Embracing The Dark Side: 3 Huge Things I’m Learning While Learning To Play Lefty

A few months ago, I posted about being a left-handed musician in a right-handed world.  At the time, I theorized about what would happen if I picked up a lefty guitar.  And that was all I had: theory.

However, a little over a month ago, I sold my Vespa and bought a lefty Taylor after speaking with an incredible musician, firekid, who supported my theory both with his personal experience and ridiculous skills.  I’ve only been learning for a few weeks, but it’s provided me with some great insights and I’d like to bust some myths for other musicians considering making a switch.

TRUE: It’s Totally Easier to Learn to Play Left-Handed as a Left-Handed Person

Logic told me this would be true; experience confirmed it.  There’s a ridiculous myth that Southpaws have an advantage with right-handed guitars because of our increased dexterity on the fretboard.  This seems to make sense on the surface until you consider the fact that more than 90% of the global population is right-handed.   So why would one of the most popular instruments in the world – an instrument occasionally called “the people’s instrument” – be designed to favor a tiny minority?  So, yeah, even without personal experience, that myth is busted.

As Adam and Jamie would say, MYTH BUSTED.  **Note: this myth not officially busted by official myth busters.

As Adam and Jamie would say, MYTH BUSTED.
**Note: this myth not officially busted by official myth busters.

Unless you’re doing crazy shredding or complex melodic work, your chord hand is pretty stationary.  The busy work is carried out by your strumming or picking hand.  While left-handed people are often more dextrous with our right hands than even right-hand dominant folks (partially because of how our brains work, partially because we’re forced to develop a certain amount of ambidexterity), it’s just plain easier to do the complicated fine-motor work with your dominant hand.

It took weeks for me to get even a basic strumming pattern down with my right hand and over two years to get something vaguely resembling finger picking.  I had a basic, alternating bass pattern down with my left hand in about a week.

Now, this isn’t to say that I’ve miraculously transformed into a guitar goddess, but I’m picking it up a hell of a lot faster than I did with my wrong hand.  Even the chord shapes are coming faster and cleaner.  Right now, I’m mostly waiting on callouses to form so that I can play for longer stretches.  I’m probably not going to be gigging lefty anytime in the next two months, but it’s not too far off.

We especially need to kill the wrong-handed-guitar-advantage myth because it’s toxic to fledgling musicians.  It 1) tells them that they don’t know their bodies and can’t trust their instincts, 2) places an unfair expectation that they should be – if anything – excelling, and 3) blames any struggle they’re having on some personal failing rather than an inherent disadvantage.  I’ve fallen victim to this messaging and it dramatically changed the way I’ve interacted with instruments – and not for the better.  Let’s make sure I’m a member of the last generation of lefties to be fed this lie.

FALSE: Switching to Lefty Will Confuse You And Make Your Right Handed Playing Suffer

This one is completely inaccurate; in fact, the opposite is true.  My right-handed guitar playing has improved as I’ve started practicing the left-handed guitar.

Now, putting down one instrument and immediately picking up the other is a little confusing.  But if I pick up the guitar, sit for about 20 seconds, and consciously acknowledge that it’s either right- or left-handed, I have no issues.  As a Southpaw, I’ve spent my entire life inverting things or doing things ambidextrously to use devices that aren’t designed for my body.  If you’re a righty musician with some bizarre urge to play lefty, you might find it more difficult to switch between the two because it’s unlikely you’ve ever had to do anything similar.  But if you’re a natural lefty, you’ve done this before, so don’t let anyone tell you you can’t.

You've mastered the little slice of hell known as the right-handed can opener.  Don't let anyone tell you you can't achieve your dreams.

You’ve mastered the little slice of hell known as the right-handed can opener. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t achieve your dreams.

The strumming and picking have strengthened my left hand so that my chords are cleaner when I play righty.  I’m even beginning to use bar-chords, which were completely over my head until I started playing lefty.  Last night I randomly decided I’d play an F major on the righty guitar after having abandoned bar-chords about 6 months ago.  And it came out clean and clear.  Multiple times.

