top of page

Playing left-handed in orchestra? Interview with Berlin Philharmonic principal cellist Ludwig Quandt

"Getting in the way of the other players with the bow happens anyway. I have probably hit someone in the scroll with the frog at least a dozen times. And the violinists or violists don't care if they get hit by the tip or the frog. :)"

Prejudices such as, one cannot play left-handed in an orchestra, or orchestras do not accept left-handed players, still persist. Time to clear this up and ask an insider: Sophia Klinke from Linksgespielt spoke with the (right-handed) principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic about the roles of the hands on a string instrument, the importance of playing according to your handedness, and the physical commitment when playing in an orchestra.

Ludwig Quandt, thank you so much for taking the time for an interview with Linksgespielt.

Your lefty nephew plays the cello left-handed. How did he come to the sensitivity for playing according to his handedness?

It was decided to have such a cello built for him – or, to be more precise, rebuilt – because he simply couldn't play on the 'normal' right-handed cello. He could not play on it properly.

His teacher, who teaches a lot of children, has always supported the idea that left-handers should play the other way around. Playing a string instrument is mainly about the bow: that one has the feeling of space for the bow. That is what matters!

Is it completely clear to you that as a right-handed person the bow belongs in the right hand? As a right-handed player, could you imagine having to play left-handed, as is the case with many left-handed players who have to play in the conventional way?

Often people put it into perspective by saying you need both hands to play a string instrument anyway, so that the dominant hand does not necessarily have to guide the bow.

I started playing the cello at the age of six and was always clearly right-handed. Accordingly, I can't imagine having to play left-handed! That would not have felt natural, not organic. The spatial sensation is the all-important thing.

You also need a sense of space on the fingerboard, of course – the fingerboard serves as a track on which you move up and down. After all, you don't whiz around wildly in the three-dimensional free space with your fingering hand, but are on the move on your fingerboard and only need a sense of distance.

With the bow arm, on the other hand, you shape the timbres: If you want to go to the bridge during a down bow, or if you want to go to the fingerboard, you play at completely different spots. It takes an enormous amount of flexibility. You are constantly on the move with the bow in all three dimensions.

With the fingering hand you can use different vibrato variations, but the real expression you see in the bowing hand, right? Dynamics, timbres, etc.

In the bow arm, absolutely! Definitely. The awareness of what the bow arm is doing, the movement in space - that's where everything is oriented, in that whole feeling.

It's a completely different challenge than for the fingering hand. Two completely different tasks.

But it is an interplay, a fusion! I don't even think about it. Sometimes it takes a lot of pressure on the fingering hand to fix the string properly. Other times, you deliberately let a little loose so that the sound has less focus.

Still, you're more limited with the fingering hand. When you play a note, it's on a very specific spot on the fingerboard, and while it can definitely be tonally differentiated with various types of vibrato, it's always in support of the sound that's being expressed with the bow. With the bow you can play the sound here or there or at many other possible contact points - everywhere! There really is a huge spectrum.

Article 12 of the German Basic Law regulates the right to choose one's profession and to practice it freely. If a teacher writes on the blackboard with their left hand, it is not a problem. Nothing else applies to left-handed musicians in professional orchestras.

Right, of course. Self-evidently.

Our orchestra hires exclusively according to quality. If a left-handed musician comes to audition, plays left-handed and sweeps all the others off the court, then that person comes into the orchestra and a solution will be found. We have no statutes that exclude left-handed players.

And especially we, the Berlin Philharmonic, play with so much physical effort, that's our trademark! We want to move and not sit on our chairs like pillars of salt - otherwise you can't produce sound. You have to feel free. If you are no longer allowed to move and only play with a rigid body, you can hear that.

There are no colleagues among us, I maintain, who would say of their own accord: Let's take it a little quieter". We have this spirit that everyone gives everything in concert. That is a matter of course. When you play alone, when you play Bach's solo sonatas, you don't just stand there and fiddle away. You want to express something! And that's exactly what we do together in the orchestra. That is the most important thing.

If we had to restrict our body movement because of handedness-compliant playing, the sound would indeed suffer, that's quite clear. But one would find solutions. If you want something, you will find a way.

And the fact that you get in the other players' way with the bow happens anyway: if you bow on the right, the bow sticks out equally far into the action on the left. The violas get our tips.

I must have hit someone in the scroll with the frog at least a dozen times. But thank goodness they are always made of hardwood, so nothing has ever broken. In every fifth concert something happens to me - that you collide, even with your arm. The violinists or violists don't care if they get hit by the tip or the frog. :)

Only for people sharing a stand, it would probably be a bit more sporting when playing right and left.... :) That's all, actually. But as I said, solutions would be found.

If attention was paid to playing appropriate to one's handedness from early on in musical training, I'm sure you would have had a few left-handed players come to you by now.

Of course, of course. I don't know how many plants have been spoiled before they could even start to grow, or even blossom...

A lot of left-handed people who could have been great musicians probably just fell under the radar, I think, when they had to play against their handedness. They just fell through the cracks. That's a great pity, of course. You would have to try to grasp that somehow, that would be interesting. It's an exciting topic and interesting on many levels.

Thank you very much for the pleasant conversation, dear Ludwig!


Read more:


Photo: Symbol image / private


bottom of page