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Handedness in Concert Band Instruments

Handedness in Concert Band Instruments

Ed Dumas

About 85 percent of the human population is right-handed, and about 15 percent of the population is left-handed. With the vast majority of the population being right-handed, it is no surprise that society has mostly catered to that large group, and expects others to adapt accordingly. While this might be unfair, it has certainly been consistent over the centuries.

In the last 20-30 years, though, it has been more common in the education system to adapt the parameters surrounding left-handed students so that the students themselves have fewer personal adaptations to make. We want them to be more comfortable living in a world built for right-handedness.

For example, as a heavily right-handed young student, I was astounded to realize that it makes way more sense for left-handed students to write on the opposite side of a sheet of paper. By doing this, when a binder is open and laid flat on a desk, the left-handed student does not have to reach across the rings of the binder which would cause a significant impediment to effective printing. Printing on the left side of the rings solves that problem for left-handed students.

At the same time, though, other adaptions just cannot be made. For example, as a right-handed student printing from left to right, my hand leads my printing across the page so that my hand does not block out what I have just written. This allows me to see my printing better while creating it. But, allowing a left-handed student to print from right to left for the same reason is not acceptable. The trouble now would be that if 15% of the population were to print everything from right to left, 85% of the population would not be able to read it! As a result, catering to handedness has its limits.

The same is true of musical instruments. All of our musical instruments in a concert band program were built to be played the same way. Students in their rush to adapt everything to accommodate handedness often miss the point that all of our musical instruments are played with two hands doing independent jobs, and “switching hands” is just not a solution that works for most instruments. I will run through some of the peculiarities of the various band instruments so that students and parents have a better idea of what to watch for and what is possible.

Much of the discussion of handedness on wind instruments began with the guitar, which is not even used in our concert band classes. Even from the early days of Rock and Roll, left-handed guitarists have been wanting to use the left hand to strum over the open hole while using the right hand to form chords on the neck. While this is possible by just “turning the guitar over” to the other side to play it, the guitar really should be restrung to put the order of the strings correct once again. Even doing that, though, is insufficient for purists who would suggest that the saddle and possibly the nut should be reversed to correct the string heights as well. Then comes the discussion about the pickguard, if there is one, which is now on the wrong side of the tone hole. Finally, if there is a cutaway on the body this has now been placed where it no longer helps in making the upper pitches more accessible.

The real solution is to purchase a left-handed guitar, which manufacturers have begun doing decades ago. By completely reversing everything on the guitar, there is no longer a problem of “adaptations” when playing guitar left-handed.

Unfortunately, the solution for left-handed wind instrument players is not nearly as simple. For example, the flute played “flipped over” will end up with multiple issues which make it unplayable. There will be numerous pinky keys (those played with the pinkies) that cannot be reached, and the lip plate on the flute head will now be mounted upside down, making the creation of a tone nearly impossible. Thankfully few flute students have ever tried doing that for me, except for a small group who were just confused on the first days.

Clarinet, though, has not been so fortunate. Many players have demanded to play clarinet with the right hand on top because “I am right-handed.” This is kind of a reverse left-handed argument which ignores the challenges later on. The challenges of playing this way include again pinky keys that are unreachable, but now also include some others like knuckle keys that cannot be reached. By taking out a clarinet and showing to beginning students that it must be played with both hands, which includes the right hand on the lower tone holes, that argument usually goes away. But, I remember one time having to justify to a principal why a clarinet cannot be played reverse when a student complained! It was one of those moments when the principal realized without words why these instruments are best left to specialists.

The trouble of reversing hands for clarinet is very much the same for saxes. Thankfully, I have never had a student request to play sax with the right hand on top, unlike numerous clarinet students. I did, though, one time have a very talented young man as a joke learn to play sax by reversing his hands. This was just a great source of comedy for him, as he never played this way normally. We all loved it, mostly because it was so incredibly awkward to watch, and yet he still managed it!

I have had a few trumpet players ask to play the instrument using their left hand on the valves. Once I explained to them, though, that this means that the valve triggers are not activated since the right hand has trouble reaching them, usually, that request disappears. I have though, seen one left-handed trumpet player in university. He played this way because he was an amputee and he had a hook on his right hand which he used on the second slide to hold the horn up while he played with his left hand. The triggers were still unused in this scenario. The part of this solution that always mildly irritated me was that as a player he was still better than me!

Now, if I have had students insisting on playing trumpet with the left hand, which it is not built for, I would suggest that they consider French Horn which uses the left hand on the valves. The right hand of the horn player, though, is still used by shaping the notes inside the bell of the instrument. But at least in the beginning, this can maybe solve a left-handed issue for brass.