Similar to how playing bodhrán left-handed improved my right-handed guitar strumming, the picking patterns I’m playing with my left hand are translating to my right hand when I pick up my Martin.  If anything, playing guitar ambidextrously is reinforcing and strengthening my skills rather than diluting them.

TRUE: It’s a Great Boost to Your Self-Confidence and Builds Some Lefty Pride

As I said in my post about left-handed musicianship, it feels really awful to be told by teachers and mentors that you’re not trying hard enough or that maybe you just lack natural instrumental ability.  I’d like to note that the teachers telling me this were right-handed.  They had never experienced having to learn an instrument upside-down and backwards.

Imagine if this text was every device you've ever interacted with.  Remember this feeling next time your lefty friend can't use your discriminatory vegetable peeler.

Imagine if this text was every device you’ve ever interacted with. Remember this feeling next time your lefty friend can’t use your discriminatory vegetable peeler. 

Finally having someone say “They’re wrong, go try it the way your body and instincts are saying you should” was freeing.  We have a terrible habit, as a culture – perhaps as a species – of devaluing the experiences of others that don’t align with our own. It’s insidious, toxic, and pervasive.  My experience with this behavior as a lefty or similar actions by my male peers as a woman are drops in the bucket compared to the way it affects minorities or all kinds in the U.S. (and presumably other countries).

The amount of empowerment I was able to claim by proving the negative words I was being fed were wrong was huge.  I feel more capable, more independent.  I feel like I have more ownership of my own being.  My left-handedness became a valid part of my experience and identity.  It wasn’t an excuse; it’s a source of power, something that makes me different from 90% of the world.

It also grants me a super power that renders any device described as "ergonomic" entirely useless to me.

It also grants me a super power that renders any device described as “ergonomic” entirely useless to me.

And that’s just something as minor as being allowed to use my dominant hand.  Imagine how empowered someone would feel who spent their life being told their skin color or economic background or level of ability wasn’t limiting them; that they were just lazy.  Imagine how something on that scale could change someone!

The Long and Short of It

So I learned that, yes, if you’re left-handed you may want to try a left-handed guitar.  Chances are, you’ll find it more natural.  It’s not that it’s impossible to learn to play righty; after all, there are lots of fantastic left-handed guitarists who never touch a Southpaw instrument.  But make a decision because it’s what feels right to you, not what someone told you should feel right.

THIS FEELS COMFORTABLE!  YOU ARE ENJOYING IT!  ENJOY IT, DAMMIT!

THIS FEELS COMFORTABLE! YOU ARE ENJOYING IT! ENJOY IT, DAMMIT!

On a larger scale, I’ve learned that, when you tell someone how their experience should be their strength, you often transform it into their handicap.  This isn’t to say that every complaint everyone has ever made is valid, but if you’ve never felt what someone is feeling, you may want to hesitate before you pass judgement.  Advice, however well intentioned, is usually more helpful when it comes from a place of personal experience.

Picking up that guitar has transformed my left-handedness from a handicap to a unique feature.  And, in a few months, I’ll be able to play every song I’ve ever learned or written on both a left- and right-handed instrument.  How badass is that?  How cool does that sound?  It’s unlikely any righty has made or will make a claim like that.  Thanks to embracing my individual gift – a gift that was a handicap a few months ago – I can pick up any guitar and play.

Fellow Southpaws, it’s time to stop fearing the Dark Side.  Embrace it.

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Mountain Climbing: Walking a Creative Path Through the New Industry Wilderness

Sometimes walking this creative path feels like hiking up a mountain: it’s steep and exhausting, but I can see the top – however distant – and I know I’ll find a way to reach it because it’s worth the blisters and aches.  Other times, it feels like I’m scrabbling at the base of a sheer, insurmountable cliff.  If I were to look at when I get the latter feeling, it’s usually the days when my goals fall through or just aren’t there or when I hit another roadblock.  I don’t have a “path” in the way many other careers do, especially with the state the music industry is currently in.

