Playing the left-handed piano – A hands-on experience
On the meaning and importance of the left-handed piano
by Heidi Schneider
This article was first published in March 2014 in the PIANONews magazine. Translated from German by J. Lunkenheimer
In 1963 I was born into a family that owned a piano. My father played it regularly. I really wanted to play on it even before entering school, but only at age 10 my parents satisfied my wish. After my first piano lessons in my final year in elementary school, I was disappointed: I had to play from sheet notes immediately. Playing freely, inventing melodies, improvisation – not allowed! After four years I quit piano lessons: I could not play anything by heart. I was playing pieces with four sharps or three flats in my book “Neuer Damm”.
During my medical degree, in my fourth year at university, I got back to lessons. Again, I struggled with playing by heart, things were not as smooth as I wished. I could not satisfy the new requirements of my teacher regarding phrasing, dynamic and articulation. After my degree, I worked for several years as assistant doctor. From that time on, I had my own piano.
2001 I started to dive deeper into music during a long and severe illness. I took lessons on the piano, at the violin and in singing. Also, I started to teach beginners at the piano. In order to do this, I acquired a lot of didactic material, took courses, went to the Musikmesse in Frankfurt and drove to several conservatories. I wanted my own students to learn as fast and efficient as others. My goal was to give them a better start into music and playing than I myself had. Therefor I sat on classes of teachers at the conservatory in order to improve my own teaching.
In 2005 I bought a new Bechstein piano. I was hoping to gain more motivation to improve my playing being able to practice on such a good instrument. But after many years, almost ten(!), and practicing about 10 hours a week, I realized in frustration that I progressed way too slowly and my playing stuck at the level of a beginner with maybe three years of experience. Since I knew a bit about learning speed, took piano didactics and improvisation courses etc., I started to change my approach and ask myself: Why do some (of my) students learn so very slowly? I realized that I myself, even after many more years of playing, had similar problems as those students. I kept asking teachers at the conservatory, gave auditions and tried to analyze the problems of my playing: A major issue was that even after singing classes and a lot of melody training, I could not play only one piece by heart or by ear while singing, neither in C major nor in any other key.
My right hand just could not keep a melody. So I asked many of the experts if handedness might be an issue at the piano, but everyone replied: Not at all. The only tip they had for me: “You must practice more!” But in fact I had been practicing for many years, but without success! I could not improvise and transpose pieces, even after having taken fancy classes to learn it, but I always was the last regarding my execution.
Celia or the light at the end of the tunnel
Since January 2011 I taught Celia, a girl that used her left hand for complex things but had decided to write with her right hand starting school in the fall of 2010. While learning a new piece, I noticed that her hand and fingers had a miniscule movement in the opposite direction. When playing c1-d1-e1-f1 for example, that is an ascending sequence, her right hand intuitively went downwards (=to the left) before every new ascending note! I observed this phenomenon with a couple, but not all my left-handed students. Since I was irritated regarding this, I started reading about HANDEDNESS starting in December 2011. I read the classic German book by Dr. Barbara Sattler “The Converted Left-Hander or The Knot in the Brain”. While reading, I realized I myself am a left-hander, though using my right hand as dominant and my left hand as holding hand in all manual activities! I would not have been identified with any regular handedness test, but that only shows those tests are currently not very reliable, which adds to the biased handedness statistics. In June 2012 I went to a seminar about playing left-handed musical instruments hosted by Walter Mengler, author of the book“Musizieren mit links” (Making music left-handed). He recommended me to visit Geza Loso in Treves (Ger: Trier) and to try one of his left-handed pianos!
History of the left-handed piano
Geza Loso, born in 1951 in Budapest, was the first to have himself created a left-handed piano. He knew he was left-handed from early on. He studied piano at the Béla-Bartók conservatory in the capital of Hungary. Early in his playing, he sensed that he could not bring the emotionality to the melody in his right hand that he really felt. The musicality of his playing did not match his real talent. In 1973 Loso took a wooden plank and installed a keyboard onto it to play silently in reverse. He had a good feeling while “playing” like this, so he wished to have a real left-handed piano from then on. In 1992 he played on an inverted MIDI keyboard using an EES M3 series. Six years later he bought a KAWAI digital keyboard that was built for left-handers.
