Handedness is the sense that one hand is more dexterous or coordinated compared to the other. Researchers usually determine an individual’s handedness by observing which hand is used to write or eat. Although the causes of handedness are not fully understood, about 10% of the population is left handed or ambidextrous according to Dr. M.K. Holder, a researcher and specialist on handedness.
Many left handed students wonder if they will need a specialized instrument in order to learn to play cello, because string instruments require distinct tasks from each hand. In this article we will look at the construction of left handed cellos and whether a leftie should invest in a specialized instrument.
Cello technique isn’t left or right oriented
Learning to play the cello takes a lot of practice, in part because we need to train our muscles to do things they have never done before. Looking at a cellist with good posture, there is nothing natural about the hand positions. No matter which hand you use to write, it will feel just as awkward as the other hand when you initially pick up the cello.
Our hands have distinct jobs on the cello; the right hand holds the bow and the left presses down the strings. A left handed cello would theoretically flip these tasks, so the leftie could bow with their dominant hand and press the strings with their right hand.
On closer examination, this means the left handed player would be at a disadvantage when playing in this way because the hand pressing the strings is typically required to be more dexterous. Why do right handed players not flip the cello, since the right hand is generally more dexterous in about 90% of the population? Because as stated above, it really does not matter which hand is dominant; both hands need to learn something entirely new on the cello.
Cellos are designed according to standard posture
Although cello technique isn’t left or right oriented, the instrument itself is built to achieve a balanced sound and support the unequal tension across the strings.
- Because the C string is thicker than the A string, it naturally needs more room to vibrate. This is why many fingerboards are carved with a sharp drop under the C string.
- The sound post is also placed specifically on the left side, to balance the unequal range of vibrations across the instrument’s range. This ensures that one string isn’t louder or more bright than the other strings.
- Most importantly, the front of the instrument has a bass bar on the right side to help distribute the C string weight vertically.
For these reasons, it would be dangerous to simply switch the strings from the standard ADGC format to CGDA in order to flip the instrument. The unequal weight on the left side will negatively impact not only the sound, but the structural integrity of your cello.
Are there any left handed cellos designed for flipped posture?
Some luthiers have designed cellos with the body reversed, made specifically for flipped playing. These cellos are very uncommon, and should be reserved for players with physical limitations such as missing fingers on the left hand. If you are renting or purchasing your first instrument, go for a standard cello. One of these cellos was owned by Charlie Chaplin, though he noted “as for the cello, I could pose well with it but that’s about all.”
Downsides to left handed cellos
Every orchestra plays with standard posture. This means if you do decide to play on a left handed cello, you won’t be able to perform with an orchestra. Orchestras use a blind audition process, in which a panel of judges (usually the principal cellist, personnel director, and/or the conductor) hears the cellist without seeing them. This has led to more equitable representation of women and BIPOC in professional orchestras because their talent is measured before their racial or gender identity.
However, after the blind portion is concluded there is typically an interview or face-to-face audition in which the panel can observe how you play, to determine if you will be a good performer on stage. At this point, a left handed cello would immediately be out of the running for an orchestral position. A huge part of playing in a professional orchestra is following the section and contributing to its unity, and if you are bowing the opposite direction (or bowing correctly but sitting in the opposite orientation like Mr. Chaplin) you will be a distraction.
It is more common for those with reversed cello posture to play in small ensembles, such as string quartets and folk bands. In fact, a left handed cello might be a good selling point for the group to stand out. But as a leftie and beginner cellist, it’s more important to have a good teacher and dedication to practice than it is to have a specialized instrument.