DIY Neuro-Motor Experiments: When the Left Hand Knows What the Right is Doing

In previous installments in the DIY NME series, I've looked at the application of symmetrical motor patterns using the drum kit. For this entry, the approach is a little different and says something about "handedness" as well. A few months ago I rearranged my semi-symmetrical drum kit into what I call the super symmetrical kit. The original semi-sym kit offered a centered hi-hat and three toms on each side, decreasing in pitch from front-center to rear. The remaining cymbals were arranged in a more-or-less typical configuration for a right-hander (ride to the right, crashes arrayed as desired, but split evenly on left and right sides). Here is photo of the new super-sym kit (either the wide-angle wasn't quite wide enough or the ceiling wasn't high enough to get the whole thing):


The super-sym kit features three cymbals on each side arranged as mirror-images. Closest to center are the ride cymbals. Next to these are general purpose cymbals (usually splash cymbals), and above and between them are traditional crash with china/swish (china on the edge trigger and traditional on the bow). The foot pedals are similarly arrayed with kick pedals to the outside and hi-hat to the inside. The heights, tilts, angular offsets from center, and sizes of the drums and cymbals are matched as closely as possible given the limits of the rack (sizes are identical with positions usually within a couple of centimeters). The only glaring rule-breaker is the pole trigger off to the left of the snare which is used for cross-stick sounds. It is worth noting that this configuration would be practically impossible to achieve without electronic pads. Trying to configure an acoustic kit like this would be a nightmare.

What's the point? Well, the idea was to see just how much difference there is between playing right handed versus left-handed with immediate feedback. With this configuration I can immediately switch sticking patterns from left to right and back. Part of this was to also see how long it might take to achieve balance (let's call it "player comfort") between the two sides, and further, to see if that could improve other aspects of playing. Well, here's what I found:

The first thing I discovered was that my left hand/arm had a difficult time sustaining a reasonably quick eighth note ride (sixteenths quite difficult). The problem was that leftie was very stiff and there was no counterbalance from rightie as is the case with a roll. It was as if my arm was fighting itself, like all the nerve impulses were saying "contract!" at the same time. Of course, contracting opposing muscles at the same time doesn't produce very much in the way of fluid motion! Meanwhile, rightie was having problems hitting grace notes around the downbeat. At this point, I was restricted to playing only the most straightforward rock and roll. Within a matter of days there was a distinct improvement. Leftie was getting less tired on the ride. I'm positive that this had little too do with the conditioning of the muscles and everything to do with more efficient coordination (i.e. nerve impulse firing). There simply wasn't enough time for the muscles to undergo a sizable improvement in aerobic conditioning to account for what I was experiencing. As the striking became more fluid I would attempt patterns instead of just knocking straight time. Still, rightie was none too good at doing much more than hammering the downbeat. I would try to play something that I had played many times before, but it never came out properly. Then I hit upon a little trick. First I would play a couple measures right-handed and then I would attempt to immediately copy that left-handed. I would go back and forth, over and over, just a measure or two at a time. This actually made me think about what I was doing right-handed (rather than just doing it reflexively), and pretty soon I could translate the movement to left-handed sticking.

Over the course of a month or so, playing left-handed became more natural. A couple of interesting and unexpected things also cropped up. First, I discovered that I was more adept doing certain things left-handed than right-handed. This makes some sense in that, as a right-handed person, rightie is better at making both complex and fine movements than leftie. If leftie is now knocking straight time (e.g. unbroken eighth or sixteenth notes), rightie is free to do something "interesting", something that leftie might find a tad too complex. The trick here was to get leftie relaxed and fluid enough that it could be put on "auto-pilot" (I don't know how else to describe this to non-musicians, but to a drummer, the ideal situation would be to have four brains, one for each limb and each capable of acting independently of the others. At some point, you can start a limb going and sort of forget about it while you do other things elsewhere.) The second cool thing was that I now had two ride cymbals to expand my palette. I generally set the left ride to a different sound and added a chain or rivet effect. This means that I could use these different sounds to great effect on any given tune or series of tunes. I could also use them together to create unique patterns along with unusual sticking. And, quite by accident, I discovered that sometimes a ride makes a nicer accent than a crash (when you're used to a certain cymbal at a specific location always being a crash, it takes some time to remember that it's a ride now, so accidental "crashes" will occur on the ride).

Right-handed and left-handed playing are by no means equal right now, although left-handed is clearly much improved (and occasionally superior), and within the space of only a few months. At the same time, right-handed playing has improved due to a better sense of balance. All in all, it is a good and very worthwhile exercise. I have no intention of going back to a traditional layout or even my former semi-sym kit.

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Those aren't drums and cymbals. What the hell are those things!?

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 03 Nov 2007 #permalink

The pads are made by Roland (PD-7 and PD-8 for toms and HH plus a PD-9 for snare). The cymbals are CY-12, CY-5 and CY-8 front to rear (also Roland). The HH pedals are Roland. The kick pedals are about 20 years old and no longer made (the best I have ever played). The pole trigger is made by Pintech (it's called a "Nimrod"). The main sound module is a Roland TD-20 with a TD-7 being used to handle extra trigger channels. There is also an ancient Roland Octapad 8 pad unit off to the right side (just a tiny corner is visible) which feeds an E-Mu Procussion sound module.

Pads don't feel quite like real drums (more like practice pads), but after a while you get used to them. My touch has gotten much lighter over the years and I haven't played my acoustic kit in decades.