Geza Loso tried to convince several piano makers to build him his left-handed instrument without success, when finally, at the turn of the millennium time-honored Blüthner from Germany said yes and went to construct a left-handed concert grand. 2001 that instrument (Blüthner Nr. 4) was presented at the Musikmesse in Frankfurt. Loso reported that he could already play quite well given that at that point he had had little practice time on the inverted keyboard. In 2010 Blüthner built him the first left-handed upright piano. Producing a real left-handed piano or grand piano comes at higher cost for the piano maker due to lower numbers of sale, which did not reflect heavily at the time after the introduction. Up to now, in Mai 2022, prices have climbed to extreme heights, which unfortunately does not help people who are interested in buying a left- handed piano. More information can be found online at the pages of Geza Loso, Christopher Seed or the project Linksgespielt. So in September 2012 I visited Geza Loso and his left-handed piano paradise. I had the opportunity to put hands on his lefty Blüthner Grand piano, his upright and another inverted “Irmler” piano (key range as usual from A2 to c5). The most impressive thing for me was playing melodies without using sheet notes with the left hand. What could not be done using my right hand for 39 years, my left hand now was able to do almost effortlessly, at least with easy melodies. Shortly after that, I ordered a Kurzweil Digital piano at Thomann (a leading German music retailer online). Its keyboard can be inverted with a range of E2 to g4. I play this instrument since 9th of November 2012.
Today, I am very grateful that I have completed the first year of switching. The beginning was not always so pleasant. But my progress speaks for itself. Now, what has changed in my playing using the left-handed digital piano?
Concentration and ability to play have improved, even though I am re- learning, not beginning from zero.
Before playing the left-handed keyboard, I could not play by heart or only with extreme practice effort. Now it is well possible, but of course has to continually be adapted to the new way of playing.
Embodied memory and thinking of musical structures are completely different! Back then, my hands could only play 2 to 3 notes without thinking actively. Today I notice that entire bars, sometimes the entire row, are still in memory. Also, I always had to try very complicated fingerings. Now I use to find a quick and easy solution.
Practicing mentally, so without the instrument, did not work. Even having a good mental imaging capability, I could never practice in my mind only. When listening to other pianists, I often did not picture which hand does what. Since I know that for me the high notes are executed with the left hand, it has changed, and it works!
Speed of my left hand improves noticeably by playing the melody with my left now. I am over 50 years old now! Before, I struggled with etudes for the left hand at the right handed piano.
I could never improvise. Now I can playfully execute my ideas. Of course I need time and help to really develop this.
I often struggled with rhythmic aspects, stopped at bars or accompanying chords. Now I don’t actively think about that any more. Things work more on their own, the right hand places chords at the right place in pieces of my current level.
I feel better in my body while playing. Playing feels more natural and more at ease, I feel joy and a fair sense of achievement.
My greatest struggle while switching to the left- handed keyboard was with playing by sheet notes. I kept the standard notation as of now. With brain and hands being trained in a way that the right hand is tied to the upper row, now it is the other way around. So, with new pieces amidst playing I mixed up hands sometimes, but now it happens fewer and fewer. Syncopated pieces are hard to play for me, back then and still, because the usual hand gets the reflex wrongly. Therefore, it is so vitally important to start learning with the right instrument according to the handedness! Then one does not need to re- learn and joy of playing is guaranteed. The real distribution of handedness (thus the inborn way to use our brains) will hopefully be discovered by neurologists and experts of genetics. Update 2022: Despite quite some research on this topic I could not get a lot of new insights since the publication of this article.
As a music teacher, before presuming a lack of talent or hard work, one should keep in mind that insufficient results might be caused by the wrong instrument! Students who develop the independence of their hands with great hesitance or not at all are often covert left- handers! They need the instrument that fits their body! Acquiring a left-handed instrument is feasible today. There are the fantastic instruments of Blüthner. They also have digital pianos in stock that can be switched from left-handed to right- handed, which means they can be played both ways. The digital Kurzweil pianos of older generations can be switched to left-handed as well, maybe you find one on eBay. The technical possibilities are huge. Alas, due to the rather high prices for left-handed equipment - even the digital variants - parents of students are often not willing to afford such an instrument for their child.
Also, my own possibilities to learn and study more are limited since courses I like to take do not provide left-handed instruments on site. But I don’t like to prove to everyone another time that I really can’t do it on the right-handed piano. So, I enjoy private classes in my own home on my digital lefty piano. And in short time I will play on my Blüthner upright piano that is being built for me! Update: This instrument was delivered in March 2014. In the fall of 2021 it was re-fit with a small-size keyboard.
Contact: Dipl. med. Heidi Schneider