The thing about French Horn that most young players do not realize is that the instrument was developed as a right-handed instrument. This is because, before the invention of valves in 1814, the French Horn players changed pitches by using the right hand in the bell to shape the notes. By opening and closing off the bell with their right hand, the players were able to adjust the pitches to some degree. When valves were then added, it just seemed obvious to put them where they were available to the other hand not currently in use, which was the left hand!

As a trumpet player, I have spent some little time on French Horn and have not found it difficult to adapt to left-handed valves. This instrument, then, could be useful to help those students who insist on beginning on a “left-handed” brass instrument, but still is a right-handed instrument.

The trombone is the one instrument of all the winds that could be truly reversed to be played with the left hand. When assembling the two halves of the instrument, the student could flip the slide over to the other side of the bell. The student would then use the right hand to hold the instrument, and the left hand to manipulate the slide. Surprisingly, I have rarely had any students ask about doing this, and none followed up when I explained the ramifications of doing it this way.

Imagine in your mind that you are watching a symphony orchestra perform. Watch the violin players, and notice how they all move the bow up and down in precise same movements. Often violin 1 and violin 2 parts will move independently, but rarely will all the violin 1 parts be not moving together as one unit. If one or more players are out of sync with the section, the section leader will surely have something to say later about bow movements!

Now imagine that one player who is a left-handed violinist and has re-strung the violin to be played correctly with the left hand on the bow and the right hand on the neck of the violin. Now imagine that bow moving up and down in opposite directions to the rest of the violin section! That player then has huge space issues which are necessary to avoid bow crashes with other players, as well as the reverse action being a huge distraction to the audience. For that reason, left- handed violin players rarely, or never, get contracts with a professional orchestra, which is their “bread and butter” work.

Now imagine the same scenario with a left-handed trombone player. While it is technically possible, there is a bit more of a demand for space and there is still the confusion issue for the audience. But, the biggest issue comes in advancing onto a trombone with an F attachment which later many experienced trombone players want to do. This attachment goes on the upper bell part of the trombone and is played by the thumb of the left hand.

These triggers are not available to the right hand when you are a left-handed trombone player. If you “flip around” a trigger trombone, the build of that F attachment will be such that your right-hand thumb cannot activate it. Being a left-handed player means that you are likely destined to never step up away from the basic trombone to either a trigger horn or a bass trombone. This has now limited your progress as a musician before you have even started.

Now when it comes to low brass and playing left-handed, these instruments are usually just a complete non-starter. Due to the size of euphoniums and tubas, these instruments are made so that the valves are accessible to the right hand when the mouthpiece is played in position. The valves are just not accessible to the left hand, which means in my career no one has ever asked to try. Interestingly, just as French Horn played with the left hand on the valves, I don’t think this has been a handicap for left-handed students wanting to play low brass and needing to use their right hand.

Now, I have suggested one other solution for students that are strongly left- handed and just refuse to play a “right-handed” instrument. For these students, I have often suggested going into percussion which is a musical world that demands equal use of both hands on two sticks or mallets.

Interestingly, the handedness problem still shows up in percussion, but in a different way. Here students sometimes insist that they use only one hand when playing a percussion instrument, and are reluctant to develop the other hand to become equal to the strong hand. For example, I have seen countless numbers of students holding two sticks at a snare drum while only one moves to make all of the strikes on the instrument. The same is true and maybe even more common when playing the xylophone with two mallets.

Students going into percussion, whether left-handed or right-handed, need to understand that percussion requires both hands and that their job is to develop the other hand to become equal and alternating. Failing to do that means they cannot be a percussionist, as they will never be able to keep up with the demands of the job in future years.

By now it should be evident to parents and students that all band instruments were built to be “right-handed.” The better truth, though, is that they are built to be played with both hands doing fairly independent jobs and whether right- or left-handed, students will need to master tasks for either hand to succeed as a musician. Whether right or left-handed, starting with the strong or weak hand creates little difference when it comes to mastering tasks for both hands.

Manufacturers also do not create “left-handed” or reverse versions of wind instruments, as they just cannot be built to any kind of economy of scale. They become just too expensive to custom build a horn in a mirror image! There are a few options available such as trombone or percussion, but students should be well aware of the ramifications of these choices before making them.

In the end, I would suggest to students and parents to ignore handedness and consider what instrument the student has his or her heart set upon to learn. Then, begin to learn that instrument conventionally, and be thankful for whatever strengths your “handedness” has given you, while also being mindful of developing your other hand to match.

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