The creation of the world's first left-handed piano may also be helpful in brain research
DALYA ALBERGE writes:
The left hand, so often relegated to the accompanying chords and subservient to the melody being played by the right hand, would come into its own with the instrument. Mr Seed plans a complete mirror-image of an early 19th-century fortepiano: the highest notes will begin on the left and the lowest ones will be found on the right. The pedals will be reversed and,if playing with an orchestra, the soloist will be facing the other side, to ensure that his left hand and the lid are facing the right way. Musical scores do not have to be re-written because the treble clef will be played with the left hand. The fingering even remains the same.
Christopher Seed at an ordinary piano. His design for left-handers is based on a mirror-image of the fortepiano Mr Seed,who is left-handed, proved that it could work by programming his electronic keyboard. "I realised how easy it is to adapt. I thought it would take years to retrain, but within a day I was reading Mozart backwards. It improved my playing and seemed so natural." Mr Seed, 32, has given recitals at the Wigmore Hall and St.John's, Smith Square. He teaches at Winchester College.
In most piano repertoires, he explained, the proportion of right-hand notes to left- hand ones was unbalanced. He has long avoided Chopin and Mozart for that reason. He said his design could also be useful for right-handed players who wanted to strengthen their left hand.
Peter Dickinson, professor of music at Goldsmiths college, University of London, said the idea was "revolutionary. He said music was generally "written with the right hand dominant", apart from ragtime and certain kinds of jazz.
Stanley Sadie, editor of The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, said assessing which composers and performers had been left-handed was difficult: many may have suppressed their natural preference because being left-handed was long considered sinister. But C.P.E. Bach was a likely candidate, judging by an oblique reference by his father J.S.Bach, to his son having to strengthen his right hand.
This maestro invented the left-handed piano
KOCHI, October 13, 2012
Christopher Seed, credited with making the world’s first left-handed piano for southpaws, is in Kochi as the examiner from the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, London.
On Friday, he evaluated the performance of music students at the Kalabhavan Academy, an approved international examination centre for ABRSM that conducts graded music examinations.
On his first visit to India, the 13th country he’s setting foot in this year, the celebrated left-handed pianist and music composer says he divides his time between evaluating students’ music performance besides composing and performing music.
Early this year, he toured Germany, Switzerland and the Far East performing for three months and as he goes back after a month-long tour of the State conducting music examinations, he will have a music composing tour.
Mr. Seed confesses to thoroughly enjoying his role as an examiner as it helps him see divergent approaches to playing music in different countries. “The students here are polite and conduct themselves well in examinations, which is a holistic exercise,” he says.
The exams range from Grade-I to the fairly advanced Grade-VIII and comprise theory as well as practical where students’ knowledge of keys, dynamics of play, ability to comprehend a musical piece not known to them, impromptu playing skills and aural abilities are tested.
A graduate of the Royal School of Music, Mr. Seed offered his first professional concert at St. John’s Smith Square, London, in 1990 and went on to give solo recitals at several festivals.
In 1997, he hogged the limelight by commissioning Dutch firm Poletti and Tuinman Fortepiano Makers to build the world’s first left-handed piano as a mirror image of the 19th century fortepiano.
Being a lefty, he had difficulty playing the conventional piano, as the melody would be submerged by the accompanying piece.
So he reversed the keys with high notes on the left moving down in pitch to the right. The lid of the light-weight left-handed piano opens from the opposite side and the pedals are reversed, too. Its popularity and acceptance has been such that German piano making giant Blüthner has begun making it now.
The pianist also plays the violin, cello, clarinet and saxophone. He’s never been exposed to Indian music, but the other day in Kochi Mr. Seed met a music therapist and picked up some useful lessons on the ragas. “There should be more musical interaction between the West and the East,” he says.
The Reversed Musicians
by Desiree Ho | April 10th, 2013
Left-handedness does not only affect one’s writing, it can also bring about problems when playing music. The truth is that most instruments are designed for right-handed people, making lefties seem disadvantaged in comparison. However, the elasticity of the human brain has proven that these challenges can be overcome with hard work and discipline.
Jimi Hendrix was known for playing a right-handed guitar with his left hand. It is said that his father forced him to play right-handed because left-handed playing was believed to be a sign of the devil. Hendrix thus took right-handed guitars and restrung them for left-handed playing, and would only play right handed when his father was around. Similarly, blind singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu plays a right hand-strung guitar left-handed because it was hard to find a left-handed guitar.
While left-handed guitarists are not uncommon, the reverse seems to be true when it comes to the violin. Ryan Thomson, author of the world’s first book on playing the violin left-handed, was originally right-handed. However in 1990 he developed focal dystonia, a neurological condition that affected the muscles in his right shoulder and arm. Although initially overwhelmed with frustration and depression, Thomson defied over 400 years of tradition by converting his violin to a left-handed one and teaching himself to bow with his left hand instead of his right. In overcoming this disability, he discovered that left-handed musicians are usually forced to play right handed by their teachers, making him literally the one and only left-handed violinist at the time.
In discovering that many lefties achieve faster progress by following their natural inclinations to bow left-handed, Thomson became one of the first violinists to give students the choice of playing with their dominant hand. The left-handed violin is generally constructed as a mirror image of a right-handed violin. He reflects that teachers who allow their students to play with their dominant hand tend to experience better progress. As a result of learning the instrument twice, he has not only helped many lefties improve their playing, he has also inspired many righties with disabilities to regain their love for music. “To know that sometimes you can make yourself a happier person by moving forward in a different direction than what you can formally do…hopefully other folks will be able to find ways that they can regain and learn some new skills or find new ways of doing something that they used to be able formally do well and bring some happiness into their lives,” he says. Lefties may have to fight for the right to play left-handed, however, as they may seem out of place in an orchestra.
