For many pianists, being left-handed is just right

List of legends: Being a southpaw hasn't hurt musicians, and some experts see it as an advantage.

Left-handed pianists have no such options, nor apparently need them.

Considering that about 10 percent of the general population is left-handed, the number of celebrated southpaw classical pianists is wildly out of proportion. It's a trend akin to U.S. presidents, where six of the past dozen have been left-handed —- Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and President-elect Barack Obama.

Like pianists, from Beethoven, who may have been left-handed, on down, the mystery hasn't yet been unraveled. If you know your famous pianists, the list is a who's who, from 20th-century legends Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould to today's keyboard masters Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Leif Ove Andsnes, Steven Blier, Richard Goode, Helene Grimaud ... and many more.

Nevertheless, our language perpetuates the soft bigotry of low expectations, and worse. "Dexterity" and "adroit" come from the Latin and French words for "right," while "sinister" and "gauche" are derived from "left."

Dancing with two left feet? Left-handed compliments? No thanks.

Yet for pianists, "being left-handed has always been an advantage," says pianist Russell Young, who spends most of his time at the keyboard as director of Kennesaw State University's opera and music theater program.

"You read music from the bottom up on the printed page," he says. "Once you have the bassline down you get a more solid idea of the foundation and chord patterns, since the top lines [for right hand] are often more free-form melody."

Young also suspects that lefties have a learning advantage. All piano students must overcome the two hands' resistance to work separately; by having to work harder on what's essentially a right-handed instrument, the neurons of left-handed pianists get an extra workout and thus grow stronger.

French pianist Grimaud doesn't have her own theories, but she says she feels a deep affinity for the harmonically and chordally rich music of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninoff —- composers she feels certain were left-handed. (Most pianists agree that piano music by Schubert and Chopin favors the right hand. Mozart feels perfectly ambidextrous.)

Samuel Wang, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton and co-author of "Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys But Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life," says the prevalence of lefties among top pianists is expected. In an e-mail interview, he reasons that playing at that level is "extremely demanding, and any advantage, however small, would lead to overrepresentation."

He explains it like this: "Pianists must coordinate the activity of both [brain] hemispheres, since each hemisphere is responsible for a separate hand."

It might be akin to language skills. "One out of seven left-handers represent language on both sides of the brain. That's in contrast to one out of 20 right-handers," he says.

"The advantage of having twice as much [brain] real estate for handling language could account for verbally gifted southpaws —- Clinton and Obama come to mind" —- and maybe virtuoso pianists.

There's also the poorly understood matter of creativity. Left-handers typically score higher on IQ tests and for nonstandard methods of problem solving. Called "divergent thinking," this might be a factor among pianists and artists in all fields.

Thinking differently —- not right or wrong, just different —- has always been a familiar concept to conductor Donald Runnicles.

When he was growing up in Scotland, Runnicles' teachers often noted his mildly unconventional ways of doing things and answering questions. Holding a pencil and a tennis racket in his left hand, he found that the one activity where both hands felt equally strong was at the piano. His early career was at the keyboard, as an opera coach in Germany.

"I benefited from the fact that I never went to conducting school," says Runnicles, today one of the few international maestros to hold the baton in his left hand. "If I'd taken courses, they would have likely forced a switch from my left to my right. Thirty years ago, I was told I'd encounter difficulties, but I never even tried it. I acted like I never knew there'd be a problem."

The Atlanta Symphony's principal guest conductor will make an infrequent appearance as a pianist Feb. 8, joining the Georgian Chamber Players at Spivey Hall. "It's the hard-earned achievement that propels originality and power among left-handed pianists," he says. "The instrument's difficulty isn't something to overcome, it's part of the reason for success."

Without apology, Runnicles even reseats the ASO musicians on stage, with the cellos and basses at center left. In the Woodruff Arts Center's acoustically arid Symphony Hall, this seating arrangement seems to better direct the sound toward the audience.

"I seat the ASO so I have the power of the bass in my dominant hand, as it were. It's a left-handed pianist's correlation."

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