"Bow technique definitely becomes a handicap if you don't play according to your natural handedness."
It is still common for left-handed people to hold their bow in the right hand. Very rarely, however, there is also the reverse case: Margret Wedel played left-handed in amateur orchestras and string quartets for decades while being right-handed. Sophia Klinke spoke with her.
How do you describe your handedness?
I am clearly right-handed. But I had an accident when I was nine years old, when I lost the top limb of my left middle finger while chopping wood. Thus, playing the piano was no longer an option for me.
My father, who was a passionate amateur cellist, wondered which instrument I could now play. Using Mr. Kussmaul as an example, he came to the conclusion that it was possible to rebuild a string instrument, and thereupon bought an instrument from the Klingenthal school for me. That must have been in 1948. This violin was converted into a left-handed violin by the luthier Monke in Cologne.
At the age of thirteen I received lessons from a violin teacher who was unfortunately not very qualified. From the beginning I played left-handed as a right-hander.
Were there any reservations from any side about you playing left-handed?
No, and not from me anyway. I was happy that my father had found a solution and I wanted to make music, just like him. That's how I grew up: with domestic music and chamber music.
I didn't give much thought to whether it was good or bad not to play the violin according to my handedness. I had no other choice. In this respect, there were no reservations.
How did you come by your instruments?
I have a violin from my father, which he probably bought from a gypsy in the period after the war. That was in 1948, because I know that I started violin lessons in 1949 when I was thirteen. Since we were displaced by the war to a village, rural area, there was not much choice of teachers.
For three years I had lessons with a teacher who took me through the Hohmann-Heim violin school at a fast pace and paid no attention at all to technique, especially not to posture.
As a result, when I later came to Cologne and found very good violin lessons there, I first had great difficulty in eradicating all these mistakes. That was in the last three years before I graduated from high school, and after that, in a way, regular lessons came to an end, so that unfortunately I didn't get very far with my technique. But of course I had played in the school orchestra and at home I played and listened to a lot of music. My father never let up. He always found pieces for our family instrumentation. There was a lot of music-making, but often also chamber music, which was actually too difficult for me.
You also play the viola. How did that come about?
Shortly before I graduated from high school, I got to know the viola in a concert - not directly as a soloist, but as accompaniment for the Evangelist in the Passion music by Johann Theile - and was so fascinated by the sound of this instrument that it was clear to me: "I really want to start playing the viola!" And then I was lucky enough that my parents were able to buy me an instrument through my violin teacher - a very beautiful instrument.
This instrument was converted to a left-handed viola by Monke in Cologne. I then learned the basics of playing the viola, but was really left to my own devices after that.
I went to Heidelberg to study and was immediately accepted into both the Collegium Musicum and a string quartet, which accompanied me throughout my studies. Quartet playing always had priority over orchestral playing for me. Since that time, that is, since 1955/56, I have played quartet all my life. Now I am 85 and I had to stop playing music two years ago. Of course, my technical possibilities were limited and therefore also the literature I could play. But I played viola in many quartets and made music with many people.
Playing string quartet was always the highlight for me. More than in an orchestra, one has the opportunity to shape one's own voice, and as a viola, one plays a mediating role between the two violins and the cello. That is a beautiful task!
You nevertheless played a lot in orchestras. What were your experiences there regarding left-handed playing?
Yes, I have always played in orchestras. In various places in Heidelberg, in Kiel, later in Oldenburg and Münster. They never saw any problem in accepting a left-striking violist into the orchestra.
Of course, these were all amateur orchestras at a good medium level. I was sometimes able to play with another viola on the same desk. In recent times, however, I sat more at a single desk, and above all it was important that I always sat on the outside of the viola section, because that way I didn't obstruct anyone. But even at church concerts, where it is often cramped because you are sitting in the sanctuary, a solution was always found. That was never a problem.
I have always taken lessons in between, but never has a teacher rejected me because I am playing the other way around. I think that you automatically copy what the teacher demonstrates. And the theoretical explanations can be transferred anyway.
So there were no negative reactions. But have you had any strange or funny experiences with your playing style?
Yes, of course I've been approached again and again after concerts. The listeners were quite astonished. Sometimes I noticed that while we were playing, someone in the audience nudged his neighbor and said: "Look, there! She's playing the other way around!" That often happened. Above all, I was often asked afterwards, "How come?" And, "Is that possible?" Never negatively, but with interest.
Earlier you said that there were technical difficulties for you. How does it feel for you not to have been able to play according to handedness because of the accident in early childhood?
I certainly felt these difficulties. That I just had to bow with my left hand, although I am right-handed! I have always had difficulties with bowing technique: small movements, for example, quick string crossings, are a huge problem for me. What I have big problems with is longer pizzicato. I can't hold the bow as tightly in my hand as other players, because I'm missing the upper limb of my middle finger. I notice that especially when I have to do pizzicato. Benjamin Britten's "Simple Symphony" has always been a horror piece for me.
Bow technique, quite clearly, becomes a handicap if you don't play according to your natural handedness. Fingering with the right hand is not so problematic, since I am right-handed.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I am convinced that it is a problem if one does not play according to one's handedness. My last principal violinist - a good violinist and violist, but left-handed, so she learned to play right-handed according to convention - and I were an interesting team: she, the left-handed one who had to bow right, and I, the right-handed one who had to bow left.
We kept confirming to each other that this was a big handicap after all. Although this colleague was really a good violinist and later concertmaster of the orchestra, she kept saying, "I realize that I'm not making music according to my natural disposition."
Thank you, dear Margret, for this beautiful, interesting conversation!
Playing left-handed due to injury existed and still exists in professional circles as well. Examples are Hans-Ludwig Becker, Jürgen Kussmaul, Reinhard Goebel, Margaret Artus, Dieter Görnandt, Rivka Mandelkern, Rudolf Kolisch and Richard Barth.
We collect interviews with professional musicians playing left-handed due to their handedness here.
A list of all professional left-hand bowing orchestra members known to us, past and present, can be found here.