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August 13, 2015

Today, August 13, 2015, is National Left-handers Day. We all know someone who is a lefty. Perhaps athletes come to mind first. Rightfully so, because there have been many.

Fans of the National Football League will call to mind several outstanding quarterbacks. Mark Brunell, Boomer” Esiason, Kenny Stabler, and Steve Young are joined by current players Tim Tebow and Michael Vick. But there were other gridiron greats including Gayle Sayers.

Fans of the National Basketball Association will recall the left-handed talents of Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, Chris Mullen, Sam Perkins, Lenny Wilkins, and a trio of big men who played center – Willis Reed, Bill Russell, and Bill Walton. I cannot leave out Coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell from the basketball list of lefties.

Tennis enthusiasts will remember the left-handed competitive prowess of Jimmy Connors, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, and Monica Seles.

Lefty golfers currently on the Professional Golf Association tour include Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, and Mike Weir.

Boxers on the list of lefties include James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, Marvin Hagler, and Oscar de la Hoya. Other athletes include swimmer Olympian Mark Spitz and soccer great Pelé -Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

In Major League Baseball history the list of left-handers reads like a Hall of Fame lineup dominated by south-paw pitchers. Steve Carlton, Whitey Ford, Lefty Grove, Ron Guidry, Carl Hubbell, Randy Johnson, Tommy John, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, and Fernando Valenzuela all hurled from the first base side of the pitching mound. Position players, many known for their slugging percentage, include lefties Wade Boggs, Mickey Mantle, Lou Brock, Brett Butler, Ty Cobb, Lenny Dykstra, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Reggie Jackson, David Justice, Don Mattingly, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth, Deion Sanders, and Ted Williams. To round out the lineup add managers Casey Stengel, and Tommy Lasorda.

Many left-handed people have excelled in athletics, but so, too, have their left-handed colleagues in other fields of endeavor. Left-handed Authors James Baldwin, Peter Benchley, Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells, Jessamyn West, and Eudora Welty are on the list.

Left-handed musicians include among many others Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Glen Campbell, Natale Cole, Kurt Cobain, Phil Collins, Bela Fleck, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Cole Porter, Lou Rawls, and Paul Simon. Two of the four Beatles are lefties, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. Brothers Don and Phil Everly were both left-handed.

Among artists some of the greatest were left-handed – Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Comedians on the list include Don Adams, Dan Aykroyd , Carol Burnett, George Burns, Charlie Chaplin, George Gobel, Whoopie Goldberg, Howie Mandel, Marcel Marceau, Harpo Marx, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld, and Dick Smothers.

Among actors the list is very long. Some of the more familiar are Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Olivia de Havilland, Robert DeNiro, Richard Dreyfuss, W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Betty Grable, Cary Grant, Mark Hamill, Goldie Hawn, Angelina Jolie, Danny Kaye, Diane Keaton, Nicole Kidman, Michael Landon, Peter Lawford, Cleavon Little, Shirley MacLaine, Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe, Ryan O’Neal, Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Slyvester Stallone, Rod Steiger, Dick Van Dyke, Bruce Willis, Oprah Winfrey, and Joanne Woodward.

Estimates are that somewhere between ten and thirty present of all people are left-handed. It only stands to reason that a number of leaders in all facets of life would be lefties. For example, eight of our forty-four United States Presidents have been left-handed.  They are James A. Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Other notable leaders from this country include Senator Bill Bradley, Benjamin Franklin, Steve Forbes, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Senator Daniel Inouye, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Senator Alan Keyes, Senator John McCain, Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Col. Oliver North, H. Ross Perot, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Hugh Scott, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and Senator Bob Dole.

Left-handers have played a promenade role in world history. Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Napoléon Bonaparte, and Josephine de Beauharnais Were all lefties. King Louis XVI of France was left-handed. Among the British royal family left-handers were common including Queen Victoria, King George II, King George VI, Prince Charles, and Prince William.

Both Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are lefties.

Astronauts Edwin Buzz Aldrin and Wally Schirra are left-handed as were Henry Ford, Helen Keller, and Dr. Albert Schweitzer.

Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, was left-hand dominate.

Interestingly both Jay Leno and David Letterman are reported to be left-handed. So, too, is exercise guru Richard Simmons.

Journalists Dave Barry, Edward R. Murrow, and Ted Koppel are lefties. Brother and sister, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Caroline Kennedy, are on the list.

Attorneys Clarence Darrow, F. Lee Bailey, and Melvin Belli are left-handed, as are several on the other side of the law – John Dillinger, a notorious bank robber, the Boston Strangler, Albert Henry DeSalvo, serial killer Jack-the-Ripper, and John Wesley Hardin, a famed Western gunslinger.

As you can see, there are no small numbers of notable left-handers.

I want to share the story of one remarkable left-hander.

Leon Fleisher, a renowned pianist and conductor, was born in San Francisco.  He started taking piano lessons at age four.  He made his debut at age eight.  At age sixteen, he played with the New York Philharmonic.  He studied with Artur Schnabel. Leon Fleisher was the first American to win the Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition in Belgium.

Fleisher collaborated with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra to record a series of piano concertos from Beethoven and Brahms. He is the only pianist to record all of Beethoven’s concertos.  He gave recitals on the great stages of the world.

In 1964, Fleisher’s illustrious career was interrupted by the onset of Focal Dystonia.  “My right hand turned to stone,” he said.  The fingers of his right hand curled into a permanent fist.  He could no longer play the piano.  To all in the music world it seemed to be a tragedy of major proportions.

Leon Fleisher changed careers.  He became a teacher.  He taught at the Peabody Conservatory and at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Canada.  He has taught master classes in piano in Salsburg, Paris, Jerusalem, New York, Lucerne, and Aspen.  He has taught classical piano to hundreds of students.  His students are faculty members at many of the major schools of music in North America.

While teaching, he developed his skills as a conductor.  In 1973, he became conductor of the Baltimore Symphony.  Since that time, he has been a guest conductor with symphony orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Montreal, Saint Paul, and San Francisco.

Limited to the use of only his left hand, beginning in 1980, Leon Fleisher returned to the piano.  He performed a number of concerts using only a left-handed repertoire.  The American composer, William Bolcom, composed a concerto for two pianos with Fleisher specifically in mind.  In 1994, he was named Instrumentalist of the Year.  He has received numerous honorary doctorates and is the recipient of the Johns Hopkins President’s Medal.

A few years ago, Fleisher began receiving treatments on his clenched right hand.  Using Botox injections and massage therapy, physicians were eventually able to restore to Leon Fleisher use of his right hand.  In 2004, his first two-handed recording in over 40 years was released.  Produced by Vanguard Classics, the album is simply entitled, Two Hands.  It has received worldwide critical acclaim.  Nathaniel Kahn produced a short documentary also entitled, Two Hands which was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Short Subject.  It is the story of the remarkable life of Leon Fleisher.

The life story of Leon Fleisher parallels that of many other people.  His rapid rise to success followed by a debilitating illness might have caused a lesser person to give up.  Instead, Fleisher changed careers, becoming an outstanding teacher and then a conductor.  He continued to make his music even with just his left hand, then modern medicine restored his amazing talent.

Though he is not a left-hander in the usual sense of that term, Leon Fleisher’s determination to overcome an major interruption in his life is inspiring. Here is a video of Fleisher playing to packed stadium a part of the Concerto for the left hand written by Maurice Ravel. Ravel composed 1929 for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I. The video is less than five minutes. A longer version is available on YouTube. You may be amazed as I was.Enjoy.

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