are designed to be played by right-handers, their construction and arrangement of the strings, the soul of the instrument is located in a specific place and by reversing the instrument, the vibrations... blah blah blah...". (laughs)


So you always played your instruments with your left hand?


Yes.


Please tell us more about your beginning on the violin.


Before playing violin, as I mentioned, I started my musical career playing my national instrument called "cuatro". Then I studied the mandolin (playing it to the left) in a school of Venezuelan folk music under the direction of one of my musical mentors, Maestro Pedro Mendoza. I participated in many musical groups called "Estudiantinas". Then I fell in love with the sound of the violin and bought one. I started playing it as a self-taught and to the left because of its identical tuning to that of the mandolin. I wanted to deepen my studies, so I entered a music school, where I also studied theory and solfeggio, complementary piano and had to start studying violin with my right hand, since the violin teachers told me that playing it to the left was complicated and that it would bring me problems to advance in technical studies and when entering an orchestra.


After graduating from music school I decided to continue my studies and deepen them at the Conservatory of my city and when I entered, the first thing the teachers noticed was that I played the violin with my left hand - and on top of that with the strings tuned on the instrument, as if I executed it with my right hand.

They were surprised by my tuning and my agility to play, as well as the fact that I could read and write music. But there was always a certain "Apartheid" towards me and although I managed to play a couple of months with the orchestra, it was not something comfortable for me. It was not bullying or rejection, but it was very clear from the looks of my fellow rowers that I was not in the right place, at least not at that time.

Ensamble D'a Ratico

I entered the University, there I graduated as a Bachelor of Music Education, and during my years of study I was part of the University's Estudiantina, a group that welcomed me in a very special way and with which I had the opportunity to travel all over the country.

I make all kinds of music. I can play music from the great universal authors of academic music (obviously music that is at my level of execution), popular Venezuelan music, Latin American music and world music. In fact, I am part of an ensemble type group called "Ensamble D'a Ratico", in which I am the melodic line of the group, and we make a lot of music, whatever we like and can enjoy.

I have always focused on playing the music of my country. We have a very wide musical diversity and I think it lacks a lot of diffusion around the world. I love all music, I adore symphonic music and the great authors, I love jazz and my strength has always been improvisation. I continue studying, I think one life is not enough to learn music.


What do you consider the most difficult aspects in playing the violin?


It did not take me long to get a good sound and tune the violin. Since it is an instrument without frets, I think the most difficult thing has been to adapt the methods of the classical violin school to the execution with the left hand without a guide teacher who tried to guide me, accepting that I am a left-handed performer. However many violinist teachers and friends along my way have given me very good advice and "tips" that I have incorporated with great positive results when playing the violin.


Have you faced reservations or concerns from other people about playing with your left hand?


Yes, as I told you before, they always see a performer of instruments with the left hand as a rarity, a phenomenon, something unusual. You will always have detractors along the way, but I think that is part of the challenges of life. If you assume them with dignity and positive mind, they are left behind and you overcome them. What I will always stay with is the beautiful experience of being able to make music and enjoy it. Make others enjoy your art, share it and feel admired and applauded by those who appreciate what you do.


Left-handed violinist José Antonio Herrera Lopez

Where did you get support?


From my parents, my mother mainly, who showed me the beauty of making music, from all those who have believed in me, violin teachers, violinist friends, musical group mates, from my wife who is an excellent flutist and has played in large groups and orchestras, from my children who already want to start their musical career, and from many friends who are not musicians but enjoy music and what I do.


How did you come by your instruments?


I have bought my violins at different times when I have been able to travel outside the country and others I have bought here in my country, they are not modified to play with the left hand, since as I told you, I play them with the same tuning as a violin for right-handed players.

I do not rule out the possibility of getting an instrument designed by a luthier specific for left-handed people and experimenting with that tuning or inversion of the strings.


What are your experiences playing left-handed in orchestras and ensembles? Has there been any problem?


As I told you, the experience with the orchestras has not been bad, just different. In fact, not long ago we did a job with the symphony orchestra of my state and the group to which I belong, the Ensamble D'a Ratico. We did a Fugue with Pajarillo by Maestro Aldemaro Romero, a wonderful composer from my country. It is a very complex work where the intervention of popular solo instruments and the orchestra is incorporated, among them the cuatro, the Venezuelan maracas and the violin, where I had the opportunity to do the solo part - and the comments of the critics were very positive.


Has your way of playing ever caused funny or strange situations?


All the time people are amazed, the audience is impressed, but they take it well. When they hear the music I make, people end up accepting the fact of seeing a violinist playing with his left hand and giving value to the fact of hearing good music.


Does playing with your left hand present any advantage?


I think that just being able to make music is already an advantage. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to play a musical instrument, understand the complexity of musical language and bring to the ear of the audience the abstractness of a musical work making it understandable. Music is an ethereal art. It is only appreciated at the moment it is being performed and then it falls asleep until it is performed again.

In that sense, being left-handed or right-handed is already a condition that societies tolerate in different ways. I think that the most important thing is the power of making music, making it well in the way that you feel comfortable and it should be totally valid and advantageous in either of the two ways, left-handed or right-handed.


I think that the advantage for me of playing the violin with my left hand is being able to be a reference in which people can say: "He does it well and he is a left-handed violinist. In the end it doesn't matter much with which hand he plays but how well he does it".


I was very excited since I discovered that there was a group of people playing with their left hand that including you as an activist and promoter decided to make visible the artistic work that many left-handed musicians do all over the world and it is not widely disseminated. I thank you and "Linksgespielt – Left-handed musicians" for everything you do for our community.

And from now on I must tell you that you can always count on my support. A big hug for you.



Left-handed violinist José Antonio Herrera Lopez


Photo credits: Raul Simao and Jhoham Gil


 

Follow José Antonio and his ensemble on Youtube and Instagram (external links).

 


Read more interviews with lefty violinists and other musicians playing left-handed from around the world.



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