Here we interviewed the left-handed baroque violinist Ursula Ros, whose decision to relearn the violin was triggered in 2008 by the left-handedness of her small violin student. Sophia Klinke met this student from back then and talked to her about handedness and left-handed music making.
How do you describe your handedness?
I'm left-handed, but I can do a lot of things very well with both hands, because initially the right side was encouraged more by kindergarten, school and so on..
So your parents didn't know from the start that you were left-handed?
No, my mother only knew after we had taken a test to determine our handedness. We were specially tested for it because my mother suspected it. Especially when it came to cutting and painting etc., my siblings and I had often done that with our left hand, but then at some point we adapted because everyone else was doing it with their right. At that time, my parents had no strong connection to this topic and did not know themselves that they are also left-handed!
Your parents didn't know they were left-handed?!
Exactly. At that time, we went to a handedness specialist near Kiel and took a dexterity test. It turned out that we were all left-handed. I was five or six years old at the time, just before I started school. This test aroused my parents' interest. They learned that many people imitate and adopt the right-handed way of life as children and then wrongly assume that they are right-handed themselves. In fact, they are left-handed by nature, adapting to a right-handed environment.
Did you learn your instrument left-handed from the start?
No. I first played the violin right-handed for three years. I started when I was four and I played right-handed until almost seven, I think, we didn't retrain the instrument on the left side from the beginning, when we found out about my left-handedness. We didn't know about left-handed instruments in the beginning. But when I turned seven, it was clear that I also wanted to make music according to my handedness.
Were there any reservations from any side about it?
The head of our music school at the time, with whom my parents are also good friends, had a discussion: If you want to play in an orchestra, is it worth it at all? There are many people who know that they are left-handed and still play their instrument right-handed....". And that this supposedly(!) often doesn't cause so many problems for left-handed people... But my parents were of the opinion that it was important and would help my talent to develop better if I played the right way round, i.e. left-handed.
I think that people who know they are left-handed, but still play right-handed, simply don't have the comparison to left-handed playing, because they only play right-handed. So they don't really know what might still be "in there" in terms of potential and possibilities.
Exactly. My parents and the violin teacher only supported me, gave me positive reactions, because I was already somewhat blocked by playing right-handed: I knew what I wanted to do and how I should do it, but the coordination between hand and brain didn't really work. I sometimes had blocks that it just didn't work, even though I knew exactly what I wanted to express and how to do it. So it sounded like a sensible option to try it on a left-handed violin, and it actually went relatively quickly that what I had learned with the right I eventually mastered on the left-handed violin. It wasn't like I was starting from the beginning again, but rather I had a certain amount of prior knowledge that I could draw on.
Please tell us more about your approach and the relearning process.
What were the biggest challenges for you in relearning, as far as you can remember?
I don't know 100% anymore. I know that it was frustrating at the beginning, of course, because certain movement patterns had already been practiced and as a result I sometimes still played my new left-handed violin right-handed out of frustration - then, of course, with the strings backwards. But actually the whole thing had turned out to be relatively uncomplicated. Because I was still so young - seven years old. Which is often a bit more difficult with adults, who may be more inhibited to relearn.
Where did you get your left-handed instruments?
My first violin was converted to a left-handed violin by the luthier Frank Frobeen in Hamburg. Later, when I was to get a full size violin (4/4), he made it for me directly left-handed. This was also, I think, one of the first left-handed violins he built. Recently, he said that it was becoming more and more common for violins to be converted to left-handed.
Do you play in an orchestra, and if so, what are your experiences with your laterality?
I played in the "YouMe!", which is the youth symphony orchestra of the music school in Hamburg. For about two or three years, or a little longer. Before that, I played in the small orchestra at our music school, the Harburg Youth Academy, as well as in other orchestras every now and then during the vacations. In fact, many people didn't even notice at the beginning that I was playing the other way around.
...except your fellow players, right?
Exactly. In fact, only except for the person sitting next to me, because it's sometimes a bit difficult in the narrow orchestra pit and you have to look at which side you're sitting on so that you don't bump into each other with the bows. But that was always easy to sort out. The conductor was also very open and said, "Yeah, that's totally cool and we're kind of making that work with the space." She had also been very supportive in that. I was the only one who played on the left, but something negative from the outside had never come up.
So there were no negative reactions?
No, absolutely not. Negative never. People were rather surprised and interested, but never negative about it.
What advantages do you see in playing left-handed?
The biggest advantage is that it matches my hand preference and I can use my full potential - which is not 100% given if you don't play according to your handedness. I used to have these blockages when I played right-handed, and they haven't come back since I started playing left-handed. It's definitely the way it should be now, and that's the biggest advantage.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think it's very good that you are running this website. It definitely deserves the attention. It should no longer be "quite normal" to always play with the right and to be polarized to this side from the beginning if you are left-handed. You can definitely play very nicely with the left. :)
I am very grateful that my parents were so supportive and committed to it. Of course, sometimes also against my "Oh, no, well it kind of works out the normal way." Sure - you don't necessarily want to be different and stand out. My parents, however, encouraged me and always gave me the feeling that it wasn't a bad thing to start over again, but that if you want to live yourself authentically, you should accept who you are and whatever way you want to play your instrument, for example.
Thank you, dear Lelle, for this beautiful conversation!
Photo credits: Alexander Englert