Are all Colorado Symphony stringed instrument musicians right-handed, or must they play that way to avoid bumping into their neighbor?

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John Daley/CPR News
Basil Vendryes, principal viola with the Colorado Symphony, seen here attempting to play the way he normally would not. His left hand is his dominant hand.

There are 50 string musicians in the Colorado Symphony, according to its website. They are the people who bow the violin, viola, cello and bass. And when they perform, those bows move busily in perfect synchronization.

Mark Berzins and his wife, Margaret, were at a show at the Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Performing Arts Complex when he noticed the harmony of movement. He remembers thinking, “Hold it! No one is going the other direction. Everyone is rowing on the same side of the boat.”

So he asked CPR: Are all of the CSO string-section musicians right-handed? Or must they play that way to avoid bumping into their neighbor?

“My older two daughters are both lefties, and my younger two, my son and my youngest daughter, are both righties,” Berzins said. He’s right-handed, and his wife Margaret is left-handed. “We're 50-50 distributed.”

“It's statistically impossible that everyone in this orchestra is right-handed that plays a string instrument,” Berzins said.

To answer the question, Colorado Symphony communications director Nick Dobreff enlisted some musicians to meet me at the DCPA. They brought their instruments.

John Daley/CPR News
Yumi Hwang-Williams, the concertmaster with the Colorado Symphony, plays a sweet serenade for 6-month-old Aria, the daughter of the symphony's communications director. Her right hand is her dominant hand.

And Nick brought his adorable 6-month-old, Aria. Before starting the interview, the musicians started a song.

Aria was transfixed.

“That was special, you got your own personal serenade!” Dobreff said.

Yumi Hwang-Williams, the symphony’s concertmaster was there. Among many duties, she coordinates the strings. She’s right-handed.

Basil Vendryes is principal viola. He’s not.

“I believe that I was born left-handed,” he said. “I grew up in a Catholic household where the nuns made you change over to being right-handed.”

Catherine Beeson is assistant principal viola and is “strong left-hand. I mean, a little bit ambidextrous, because you have to get through life. But born left-handed.”

But they all play with their right hand controlling the bow as it moves across the strings. The position of the fingers of their left hand determines the notes.

Why? That’s how they all learned.

John Daley/CPR News
Three members of the Colorado Symphony at the Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver's Center for the Performing Arts. From the left, Yumi Hwang-Williams, the symphony's concertmaster, Catherine Beeson, assistant principal viola, and Basil Vendryes, principal viola.

Vendryes said when you walk into a school music class they don’t ask if you’re left-handed or right-handed “and hand you an instrument made in the opposite fashion. I mean, it really has nothing to do with being left-handed or right-handed.”

“That's how it was always built,” Hwang-Williams said.

It has to do with the way instruments evolved over time. “Our instruments are built internally to be played by a right-handed person,” she said.

Luthiers, the people who make stringed instruments, have made them that way for centuries. “If you actually wanted to play left-handed, you must take the entire instrument apart and reconfigure everything the opposite way internally,” Hwang-Williams said with a laugh. “It's like having to move your organs to the wrong side.”

Of course, an instrument can be custom-built the other way around. Like left-handed Paul McCartney’s bass.

Vendreys says it’s rare but some lefties bow with that hand. Famous Austrian violinist Rudolph Kolisch played left-handed after an injury when he was young to fingers on his right hand.

“I don't believe he ever did play right-handed,” said Vendreys.

As we talked, the musicians attempted to play the other way, that is with their left hand bowing and right hand on the strings.

Squawk! Rrreeerrttt! It sounded about like you’d expect.

”I can't even, I haven't had enough coffee,” Vendreys laughed. “I feel like a 5-year-old.”

Research estimates roughly one in 10 people are left-handed. But, viola player Beeson said the whole conversation needs a rethink.

“There are left-handed people and right-handed people everywhere doing left-handed and right-handed things,” she said.

Think baseball with its switch-hitters, who can bat from either side of home plate. Or take snowboarding where riders often carve turns opposite of their natural stance.

Playing an instrument is not really a one-handed activity, said Beeson. Consider piano players.

“No one asks piano players if it's a deficit that they're left-handed, they're still using both of their hands,” she said.

A symphony performance, with everyone in sync, bowing in the same direction, is really a clear display of both group coordination and individual ambidexterity.

Amanda Tipton
Colorado Symphony's string musicians perform in this file photo.

“You actually really need to be ambidextrous to play the violin, the piano, all these instruments,” said Hwang-Williams, adding musicians spend their careers fine-tuning that skill. “The coordination, effort of the left and the right, is our lifelong pursuit and mastery of that.”

While the fingers on the left hand have to be precisely placed to play the proper notes, Vendreys said, properly using the bow hand takes skill and nuance.

“Our volume control, our tonal control all takes place with the bow. And frankly, it requires much longer to master,” he said. “We have to spend more time thinking about what we do with the bow than what we do with the left hand.”

“I do play my instrument left-handed,” Beeson said. “I use my left hand on the fingerboard, like every other person, the left-handed and right-handed people, and I use my right hand on the bow, and that is me playing left-handed.”

Makes sense.

By the way, I typed this story with both hands, even though I am right-handed.

The next chance to see Colorado Symphony musicians playing stringed instruments, with both hands, is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Red Rocks, with Al Green and special guest Keb' Mo'.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the full name of the Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.