Owing to an overuse injury that has curtailed my running, I find myself gravitating toward my other main avocation, the drums, in order to maintain my sanity. These two things are at opposite ends of the spectrum: one is all about fitness, the other, skill. In the past couple of weeks I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself. I’d like to invite other Sciblings and readers to consider joining in with their own self-experimenting and report back their initial findings and then again weeks or months down the road. This could be interesting.
It all has to do with the body asymmetry of fine motor motion. That is, can your right side do what your left can, particularly when it comes to coordinated patterns? If not, what is the experience of trying to get them to match and how long does it take? For that matter, does an increase in proficiency in one task produce gains in others? Allow me to explain. Many musical instruments are constructed and played in an asymmetrical manner. A standard right-handed guitar, for example, requires fretting with the left hand and picking with the right. Some are more symmetric than others. For example, a piano does not demand entirely different functions of the hands like the guitar, yet, something as simple as an ascending scale requires different finger motions between the left and right hands (basically mirror image, so a descending scale would sort of flip motions between the hands). If you don’t play an instrument, don’t worry; I’ve got some non-music things for you to consider, so hang in there.
My instrument of choice is the drum kit. This is usually very asymmetrical. More than most instruments, drum kits are highly individual in layout. For a typical right hander though, the right foot controls the bass (or kick) drum and the left foot controls the hi-hat pedal (a pair of cymbals that close together when you depress the pedal). The snare drum is center, between the legs. Tom-toms are usually arranged with a small unit directly in front or slightly to the left, and increasing in diameter as they move to the right (completely backwards to a piano or keyboard percussion like a marimba, which makes me crazy). The ride cymbal is usually to the right with the hi-hat to the left. Crash cymbals (for accents) are arranged in the remaining spaces. There many, many variations such as dual kick drums and hi-hats, multiple sets of toms, etc., but they all tend to be very asymmetrical. Partly this is due to the physical size of the drums themselves (a small tom is 6″ while a large floor tom is 18″), and partly it’s due to the history of the instrument. There are some notable exceptions to this asymmetry, Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes and King Crimson) being a prime example. (The link shows layouts of all of Bill’s kits from the late 60’s on, so it’s a good visual to accompany the descriptions above.)
I play electronic drums and that means that no matter the pitch or sound, the “drum” is always the same size (it’s a rubber pad that sends a trigger signal to a sampled drum “brain” which produces the appropriate sounds). Because of this, I can arrange my kit in any manner I choose without worrying about size versus pitch constraints. So, I have a very odd kit. It is highly symmetrical. My hi-hat pad is directly in front of my snare pad. There are three tom pads on either side and they are tuned in descending fashion from the center out. I did this initially because I get to avoid the standard “hi hat crossover” motion. Normally, the right hand will play a fixed pattern on the hi-hat which places the right arm in front of the body. The left hand typically plays the snare, but with the right arm in front, it minimizes where the left hand can go. By placing the hi-hat in the center, greater access is achieved and both hands can reach the hi-hat with equal ease. Because it’s electronic instead of mechanical, the hi-hat pedal is completely decoupled from the hi-hat pad so it doesn’t have to be directly underneath.
I’ve had my kit set up like this for some time now and I have noticed that there are some movements I can make clockwise that are not so easy counter-clockwise. I didn’t think too much of this at first, but recently, other asymmetries have started to jump out at me. You see, the standard kit almost requires certain patterns of movement so you never really have to do the exact mirror image. When you set things up to do the reverse, suddenly, you become Mr. Spastic. It’s almost like taking a time trip backwards to when you first picked up the instrument.
I’ll talk a bit more specifically about my experiences in another installment, but to get things rolling, try the following:
1. If you’re a musician, try playing your instrument in a mirror image manner. For example, some electronic keyboards allow you to reset key assignments, so try flipping the high keys to the left and the low keys to the right, as if you were reaching over the keyboard from the back. If you’re a guitarist, try restringing it upside-down leftie (fretting with the normal picking hand). You get the idea.
2. If you don’t play an instrument, try printing with your non-dominant hand, or (this can be very wacky) try printing with your dominant hand using a reverse motion with mirror image letters. I suggest printing as it will be easier to assess. I tried this about twenty years ago, and after several weeks of practice, some strange things began to happen.
No matter what activity you choose, practice it each day and note your progress. It may be helpful to alternate the activity while practicing (i.e., doing it the normal way and then the mirror way, repeatedly).
Drummers are in a unique position here as they tend to think of each limb as independent (or at least they try to; ask any beginning drummer about their “independence” if you want to hear some swearing). Thus, if you’re a drummer, you can try switching patterns top to bottom as well as side-to-side (like playing a paradiddle with your feet). Don’t know what a paradiddle is? Stay tuned. You will, and it’s something all of you non-drummers can try.