Adrian Anantawan

The hand is artifice; the talent, quite real

Violinist Adrian Anantawan, born without a right hand, will attend Curtis Institute.

Adrian Anantawan, 17, began violin lessons when he was 9 years old. His mother hoped they would help bring some focus to his life.
(Fred Lum/Toronto Globe and Mail)
By Peter Dobrin

It's no miracle that Adrian Anantawan can play the violin.

Although born without a right hand, the 17-year-old Canadian took up the instrument when he was 9. He practices six, seven, even 10 hours a day. And while his anatomy presented obstacles, his mother lavished lessons and special therapy on the boy with the hope that the violin might someday become a nice hobby.

But the violin has turned out to be something more than a hobby. Anantawan has become a real violinist who seems poised for a very real career. After winning various prizes and seats in youth orchestras in his native Canada, he's headed this fall to the Curtis Institute of Music, the Rittenhouse Square school that is arguably the world's most selective and prestigious music conservatory.

"I didn't really expect to go to Curtis this year," the soft-spoken violinist said recently from his home in Mississauga, just west of Toronto. "I was planning to audition this year for the experience and then really go for it next year. So it came as a big surprise when I was accepted."

When Ida Kavafian, the renowned violinist who teaches at the Curtis, heard Anantawan for the first time in live preliminary rounds, she sensed something special. Her hunch was confirmed in the finals.

Kavafian knows of no other violinists without a right hand. She and other members of the Curtis faculty exchanged glances when the tall young man first came out on stage to audition in March. Anantawan wears a prosthetic device that holds his bow, and the Curtis adjudicators hadn't been told that this applicant was any different from the other 80 violinists who had been given the green light this year to audition for Curtis' seven open violin slots.

"I felt that what he had, that some students don't have yet even, was a maturity in music-making, a sensitivity that grabbed me from the beginning," Kavafian said. "I said to Yumi [Ninomiya] Scott [another member of the violin faculty]: 'Wait till you hear the Mozart A Major Concerto [K. 219],' which has this adagio that takes enormous control and very mature musicianship. When he played it, I looked over at her and saw that she was really, really moved by it, and I had to fight back tears because it was so profound, so profoundly beautiful."

Such moments are rare in anyone's audition.

Anantawan was having trouble academically while in the fourth grade when it occurred to his mother that music lessons might bring some focus to his life. She considered drums or perhaps the trumpet. "Too noisy," said Maria Anantawan, a former chemist who emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in 1971. (Her husband, Songsak Anantawan, a graphic designer and printer, arrived from Thailand in 1975.) "The violin was the one he was most adept at without driving the family bonkers." So violin it was.

Anantawan has several prosthetic devices that fit onto the end of his forearm. He has one for swimming, which is shaped like a regular arm. He uses another for weightlifting. For everyday use, he has an artificial arm with metal fingers that react to muscular impulses.

For violin playing, he has a device that has what he calls a spatula at the end that grasps the bow. It can rotate on an angle, so he can manipulate the tone of his Dutch replica of an Italian master Bergonzi violin. He can feel the vibrations of the notes as they travel through the artificial device.

"That is basically all I need," he said. "My left hand is the same as any other violinist."

Maybe better, said his mother, who theorizes that the dexterity in his left hand is more highly developed than in most people since it does twice the work.

Doctors don't know exactly why Anantawan's right arm did not develop normally. They believe that the umbilical cord wrapped itself around his arm, cutting off the blood supply and stunting its growth. He has no right hand, and his forearm is only five inches long. At its tip are very small nubs - would-be fingers.

His arm wasn't the only thing that didn't develop normally. Anantawan didn't learn to talk until he was 3.

"That was a bigger struggle than the hand," his mother said. But after music became a part of his life, his grades improved and he became more highly socialized. Music had freed his sense of expression, she said.

That, perhaps, is what the Curtis audition panel sensed in his playing.

"Expression and musicality come easy to me," said Anantawan, adding that what he hopes to do at Curtis is strengthen his technique and repertoire.

Not having a right hand has presented certain difficulties. He has had trouble using the entire bow. And figuring out how to do pizzicato - a violin technique whereby the strings are plucked, usually with the right hand - was a hurdle. Playing staccato was hard at first, since it uses the lower part of the bow.

But he has found compensations. He has practiced staccato so much, his mother said, that it is now one of his strong points. He has adjusted the placement of the chin rest to change the bow's angle, to use more of it. And he has an attachment for pizzicato, which violinist Kavafian said sounds quite natural.

Kavafian, who along with Scott will teach Anantawan at Curtis, said she will work on getting Anantawan to relax his left hand a bit and introduce him to new repertoire. She will also coach his ability to change the direction of his bow as smoothly as possible; since he does not use all of the bow, he switches from up-bow to down-bow more often than other violinists.

"My main focus with him is going to be to try very, very hard to keep his status at school as much like any other student as possible, so when the novelty of this wears off, everybody will let him settle into a really normal just-another-kid kind of thing. It could happen.

"It'll be important for people to say that he's a wonderful musician and player, and not a wonderful musician and player for not having a right hand."

Anantawan is well aware of the Violinist Without a Right Hand factor. He wants people to judge him for what they hear, not what they see. He already has some promising signs. He was admitted for this summer to the prestigious Meadowmount School of Music, founded by violinist Ivan Galamian, based on the submission of a tape, without the school's knowing anything about what Anantawan calls his "barrier."

But he doesn't underestimate the value of being a role model.

"I hope to show you can achieve things as great as other people. I guess in a way letting people see you as someone who has a challenge is almost a good thing. You're showing them the potential of humanity."

Anantawan and his mother share a rather Zen attitude about his career. Every step he achieves is something to be celebrated in itself. Learning to play the violin was an accomplishment, learning to play it well an even bigger one. His mom calls getting into Curtis a "bonus," and if he becomes a successful soloist, that would fulfill his ultimate goal.

"I could see myself playing in an orchestra or playing chamber music," he said. "Anything in music would be amazing or wonderful."

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is