Watch: Can you conduct left-handed?

Lesson #2 in Leonard Slatkin’s how-to-conduct series.

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  • Glenn Gould was planning a career as a conductor (studio only, of course). The last thing he did before his death was recording Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (available on CD) and Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto (not completed). Gould was left-handed, even conducting. He was also left-footed. I had the pleasure of being a passenger in his car when I noticed he was using his left foot on the accelerator.

  • I’ve known a few conductors who are left-handed, but have never seen a conductor who holds the baton in his left hand. From the very short example here, it seems like it would only take a few minutes to get used to it.

  • As mentioned above there’s Paavo Berglund, Donald Runnicles, and … me!

    Martyn Brabbins convinced me to switch back in 2011. I took a bit of getting used to and some re-computing but I haven’t looked back. In fact, Norman, I’m sure you’ve seen me conduct southpaw in Norma at Holland Park in 2014.

  • Elmer Bernstein, the respected Hollywood film composer, as a guest conductor during my tenure with the Richmond (VA) Symphony, announced before the initial downbeat at the first rehearsal to not be surprised by his “southpaw” conducting. No problem, cowboy music still was performed “left to right.”

  • I personally find left-handed conducting gauche.

    At least we don’t have as many sinister conductors these days….

  • When Paavo Berglund was guest-conducting our orchestra, it was actually rather confusing at times. When meter of a piece keeps changing from 3 beats to 4 and back, one looks for the direction of the second beat to feel comfortable where we are in the music, but his second beat when in 3 looked the way it usually looks when in 4 — and vice versa obviously. This was quite unsettling and not so easy to get used to.

    • I suppose it’s a matter of adjustment; when I see a “normal” conductor now I’m so used to thinking of the patterns in the reverse it seems a bit jarring at first but quickly get used to it. Interestingly, a lot of soloists tell me it’s great to work with a southpaw cos they can more clearly.

      • How “quickly”? When a guest conductor comes to a busy orchestra and has three or at best four rehearsals to prepare a full program, there is virtually no extra time available to spend on getting used to disturbingly confusing beating patterns that are diametrically opposite of those one has been seeing and living with for many years.

  • Paavo Berglund, Wolfgang Goennenwein, and OF COURSE the amazing Donald Runnicles! All fantastic left-hand conductors! I do NOT force my students to conduct with the right hand — as a left-handed conductor myself, I found that I never could achieve the same precision with the right hand. I do believe there are different kinds of left-handed people, and some might be more ambidextrous than others.

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