The case of a left-handed pianist playing a reversed keyboard: A challenge for the neuroscience of music
Lutz Jäncke, Ph.D.
My interest was piqued from the moment I read “left-handed pianist” and “reversed piano” in the article’s subject line. To begin with, I am a left-handed pianist, and furthermore, I had never heard of reversed piano! A brief article summary is in order.
Being left-handed is to be a “rarity”, the author acknowledges. Though I had not thought of myself as such, the statistics presented demonstrate this, especially with respect to earlier generations. Though the causes of handedness are rather unknown and unclear, there are a few accepted solutions; these are genetic factors, and random effects. Handedness is cortically represented with a specific organization of the hand motor areas in the brain; these areas are enlarged contra-lateral to the dominant hand. In musicians, however, the volume of both hemispheres (dominant and non) is larger than in non-musicians, and the size of the hand motor areas is inversely related to the age musical training began. There seems to be a high degree of plasticity in the skill of the subdominant hand, and in the size of the subdominant motor area in young musicians as well.
The article also addresses consequences of being left-handed, specifically, living in a world designed for right-handed individuals (think of power tools and doorknobs). However, the skill of the sub-dominant hand can be further enhanced; in playing instruments, this can be a useful advantage.
The third part of the article examines the challenge of a left-handed musician’s playing a right-handed instrument, namely, the piano, on a professional basis. Initially, a reversed piano would seem as an obvious choice for a left-handed pianist. But that means all current and past left-handed performers would have been performing sub-optimally: Glenn Gould and the adjective sub-par simply cannot be linked! Only left-handed pianists received any benefit at all from the reversed piano; however, many did not prefer this keyboard, especially if they had practised on a “regular” one for years.
Based on the asymmetry of psychological functions, there are several explanations for this preference (or non). Briefly, since lateralization of one function (for example, motor, or language) does not necessarily mean that the other function is relegated to the other hemisphere; often, in fact, many functions are lateralized to one side. To continue with this thought, all the necessary piano-playing functions of playing piano (motor, memory, etc.) could be lateralized to one hemisphere. In the case of the pianist preferring a reversed piano, this would be the right. A reversed-keyboard piano would be highly beneficial for left-handed pianists with right-sided lateralization. The situation would vary depending on one’s degree of hemispheric specialization though.
The idea of playing reversed keyboard, as a pianist, would definitely intrigue me more than seriously interest me. There are very obvious drawbacks. Besides the obvious factor, that is, relearning how to play one’s instrument, there would be practical factors – in competitions and recitals, there is not going to be a separate piano provided! There could be preconceived misconceptions about such an instrument as well, among judges, or even an audience. It could possibly turn a performance more into a “show” than music-making simply because of the novelty.
I think many left-handed pianists, even if in theory they “should” prefer a reversed instrument, would be turned off by the prospect simply because it would seem strange. Having played on a “regular” piano all my life, it would probably present many challenges which I would not want to encounter.
Further, the article alluded to the fact that not all left-handers demonstrate complete right hemispheric specialization. One would need to determine, preferably before investing much time and energy, whether it would be truly beneficial in the long run.
However, this article does present a very interesting case and raises many issues. I know a cellist who is left-handed, and plays the cello “backwards”. He has always done so, and when asked why or how, he states simply that he has always done so and that it is completely natural for him. But I also know left-handed cellists who are quite happy playing the cello in the "standard" way.
Of course, this raises the question - what about pianists (Glenn Gould is foremost in my mind) who were left-handed and yet played a "normal" piano? Would he have been even more successful had his piano had a reversed keyboard? We will likely never know.
I would have liked had the article talked more about the actual pianist for whom this reversed keyboard was so successful. Who was he? is he still alive today? I would be interested in going to such a concert!