On the other hand

Dec. 1, 2017, 9:13 a.m. | By Emma Markus | 4 years, 8 months ago

Violinist prodigy, Nicole Frank, doesn't let a hand deformity stop her from achieving her dreams

Freshman Nicole Frank takes ambidextrousness to a completely new level. Frank is such a skilled violinist that you wouldn't notice the difference between her left hand and that of the other violinists in Blair's Symphonic Orchestra at first glance. However, Frank was born with very short fingers, often referred to as "nubbins," on her left hand. "Many people tell me they look like toes," Frank says.

Most violinists hold the neck of their instrument in their right hand and the bow in their left, but Frank's left hand is unable to grasp the bow.

This means that Frank is not able to play a standard violin- even though she has tried. In fact, Frank distinctly recalls at age seven, a friend endearingly offering up her own right-handed violin and attempting to teach Frank how to play in the basement. While these lessons were never very successful, Frank's parents noticed her interest in the instrument and bought Frank a violin of her own.

At this time, Frank's family was living in Chicago, where they found a teacher who had previously helped a cellist with a similar issue, so she was familiar with the accommodations that Frank needed. Her teacher flipped the bridge of Frank's violin and reversed the order of the strings. She also carved away the groove of the chin rest so that it was flat for Frank to hold.

Due to the slightly unconventional nature of her violin, her technique varies from the common positioning. "My bow grip is not the same as everybody else's," Frank clarifies as she demonstrates how she holds her bow more like a clamp, while other violinists spread their fingers outward.

The way Frank holds her bow was initially puzzling to her teachers, who are all right handed and not specialized in playing backwards, but they all accepted it when they saw that the technique worked well for her.

Since Frank is a unique case and her teachers, while open to the challenge, are not always sure what to do, "we have to make it up along the way, but it works," Frank explains.

Frank attests that she hasn't had any major difficulties, only minor hiccups, and she keeps good humor about challenges that inevitably arise due to her fingers. "It's mostly just the little things and it's kind of funny," she admits lightheartedly.

Due to her switched arm position, Frank will at times bump arms with the right handed violinists next to her while she is playing. To avoid this, Frank asks fellow violinists to switch places with her at concerts so that she can be on the outside of the group. "Normally when I have a stand partner I just let them know, 'Hey, I play backwards,' so that I can ask them to change seats with me if necessary," Frank says.

Another small issue arises when Frank is in a larger orchestra or class with other students. The orchestra teacher will often tell the students to work on right hand technique or left hand technique and Frank is left wondering whether her teacher really means her right hand or if he means her left hand, because her violin is backwards.

Another part of her improvisational learning style means that sometimes Frank's teachers will want to show her something new, but aren't sure if she will be able to do it.

This question came up when Frank was learning to play staccato, a bow style which involves bouncing the bow slightly off the string and applying meticulous pressure to various regions of the hand. "My teacher didn't know if I would be able to do staccato or other off-the-string techniques," Frank recalls. Frank explains that her teacher knows the necessary pressure to apply in order to bounce the bow by feeling the pressure of the bow through her forefingers and was therefore unsure if Nicole would be able to do this without feeling in her forefingers. Not knowing if their efforts would be fruitful, Frank and her teacher decided to just go for it. They worked at it for a few lessons and eventually Frank was able to master staccato.

Frank has come far since her humble start in her childhood friend's basement. She now plays for the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in Virginia and has done so for the past two years. While Frank is unsure of what exactly her musical future will hold, she says that pursuing violin is a very real and viable possibility.

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