As I mentioned recently, I’ve been having a lot of thumb pain when holding my shakuhachi. At first, I thought it was just a repetitive stress injury and tendonitis, but as it seemed more likely to be arthritis in my right thumb, I decided to try changing hands; to learn to play with the right hand on top.
While this doesn’t seem common, I have seen photos of some shakuhachi players with their right hands on the top of the flute. It makes sense to have your dominant hand on the bottom, in part because there seem to be more need for quicker movements there (such as when playing koro koro), and it makes more sense to have the dominant arm holding the shakuhachi against gravity.
Here’s a photo of Yokoyama Katsuya, playing with the right hand on top (photo from the KSK website):
When I started trying to play with my hands in the opposite position, it was very strange; similar to what I felt when I started driving in the UK, on the wrong side of the road. This is all about muscle memory, which really has little to do with muscles, and is mostly a question of the brain developing familiarity with movements. It took a few months, admittedly, not playing every day, or playing very long, in part because I needed to acclimate muscles in my left hand and arm.
But at one point a couple of weeks ago, it clicked. I got to that stage were I no longer had to think about what my hands and fingers were doing. There are still some notes that are difficult to play – tsu no meri, and ha-ro, for example – but for the most part, I’ve crossed over the bridge to playing left handed.
So if you do have pain, which can be exacerbated by overuse of the dominant hand – if, for example, you have “smartphone thumb” – it is possible to make the switch, but it takes time. I’m convinced that the time necessary has little to do with how much you actually play, but that the brain needs to settle into the idea that the hands are held in the opposite position.