"Sinking?  Who?  Me?" - the Music Industry

“Sinking? Who? Me?” – the Music Industry

This gives me a lot of freedom to make my own plans.  To a certain extent, I get to cut my own path and decide what the road I pave will look like.  But at the same time, I’m battling the bloated, old structures that are still grasping on to life in an economy and technological age that will never support them the way they’re accustomed to.  That’s a whole blog in itself, but what it really boils down to is that sometimes it feels like there isn’t truly a place for creative people in our world today.

Don’t get me wrong; we wedge ourselves into the chinks and cracks in society and many of us find a way to live.  Some of us transmute our passions into hobbies or part-time affairs because they never quite sustain us.  Some of us live on less or paycheck to paycheck in order to get the emotional and spiritual fulfillment we’re seeking.

Think of it as the grown up version of this triangle.

Think of it as the grown-up version of this triangle.

I’m still trying to figure out how to make my passion my livelihood and decide how much of that livelihood it should be.  Ever since I was a child, I have had the urge to create things – beautiful, good things that bring something wonderful into the world around me.  It’s what drives me to sing, to play instruments, to draw and knit and cook and write these blogs.  It’s the same urge that feeds my desire to be a parent one day.  I want to create concentrated reflections of love in my lifetime that can echo down through time to someone else who needs them, the same way other artists who came before me blessed me with their creations – some of which probably saved my life.

I’m not driven by stardom or fortune; I’d like to be able to raise a family one day without worrying how I’m going to feed it, but that’s all I really ask.  I’m not concerned with being famous or having people identify me on the street; I’m terribly introverted and talking to people is usually the most exciting (and mildly terrifying) part of day.  What I want is to be able to pay forward the gifts I have been blessed with – both my creativity and the impact that the creativity of others has had on my life – without starving on a street corner.

Or maybe it is our suffering that makes society happy and we're really just the next generation of sad clowns but no one's told us yet.

Or maybe it’s our suffering that makes society happy and we’re really just the next generation of sad clowns but no one’s told us yet.

Maybe I have a bit of a flower-child mentality.  Perhaps the world just doesn’t operate on words like “love” and “beauty” and “goodness.”  We live in a society that runs on words like “profit” and “sales” and “marketability.”  I recognize that my set of words doesn’t fit so neatly with our cultural vocabulary, and this means that I will have to work way harder than your average bear to survive on my little piece of poetry.  But I’m determined to find a way.

When I get caught up in the numbers and focusing on forcing my art to make money, my art suffers.  But when I just make my music (or knitting or writing) because that’s what I was put on this earth to do, it seems to affect people.  On those days where I’m climbing a mountain rather than just kicking a brick wall, I can visualize where I want my career to be in 10 years as clearly as if it were happening.  It’s almost like a vision.  I can see myself on stage, playing music that I wrote to be powerful and emotionally impactful – not marketable – to a crowd of people who are moved by what I create, not how I look or how short my shorts are.

I think this dream might be where the music industry is headed as a whole.  Maybe it’s a ways off or maybe it’s only the rosiest possible outcome, but I’d like to think that it’s at least where my little slice of the pie is headed.  I have to believe that that vision is the top of the mountain, and that I will find a way to reach it.  I firmly believe that I can build a career off of good music rather than good looks, a career founded on truly touching people rather than writing the next scientifically-proven-to-get-stuck-in-your-head flash-in-the-pan.

I just have to keep climbing that mountain.

At least it's a beautiful view.

At least it’s a beautiful view.

Do You Think I’m Sexy?

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who’s both an incredibly talented musician and a brilliant music-business mind.  Sipping small-batch beers and shouting over a live band, he patiently listened to my frustration over being someone with a strong artistic background but limited business knowledge trying to launch a career where I have to somehow deliver great art while performing all the functions that would have been carried out by an entire team of people 20 years ago.  I’ve found it incredibly difficult and often feel like I’m running into a brick wall, especially when it comes to booking gigs and serving as my own promotions person.

As an independent artist himself, my friend said he had found similar struggles, but observed that male artists definitely had a leg up when it came to booking and promoting themselves.  Throughout his career, he has worked with other artists in a business capacity and found that female musicians, regardless of their quality, got fewer responses from venues and publications.  Even as a male artist, he had observed the glass ceiling that women come up against in this industry.