Paul Wittgenstein (1887- 1961) was an Austrian-born pianist who commissioned new piano concerti for the left hand alone, after his right arm was amputated during the First World War. However, he and other similar left-handed pianists still resorted to playing the traditional piano designed primarily for righties. What if the piano was changed to suit lefties instead?
British pianist Christopher Seed thought of this. As a natural leftie, he recognised that his left hand had greater power and agility and would logically be better suited for playing the melody. This was especially since most piano music, such as those by Chopin and Mozart, are characterized by an imbalance of left and right-hand notes. Thus in 1997, he commissioned the Dutch firm Poletti and Tuinman Fortepiano Makers to build him the world’s first left-handed piano. A complete mirror-image of a 19th century fortepiano, the high notes begin on the left and move down in pitch towards the right. The lid likewise opens from the opposite side, and the pedals are reversed. He says he can now play more of the melodic and elaborate parts with his dominant hand. Not only does this give him a physical advantage, he also claims it is a more instinctive way of playing. The instrument has since received widespread media and public interest, and was exhibited at the International Early Music Festivals in Bruges (1998) and London (2001).
In order to test Seed’s theory about left-handed playing, Laeng and Park carried out a study to see whether a group of left-handers, approaching the piano for the first time, would show better performance in playing a reversed keyboard. Although they did perform better, it was also found that the observed preference of naive left-handers for the reversed keyboard can in fact disappear with a few years of practice on a normal keyboard. This initial preference shown by left-handers also appeared to be specific for this handedness group, as right-handers were found to perform better with the regular keyboard regardless of experience. Based on these results, it was hypothesised that left-handers would encounter considerable frustration in learning the “right-handed” piano. However, an informal demographic study of piano students enrolling at a music school did not reveal a substantially low prevalence of left-handed pianists.
Does this mean that reversing the instrument is in fact of little artistic value? To answer this question, Jäncke et al used functional magnetic imaging techniques and neuropsychological test to study a young male musician (CS) who performs at a professional level on both the regular and reversed keyboard (it is probably easy to guess who CS is). It was reported that CS was left-handed with left dominance for language, but displayed right dominance for the control of piano playing for both keyboards. With respect to music perception, CS showed left-sided activation dominance within the left superior temporal sulcus, which is associated with higher order auditory processing. The results suggested that CS’s pattern of functional asymmetry could be a factor in his exceptional piano-playing ability on both keyboards.
Music is a thing we can neither see, touch, nor smell, but we talk as though it were a feast for the senses. Chords can be dark, and arpeggios bright; melodic lines are smooth or jagged; we talk of Debussy's watercolour landscapes, and of Dmitri Hvorostovsky's smoky tones. All lies, and all absolutely integral to our pleasure.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do our minds fill music's sensory void with metaphor. But music can at least be high or low, can't it? No, because that too is a metaphor. The relative "height" of a note depends on the frequency of its vibration, and has nothing to do with its situation in space.
Moreover, this high-low notion, when expressed in terms of a keyboard, brings in its train another idea to which we are just as firmly wedded. Low-to-high means left-to-right: while the left hand growls, the right hand sings. Well, surely that goes without saying!
Oh no it doesn't. And to prove it is a man with a piano whose keyboard ascends from right to left. Chris Seed is a left-hander, and he's just created the world's first left-handed piano, out of sheer frustration. "At the Royal College of Music my tutors were always saying `If only your right hand were as good as your left.' My right was clumsier, which meant I had to shy off Chopin and the Romantics - the music I most wanted to play."
Two years ago he tried a computerised keyboard in a mirror image of the normal pattern. He found he adjusted to it remarkably quickly, so decided to commission the building of a real-life instrument - a replica of an 1826 Graf fortepiano - along similar lines. "People told me I was mad, but I knew it was a good idea."
Just how good an idea it was emerged recently when he took his Graf to a period-instrument fair in Bruges, where left-handers fell on it with delight. He noted that Oriental players were particularly adept at it, right-handers as well as left. "Maybe it's because they're already used to making this kind of adjustment, having to read at home in the opposite direction."
Making the change, he says, has fundamentally altered his perception of certain pieces of music, a discovery that may have interesting implications for right-brain/left-brain research. Meanwhile, psychologists at the Royal Holloway College are devising a project - based on Seed and his seedlings - to examine the way that old habits affect our acquisition of new skills, and also the way these new skills may in turn affect the old habits.
There is a celebrated ocular precedent for what Seed is doing. What we see is printed upside-down on the retina,but our brains interpret it as the right way up. When people are experimentally given glasses that automatically invert the image, they spend three days in ocular confusion before their brain can readjust. When the glasses are taken off, they stumble about again until their brain reverts to the original adjustment.
It took Seed two weeks to make his initial adjustment, and when he plays a conventional instrument he must consciously switch modes, but he now plays as comfortably in both directions. But he is not a typical case, whereas I most certainly am, and when I try to pick out a simple tune on the Graf I feel as though I'm going mad. After a few minutes I discover it's easier with my eyes shut, but the thing still seems deeply weird.
Seed laughs: his eight-year-old son, who is also a left-hander, apparently plays in both directions, as do his left-handed pupils at Winchester College where he teaches one day a week. Will this invention make him rich? "I doubt it. I looked into the patent situation, but was told I couldn't own rights because the thing has no new parts. I'm just the pilot for an idea."
On the other hand, he has patented a simple midi adaptor (available from Loughborough Projects, 01509 262 042) which will invert any electronic keyboard. This, I guess, could be a morale-booster for young left-handers. Next Thursday he will give a recital on his Graf at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin. This will be a triple coming- out - for the left-handed concept, for the rare Graf replica, and for himself as a pianist. Yes, he admits, the evening will have a lot riding on it.