I’ve locked myself out of my apartment with my key in my hand. I’ve been defeated by a simple doorknob. I’ve head-butted dates instead of kissing them. For most of my life, this has been chalked up to simple clumsiness. But lately I’m realizing that it has less to do with clumsiness and more to do with me being left-handed and the entire ef-ing world being backwards.
You know when there’s a door that opens the wrong way and it really annoys you? That’s all doors for me. For the first time ever I’m dating a fellow lefty and – although we’re not always the most graceful couple – I have had significantly fewer accidental injuries than in previous left-right relationships.
In addition to this, picking up the bodhrán was the first time I was allowed to play an instrument left-handed – and I went from not playing at all to playing at an advanced level in the space of about 3 months. Some of this is because I’ve slogged through learning instruments before. Some of it’s because I’ve had years of musical training. A lot of it, though, is being allowed to play with my proper damned hand. (I refuse to say “right” hand; that word is no longer a synonym for correct in my lexicon.)
Throughout my life, I’ve learned to do things right-handed or ambidextrously, with decreasing difficulty as I’ve gotten older. I’m not one of those writes-lefty-but-does-everything-else-righty left-handers; I’m a write-all-my-letter-E’s-backwards-can’t-hardly-point-with-my-right-hand left-hander. A lot of things have been more challenging because of this, but when I mentioned the struggle I was going through growing up, adults shot me down. Right-handers couldn’t relate and assumed I was making excuses. Left-handers of my mother’s generation were just happy not to be doused in holy water and forced to use their right hand, so most that I’ve encountered have a pretty strong grin-and-bear-it mentality.
Where this difficulty hit me the hardest was learning instruments. Although people will argue that guitar favors the left or that piano favors neither, I’d like to raise the point that that’s complete horse-shit. Unless your shredding, once you place your left hand on the guitar it remains relatively stable. Your right, on the other hand, is expected to either hold a steady and consistent rhythm or perform the constant fine motor movements involved in finger picking. In Western music (and pretty much every style of music I’m familiar with) the melody of focus is normally concentrated in the treble. This probably has to do with the fact that human hearing is most sensitive within the frequency range of human speech – usually the treble. On the piano – while the melody may switch between ranges and hands – the more complex movement is most commonly in the right hand. This, coupled with the fact that I visualize most things flipped to a right-to-left progression rather than a left-to-right one (likely from years of adapting instructions so that I could actually accomplish my task), made learning piano very frustrating.
Even more frustrating was the response I got from teachers when I brought up my challenges. I was making excuses. I wasn’t practicing enough. I wasn’t committed enough. I didn’t try hard enough. This really stung and frankly discouraged me from pursuing it further. By the time I entered college, I truly believed I just lacked the ability to learn an instrument. I gave up on myself. I wasn’t talented or maybe I was lazy and didn’t realize it.
It took until I was twenty-one and picked up a round instrument for the first time to realize this was not the case. I could use it any way I wanted to. When I started bodhrán lessons, I asked the teacher if it was ok that I play lefty. He looked at me like I had two heads. “Why not?” My world was suddenly opened. I had managed to become proficiently mediocre at both piano and guitar, but I could only imagine how much farther and faster my skills would have developed had another teacher said “why not?”
Learning an instrument that fast and that naturally made me realize that the problem wasn’t my ability to learn or play, it was that I was trying to learn on an instrument that was upside-down and backwards. 90% of the world is righty, so it stands to reason that so are instruments. Why else would so many talented Southpaw musicians (McCartney and Hendrix just to name two) play with lefty instruments or inverted right-handed ones? Why else does a left-handed kid instinctively flip a guitar over the first time you hand it to her?A fellow lefty (and female!) bodhrán here in Nashville is also an accomplished French horn player, perhaps the only genuinely left-handed instrument in common use. There are a lot of things that make it arguably the most challenging instrument in the brass section, some of those shared by other members of it’s family. But one of the most cited reasons that people struggle with the horn is its left-hand bias.
Right-handed musicians are allowed to call this “hard.” When I struggle with a righty instrument as a lefty, I’m “lazy” or making up excuses to get out of practicing. You wouldn’t ask a right-handed player to play with their instrument upside-down, so why do we so casually demand it of lefties?
I’m not saying that aspiring lefty musicians shouldn’t learn to play righty. Although it took me some time, I’m actually glad I learned to play guitar right-handed, though the option would have been nice. I can pick up any instrument at anytime and don’t need to restring it. But what could I have been if I were allowed to learn it the way that felt most natural for me? I’m not the first Southpaw I know to muse on this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.
If you’re teaching a lefty, I cannot emphasize what a disservice you are doing them if you don’t acknowledge the added challenge they have. It extends beyond neural pathways; our musculature is notably different from that of a righty by the time we hit preschool. We are overcoming some hurdles to play an instrument in a “conventional” manner. When a teacher denies this and blames the student, it is demoralizing and discouraging. In my case, it turned me away from learning altogether. It took me until college to pick up instruments again and it was still hard as hell. A disproportionate number of left-handers are drawn to instruments, so many that the music school I attended actually provided lefty desks – and occasionally didn’t have enough in a classroom. Use this enthusiasm rather than stifle it. Support them through what may be a slower or more difficult learning curve.
It’s often hard to see just how difficult everyday tasks can be for a Southpaw, so I can understand how teachers can make assumptions. We figure out how to use right-handed tools (ever try using a can-opener backwards? Trust a lefty, it sucks), we drive stick-shifts, and don’t complain about it much. But that’s just it: we have to take the added time to figure it out. (Also we die seven years younger on average, largely do to how shitty we are with right handed machinery and tools; so maybe we don’t drive stick.)
Please, try to use your can opener backwards and then imagine what a left-handed student is dealing with. A little sympathy, a little understanding, maybe even the option to play lefty, and you could be teaching the next Jimi Hendrix. They will likely be one of your most driven and enthusiastic students if you give them the chance.
As for me, I plan to get a lefty guitar one day. I love my righty Martin and I will continue to play “conventionally” but I’d love to finally stretch my legs and run crazy on an instrument. I’ll let you know how it goes.
P.S.: Check out my lefty bodhrán playing in my last blog here.