Playing Left-Handed: A Pianist’s Journey

Despite being told she'd never play again, Lisa Spector didn't give up on her music
June 23, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020

Much like surgeons, musicians’ livelihoods depend on their hands; the dexterity required to perform beautiful, moving music requires healthy, strong, flexible fingers. Tragically, when musicians severely injure their fingers and hands, they often give up their instrument altogether. But Lisa Spector, a professional pianist from Half Moon Bay, California, learned to adapt and kept on playing following her own traumatic accident.

The piano has been a lifelong love. From the first moment she first heard her mother play, Spector was hooked.

“I just heard these sounds coming out, and it was like a magnet to my fingers,” said Spector, who has been playing since she was seven.

Spector took to piano quickly, eventually attending Juilliard before receiving her graduate degree from the University of Southern California. She has fond memories of playing both domestically and abroad during her 35-year professional career.

A Young Pianist

On her 17th birthday, Spector won a local concerto competition and had the opportunity to play at a three-night concert with a 3,000-strong audience. In her early 20s, she won both the New York and Los Angeles Chopin competitions in graduate school. She also had the opportunity to play abroad in China, Poland, Spain, France, and Italy.

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Lisa Spector has been playing piano since she was seven years old. (Courtesy of Farha Akhtar)

In Spain she was able to visit the place on the island of Mallorca where composer Chopin wrote much of his music. She also had the chance to perform with an orchestra in China in 1994 in front of 23,000 people.

“It was like an extravaganza where I brought four gowns, and I had costume changes. I had a bodyguard because I was swarmed on stage afterwards, not because of my name, but just because I was American. At that time, that was novel. That was new to them, so that definitely stood out as an unusual experience,” Spector recalled.

In 1997, Spector became an entrepreneur and opened her own music school. She taught students ages 4 to 94, and had a faculty that taught a variety of instruments. During the same time, she was creating music to relieve anxiety in dogs. For a while she found herself juggling too many projects at once and her concert career took a back seat.

It would be years before a traumatic accident drove her to return to performing.

The Fall

On June 27, 2017, Spector was walking outside of a shopping mall when she tripped over a curb. She was holding a water bottle in her right hand, and the way she fell crushed her right hand and fingers. The fall happened so rapidly that she thought her fingers had fallen off.

“How am I ever going to play piano again?” was the first thought that went through Spector’s mind after falling.

During surgery, doctors discovered she had seven complex fractures in her right hand and fingers. Her first hand therapist told her she would never play the piano again. However, she learned to become her own health advocate and underwent a variety of both Western and Eastern therapies.

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Lisa Spector has been playing professionally for 35 years. (Courtesy of Photogra-V)

Sometime during the six weeks after her surgery, Spector started to learn how to play short pieces with her left hand if only to keep her passion alive. She was at a party, and someone asked her to play. She played a short prelude with her left hand, and someone approached her after she finished.

A guitarist with tears in his eyes told her that he hadn’t touched his instrument in three years because of arthritis in one of his fingers. He told her that watching her play with her left hand only made him realize he didn’t have any excuses and told her he was going to pick up the guitar again.

“That was so memorable because that really provided the impetus for my theme that I’ve created to just ‘play on.’ Play on no matter what because you just never know who’s going to be affected and how it’s going to change their life,” Spector said.

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Lisa Spector smiles during a performance. (Courtesy of Photogra-V)

Spector soon discovered that half of injured musicians give up their instruments, and was determined to make music any way she could.

“That’s when I realized it only looks like I play piano with my fingers. I really make music with my heart,” she said.

Adapting

Playing with only her left hand came with a variety of challenges. She had trouble maintaining her balance. For the first several months, the left side of her body ached; she was building strength but had to take breaks frequently. She was no longer able to use the middle C note on the keyboard as a reference point, so it was easy to find herself in the wrong octave.

Normally, one would play the melody with the right hand, but Spector was now forced to play both the melody and the harmony with her left hand. The experience made her realize that she might not become a better technician, but she knew she’d become a better musician.

“So I’d had some very challenging, fun, creative music challenges, and I believe that alone has really made me a better musician because it’s caused me to listen to myself more creatively,” Spector said.

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Lisa Spector bows before an audience. (Courtesy of Photogra-V)

As she had different casts removed and replaced, she gradually began playing with her available right fingers. She continues to work on her right hand and has learned how to adapt her technique for certain pieces of music. The transition back to playing with both hands has been euphoric for Spector.

“It was a high. It was the best high in the world,” she said.

Now Spector is in the middle of self-editing her memoir “Left Hand Lemonade: A Musician’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph.” She’s also currently performing a live concert series on Facebook entitled “Left Hand Lemonade Live With Lisa Spector,” which features a reading from her memoir and left-handed, right-handed, and ambidextrous piano playing, at 6 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday nights. The live concerts have been met with tremendously positive responses.

“You hold our hearts while you play,” one viewer commented. “Your concert was the best thing I’ve seen since the crisis began. I was in tears at several points,” said another.

“The comments I’m getting are so wonderful because they’re all about how much I’m inspiring people, and I’m telling my stories of resilience at a time where it’s really helping people,” Spector said.