Thursday, March 08, 2012

On "open-handed" drumming

Fine, now spend another hundred
years learning to do it almost
as well with your left hand.
This is a discussion I have to re-litigate- helplessly, predictably- on the Drummerworld forum every six months or so: the "open handed" thing. That is, playing the hihat with your left hand to avoid the crossover that happens when you play it normally, with the right. As you'll see, I have some, ah, reservations about the efficacy of it as a primary technique for most drummers.

It's a question that comes up with many students in the first five minutes of playing the drums: Why not play the hihat with your left hand? If all you have to do is tap-tap-tap the hihat and occasionally tap the snare drum thingy, wouldn't it make more sense? I generally put the subject to rest with a 1-minute explanation, and never hear about it again. The student understands that it's the normal way of playing and adapts.

 But for some people it's just intolerably compromised and irrational-seeming; they complain about having to "cross your arms", about the left hand being "trapped", and the impossibility of hitting a lot of crap with your left while in that posture. There seems to be something of a rigid engineer's mentality at work; the people who seem to be drawn to this way of playing are the types prone to conceiving of the drums (and music itself, ala prog) as some kind of elaborate contraption, and often seem to be more into tinkering around, devising and "perfecting" systems and theories than into actually playing.

I have several big problems with it:
  • Lateral coordination = easy, cross-lateral coordination = hard. Your body is wired to play your right side together, and the language of drumming is built around the coordination of the leading/"ride" hand and the bass drum. It's not as apparent in the early stages of development, when the roles of the limbs can seem arbitrary, but much of the more advanced improviser's language hangs on it. 
  • Your lead is your voice.  Jazz drummers- who spend years or decades developing a swinging touch with their right hand- know this, but it applies to everyone. Your lead hand is your primary conduit for musical ideas- you develop a certain refinement and ease of expression with it, and largely orchestrate the rest of your playing around it. You already have a well-developed lead- use it. If you don't have a well-developed lead- get to work getting it together and stop fooling around with marginal techniques.
  • And it's a pointless duplication of effort. Are we really going to learn what is physically an entirely different beat just to switch from the ride cymbal to the hihat? Really? 

More ranting after the break:

Other things to consider:

  • Nearly every single good, great, and famous drummer plays the hihat the normal way, with the crossover. More than 99% of them. The idea that their playing is inhibited creatively because of it is ludicrous, and if they can deal with it, you should be able to, too. The handful of well-known drummers who do the open thing are generally maverick types (Lenny White and Billy Cobham, for example) who are also technical monsters. The one good drummer I've personally encountered who plays that way is a lefty who decided to switch to a regular right-handed set up. 
  • The actual crossover is very small, and- since we use ~16" long drum sticks- does not involve crossing arms or hands. I accomplish it by a little ~15-degree pivot at the shoulder, which swings my hand a few inches to the left, and- due to the nature of geometry- moves the bead of the stick a good deal farther. At moderate volume, I can still play my toms with my left from that position.   
  • Yes, developing open-handing playing is a technical challenge, but are we really that lacking in hard things to work on? There are many other equally challenging things which will grow your playing musically as well as technically. Like seriously studying Afro-Cuban or Brazilian drumming, or jazz, or the Gary Chester method, or the Chaffee method, or dozens of other things I could name.   
  •  If playing the hihat normally is a persistent problem, there are other solutions that do not require hundreds of hours of relearning everything backwards to a professional standard. Raising your hihats, or getting a remote hihat are both instant fixes. And it's always "permissible" (in my book) to do special grooves open-handed as the situation requires; I call that the Don't Stop Believing exception:

So, my reservation about open-handed playing is not that it is pointless (though it is)- I'm not against doing pointless things in principle, but I am against doing them for bad, primitively-conceived reasons, which is usually the case with this technique. For an alternative view, see Open-Handed Playing by Dom Famularo and Claus Hessler.


    Andrew Hare said...

    I am with you on this one Todd. I think open-handed playing falls under the "can does not mean should" category.

    Anonymous said... - mr blackwell laying down a tight 'open hand' groove. enjoy

    Todd Bishop said...

    Damn, I thought it was going to be Ed Blackwell! A great drummer and great performance, but man, that looks weird. Thanks for that- there are definitely some people who can do it.

    Knowledge is Power said...

    "Lateral coordination = easy, cross-lateral coordination = hard."

    It's only hard if a person is well versed with lateral coordination. In other words, if a person grows up playing with lateral coordination, then decides to switch... sure, it will be very difficult.

    But there is no reason at all that a beginner should find cross-lateral coordination to be difficult at all.

    Todd Bishop said...

    I don't know, I get a lot of students who haven't been playing long enough to develop a lot of habits either way, and they keep automatically playing the right side together-- separating them is usually their first big coordination challenge. I don't see that happening with other sets of limbs-- RH/LF, LH/RF, or even RH/LH. That suggests to me that it's a wired thing; or at least a universal enough thing that it may as well be.

    Graham McGarrick said...

    I switched from cross handed to open handed many years ago, and these days I am comfortable playing either way. I disagree with you. I feel that my musical expression is vastly improved by the change. Also, it has allowed me to play interesting counter rhythms on the toms much easier. Add to that the fact that, when playing open handed, I am not hindered by my right fore arm over how hard I hit the snare, and I feel I've made the right choice. If for any reason I am playing cross handed, (usually if I'm teaching), it comes almost as a relief to switch. It also feels like a better groove. Oh, and it looks cool, in my opinion. But that's an add on.

    Ronan Cowan said...

    I'm naturally a lefty. playing left hand open handed lead on a right hand kit is how I learned to play. That being said, I would agree that there is pretty much no advantage. I don't understand why drummers make such a big deal out of it.