One thing I want to dispel immediately is that this is about normal “handedness”. Sure, you can pick up a ball and throw it with your non-dominant hand/arm and experience the sensation of a “chicken-arm”, but that’s not the point under investigation. No, this has more to do with skills that are shared unevenly across the body (or even directionally on a side). Consequently, the attempt at a mirror image action produces sub-par performance in both the dominant and non-dominant sides. Secondly, we expect that repetition of an action will lead to better performance of that action, so repeated performance of the mirror image motion will eventually produce smoother and more efficient motion. This, in turn, raises a few questions: What does it feel like for an expert to be suddenly “thrown backward in time”, performing at the same level as an intermediate of beginner? How long does it take to master the mirror movement and how does the process compare to the original learning? Is this experience in any way comparable to what someone with a mild stroke experiences? Further, does this new learning impact former skills, and if so, positively or negatively?
Allow me to go back some 20-plus years and explain my mirror-image writing experiments. The idea was to print backwards (perfect mirror image) using my dominant hand. As you might guess, initially this was a mess. It required considerable concentration and I often wrote some letters backwards (i.e. in the normal fashion). After a week or so of practicing for about 30 minutes per day, I became relatively at ease and the required concentration dropped. I still made occasional blunders though, specifically, the letter ‘s’ and transposing ‘b’ and ‘d’. After a couple of weeks I was getting pretty good but then I noticed something strange: I would sometimes write letters backwards when writing in the normal fashion (you guessed it, I started transposing ‘b’ and ‘d’ and similar sorts of things). Needless to say, this was a strong impetus to stop the experiment as my job requires a lot of writing.
Jump ahead to the present. New drummers first focus on learning rudiments on the snare drum. These are basic sticking patterns. For example, there’s the five stroke single roll which goes right-left-right-left-right and then left-right-left-right-left. In shorthand: RLRLR LRLRL. You tend to learn these in symmetrical pairs. A double stroke roll would be written like this: RRLLRRLL and so on. One of the first interesting rudiments a drummer learns is the paradiddle: RLRR LRLL. You can hear new drummers practicing this pattern over and over and over trying to get it ever smoother, ever faster, and ever effortless. Always symmetrical and always on the snare drum directly in front of them. Then they move on to the double paradiddle RLRLRR LRLRLL (and I must admit that I typed that as a paradiddle but screwed it up the first time because the L key is to the right of the R key), and other variations. The fun comes when you start applying these rudiments to the drum kit and here’s my major point: Due to the layout of the standard kit there is a tendency to prefer certain sticking patterns because they “work well” with the position of the body relative to the drums. For example, a clockwise (descending pitch) fill is easier to do if you start with the right stick as the right stick “leads the action”. The average drummer never worries about the reverse because the kit is not arranged in such a way as allow moving from the snare in a counter-clockwise direction and that leads to a certain asymmetry of skill.
OK, so as I mentioned in part one, I have a symmetrical kit, so I began to notice some of these things. I began to purposely execute a fill counter-clockwise identical to the one I just did clockwise. Some of it was pretty messy. Then, a few weeks ago, I began to rework some of my rudiments in a “traveling” mode, that is, playing the rudiments across several drums in sequence instead of sticking to the central snare drum. Now I had done this many years ago, but without a symmetric layout at the time, I wasn’t “traveling” both ways (more “to” than “fro”). I began by working single paradiddles across the toms to the left and right in various ways, for example, keeping the single strokes on the snare and moving the double strokes to the toms or vice versa. I tried the same thing with double and triple paradiddles. I was getting better. Then something odd happened: I reached back into memory and tried what I call a paradiddle-diddle (I don’t know if this is the real name, it’s just something I made up many years ago as an exercise). It goes RLRRLLRR LRLLRRLL. Halfway through one cycle I had to stop. I couldn’t do it. Somehow, all of this “symmetrical traveling” screwed up my paradiddle-diddle (and for some reason, that sentence sounds oddly pornographic). It wasn’t like I had forgotten it; it’s one of those little thingies I rip off almost reflexively, but with my focus on this new material, I hadn’t exercised that particular firing pattern in weeks. Perhaps it somehow got co-opted, just like my ‘b’ and ‘d’ of 20 years ago. After a little practice though, it came back, and eventually I’ll add it to the traveling repertoire.
Another interesting thing happened, and that’s that my feet seem better able to make intertwined patterns. I currently play double kick pedals and I plan on picking up a second hi-hat pedal to make a symmetrical foot layout. This will require a little electronic surgery on the part of the hi-hat pedals to get them to function properly, but it’s a simple enough sacrifice for science (and if the patient dies on the table I can always call Roland for another force sensing resistor for four bucks).
I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of possibilities with this and I’ll share some of my mental and physical sensations of “re-learning” and associated thoughts down the road. I remain interested in any experiments or similar experiences you wish to share.