Make a list of the requirements for playing the violin, and the first few items are pretty obvious. Love of music, a good ear, dedication - check, check, check.
What about two good arms? Now that's where you want to be careful about jumping to conclusions.
Sophia Hummell confounds any glib assumptions about what is and isn't possible on the musical front. The spirited 18-year-old San Francisco native was born without a full right arm, but she's been playing the violin since the fourth grade.
She makes it look easy, too. The key is a specially designed prosthetic - what Hummell calls her "violin arm" - that attaches to the short stub of her arm with a suction device, while a mechanical grip on the other end is attached to the bow.
The result is an apparatus that has allowed Hummell to keep pace with her fiddling peers. She plays in string quartets and in the chamber orchestra of the Villa Sinfonia Foundation, a nonprofit run by violinists Lynn and Roy Oakley. With the orchestra, she's performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and played the national anthem for a Giants game, and just last month she was the soloist in one movement of a Vivaldi concerto at the orchestra's annual concert.
To spend any time with Hummell is to encounter a young woman who seems to simply breeze past whatever obstacles life may throw her way. Though she has a variety of prosthetic arms for different activities, she says she feels most at home without any of them - using one hand, along with the occasional teeth and toes, to negotiate the world.
She took to music as a first-grader at the San Francisco Waldorf School, where music is a required subject for all students. She began with the recorder, using a special English model playable with just one hand.
But by the fourth grade, inspired by a childhood friend, she had set her sights on the violin. So she consulted with James Caywood, an upper-extremity specialist with Hanger Prosthetics who had worked with Hummell since she was an infant.
"I told him what I wanted, and he said, 'Well, let's experiment,' " Hummell recalled. "You can't go to a store and try on a prosthetic like a shoe. Every one is custom made."
The first model was rudimentary, not much more than a long rod to attach to a violin bow. But over the years the two of them, working in conjunction with Hummell's violin teacher, Julie Smolin, have developed an increasingly sophisticated mechanism.
"I've had a number of children who wanted to play the violin," Caywood said. "And of course a lot of children start playing an instrument and then get tired and quit. But Sophia has been a wonderful kid, and she's kept with it.
"Now that she's become more of an aggressive player, we've had to specialize it just for her needs. We had to get the forearm piece to the proper length, and work on the attachment to hold the bow. It's been a long process to get to where she is right now."
Hummell also works with the San Francisco instrument maker and dealer Roland Feller to customize a range of bows for her use.
"At this point I have six bows," she said, "including a viola bow, a cello bow and a heavy violin bow. The cello bow is heavier, and it gives me more sound, so I used that for my solo. But it's harder to control. For orchestra playing I use a violin bow."
A senior at Oakland's Bayhill High School, Hummell is in the throes of the college application process. She's applying to a number of local colleges and universities ("I want to be able to come home on the weekends") and plans to study psychology so she can work counseling amputees.
Each summer she spends a week at Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp, a camp for teenage amputees from around the country.
"It's like any summer camp. We swim, canoe, play soccer and basketball - also wheelchair rugby. But we also have a mutual understanding because we're all amputees."
In many ways, the life of a one-armed violinist is like that of any other - there are scales and arpeggios to be practiced, music to memorize, dynamics and phrasing to settle on and internalize.
But there are unique aspects to it as well. The placement of the bow on the strings is harder to control, and pizzicato passages - the plucked notes that violinists execute with the bow hand - need to be done with the left hand.
On the other hand, Hummell says, she doesn't have to worry about the proper technique for holding the bow. There are screws to take care of that - which can cause problems of their own.
"Last year, right before we played at the Giants game, the bow holder got stripped and one of the metal pieces wouldn't work. I had to run all over the place trying to find a screwdriver.
"Now wherever I go, I carry all my screwdrivers with me, in case anything falls off. That's the bad thing about prosthetics - with your hand, at least you don't have to worry about parts suddenly falling off."
Saturday, January 7, 2012
San Francisco Chronicle:
Posted by BA Haller at 8:36 PM