About Me

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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Learning to Write with the Non-dominant Hand

I set a number of goals for myself in the past 12 months.  Some were boring jobs around the house.  Others were challenging, such as performing a Bach cello suite, or learning to circular breathe on the flute (more on that soon!).  The most profound exercise turned out to be something that had a practical purpose, and very unexpected results.

As a professor, I sometimes have to write a lot.  I'm a lefty, and my hand gets tired.  I had often considered how helpful it would be to be able to write with my right hand, so that I could switch back and forth.  Early attempts were illegible and frustrating, so I had basically given up.  At the end of May, I decided that it was time to get serious.

Repurposed cigar box and cursive template
I started very slowly, trying to copy the block-printing style that I use with my left hand.  I've been printing since middle school, basically because my cursive was messy and I got a lot of criticism, from one teacher in particular.  As I relearned with my right hand, I realized that developing a different style of cursive was going to be easier than simply trying to copy my left-handed style.  Pens like to be pulled, not pushed.  As a lefty, it is challenging to get a good flow of ink because you are always pushing the pen away from the hand and towards the right side of the paper.  A typical lefty solution is "over-writing," where the hand curls above the pen.  In this way, the pen can be pulled back towards the hand.  The downside to this technique is that it puts the hand in an uncomfortable position and it can be fatiguing.  With the right hand, one can simply pull the pen towards the hand and flow to the edge of the paper - at least if you happen to be writing in a western language, of course!

So, I decided to learn a new-to-me style of cursive with my right hand.  I went back to the old penmanship charts that grade school children use, but I didn't really like the way some of those letters looked.  I figured that, if I was going to do this, I should develop a font that I really like.  I was starting from scratch anyway, so why not really go for it.  In short order, I found myself looking at all sorts of calligraphy.  I've never been a big fan of gothic writing.  I much prefer the less formal handwriting of the 18th century.  Soon, I found myself with a flex nib fountain pen, trying to copy handwriting samples of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even John Hancock's eponymous "John Hancock."  I also ended up looking at an 18th century manual for the self-taught gentleman, George Fisher's The Instructor.

A modified "Italian Hand" based on The Instructor

After several months of daily practice, I'm thrilled with the results.  I'm not sure how practical it will be to write comment sheets in 18th century calligraphy, but I've developed a skill that is also a hobby.  I've also felt some neurological and physical benefits from this practice.  On the saxophone, I have always struggled with the weakness of my right hand, at least when compared to my left.  The work with handwriting has given me noticeable increases in strength and dexterity with my non-dominant hand.  This was totally unexpected, but a very welcome side effect!

If I can learn to do this, anyone can.  Penmanship was an area where I was clearly designated as untalented.  With slow, daily practice, I have turned a weakness into a strength.  The experience makes me think about other weaknesses, and how I could find novel ways of turning them into strengths by harnessing the power of the Practice Monster.


  1. This really is a great "practice monster" example! Love it :)

  2. Hey, how's the circular breathing on the flute coming along?

    1. Needs more practice! (working on it)