I found it to be sort a relief to hear someone – especially a man – make this observation.  In college, I found many (though not, by any means, all) of my male peers denying how bad gender equality is on our field.  When more than 70% of your classmates are having a totally different experience in the workforce than you, it can make you feel a little crazy, so it was great to hear my friend say “Yes, this exists and it’s a problem.”  In addition, it took some of the pressure off my art.  It’s not that my product is necessarily bad or worse than anyone else’s, it just might not be getting heard at all because my boobs block the sound waves from reaching people’s ears.

Pictured: Boobs

Pictured: Boobs

Stupid boobs.

Working all on my own, it was easy to forget how my gender might be affecting my career.  There’s no one to remind me about it.  I don’t get emails back from the people I’m contacting saying “Sorry, but boobs;” I just don’t get emails back at all.  I’m not saying this is purely because of my gender; I’m young and unpolished and often entirely unsure about what I should be doing.  But, considering the experiences I had that initially led me to stop playing jazz in restaurants, it’s not hard to believe that there’s gender bias at play.

My friend made another interesting observation: women need to make a choice about how they will use their sensuality in their careers.  Does the artist embrace her role as sex object or completely reject it?  Everyone approaches it differently and there are shades of gray between sex-pot and asexual androgyne.  But it’s something I hadn’t really thought about in regards to my career and it’s something male artists don’t have to consider to progress (though their physical appearance can play a role in their careers as well).

Though perhaps not to the same extent.

Though perhaps not to the same extent.

Carrie Underwood

Part of why I’ve ignored the question for so long is because I don’t look at myself as a sex object.  I look at myself as a whole person and I, perhaps naively, assume that’s how other people see me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fit, healthy twenty-three-year-old woman and whether or not I look like a model, some people will find me attractive if only on the basis of my youth and everything that goes along with it – and I’m aware of this fact.  But it isn’t how I define myself.  If someone were to ask me to describe myself in a few words, “woman” might break the top five, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor would I consider it something that directly impacts the quality of my art.

One of the things that drives me nuts about the current state of music and the music industry is how quality often comes second to image or a quick but short lived profit.  Since the advent of television and the music video, there has been an understandable push towards more attractive artists, but – maybe I’m an old-soul – I yearn for the days of when it was more about the sound and the live performance than pretty faces and tiny waists.  As more and more consumers get their music from Youtube and other online video sharing sites, we’ll likely continue to see being physically attractive play a major role in getting your sound – no matter how good or bad – heard.  And I’ll buy in a bit and put on makeup because you can’t totally buck something as massive as a format shift.

Sorry, hipsters who are sure tape is going to come roaring back into style.

Sorry, hipsters who are sure tape is going to come roaring back into style any day now.

But having my gender – which has no effect on format or sound (other than males and females having different vocal tracts) or the quality of my writing and performance – impact my career trajectory is ridiculous.  The only significant impact my sex should have on my career is if I decide to stay at home to raise kids in 10 years.  I don’t want to be evaluated differently than my male peers.

With that in mind, I’m making the decision that I don’t really care if you think I’m sexy.  I didn’t study the art of seduction nor was I a pageant girl growing up.  I studied music, how to write it and how to perform it.  I can read sheet music in one key while playing it in another; I can hear a song on the radio and transcribe it in full; I can sing in styles from classical to jazz to rock and roll to country (with the twang and all); and not one of those things is affected by how sexy or female I am.  When you hear my music or see me perform, I want you to notice these things and judge me based on my abilities.  If you’re distracted by how sexy or androgynous you find me, that’ll be your own problem.

There’s a terrible trope that female musicians don’t sell as well as their male counterparts.  There are power-players on Music Row still spouting this idiotic piece of folklore.  If there is any truth to the rumor, maybe that’s because labels are attempting to sell sex to people who are trying to buy music.

So if you’re looking to buy music, I’m your girl.  If you’re looking to buy sex, try PornHub rather than Spotify.

This was in Times Square.  We are truly a bastion of culture and sophistication here in America.

This was in Times Square. We are truly a bastion of culture and sophistication here in America.