Monday, April 25, 2016

Handedness is dubious

Granted, we may have gone
overboard in the past...
There's a long blog post called Teaching Lefty Drummers, written by Illinois percussionist, drummer, and teacher Don Skoog, about the importance of handedness in drumming. I've seen it linked to more than once, which elevates it somewhat as a piece of internet drumming literature, so I think it's worth putting my contrary opinion out there. I've shared most of the article below, interspersed with my comments, written in my usual style— let's call it “irreverent.” No disrespect is intended; I don't know Skoog, and I have no reason to believe he is not a very skilled and experienced professional. But I disagree strongly with some of his ideas as he has presented them.

It begins:
I remember the very first time I ever hit a drum. It was in my first lesson, I went tap on the snare drum and my teacher’s eyebrows popped up, “Are you left-handed?” he asked. When I said yes, he stopped the lesson and turned the drumset around. “Let’s try it this way.”

My first instinct is to burst in with  fire that teacher, but I'm just being prematurely cranky. We haven't even started with this thing. A lot of good teachers will suggest left-handed students play the drums left-handed— setting up the drums backwards, riding with the left hand. I happen to think it's unnecessary, but it's not wrong. I get bothered when it's taken to the extremes we'll see further on.

Here, I'll make my case quickly: modern drumming in the North American/European mode is based on highly developed technique and roughly equal facility with both hands. We spend a lot of time working on that, to the point that natural handedness becomes of minor importance in comparison. As a teacher and as a right-handed drummer/left-handed person, my experience has been that success with a particular drum set orientation is not significantly connected to handedness in things other than drumming. For that reason, and since any player with interest in marching percussion, mallets, or timpani will have to learn to play right handed, and given the realities of sharing drumsets when sitting in, attending jam sessions, and playing gigs with a backline, I think it's best for most students to just play right handed on a normal right handed drum set. That's my view.

Continuing with the article:

     Thirty years of playing and teaching later, not a practice goes by when I don’t silently thank him for starting me out with a setup that allows me to make the best use of my natural hardwiring. 

You can't argue with hardwiring... or can you? People use that word when they want to claim handedness is very important in drumming, but they don't want to have to prove it. “Don't you get it? This is hard wiring! This is the way it is and you can't do anything about it!” is the message of that choice of words.

Countless times, as both instructor and spectator, I have seen the unfortunate results when teachers, and I include myself here, weren’t so foresighted. Many young lefties have been through the frustration of trying to play as a right-hander, adapting to an approach that negates their strengths and intensifies their weaknesses. Others develop lefty solutions for playing a right-handed kit, bushwhacking through the undergrowth and making tough decisions while their righty competition cruise along a well-worn path. 

Because drumming is so easy for people whose drum configuration is named after the hand they write with? Where are all these natural right-handers cruising effortlessly to total mastery of the instrument? How is it that I, a lefty who plays righty, play better than 99% of them?

Much more after the break:

     It’s not surprising that well-meaning, caring teachers unknowingly subject their southpaw students to this living hell because almost no serious research has been done on the question of lefty drummers.

Italics are mine. Important to remember as the writer states his opinions with such certainty. There is certainly research into handedness and coordination, but what concerns us is how it relates to playing the drums.

     Handedness is part of a larger subject called laterality, which includes strong and weak hands and feet as well as the eyes, ears, and the various learning styles related to the different weak/strong combinations. It is little-studied or understood by most music teachers, and this is unfortunate as it’s one of the most important factors in whether a student succeeds or not. Students' laterality is a major influence on how they perceive information and how they think about the information they perceive. Laterality defines their learning style, and not taking it into account can create big problems for them.

If drumming were a thing you did with one hand only, this could conceivably be an issue. It isn't. It's a developed, practiced thing, with a high value placed and equality of ability between the hands—which is very attainable with a little focused practice. He continues:

     According to neuropsychologist Jane Healey,
    When left- or mixed-handed children have problems, they are often noticed more readily, but the great majority of the problems they experience are not the result of their handedness at all. As with right- handed children, the causes can be environmental, neurological, and even societal. And many of the issues that arise with lefties are simply the result of a lack of training and education on the subject.

Emphasis mine. In addition to “environmental, neurological, and societal” causes, there are “not being interested enough in the drums to actually practice”-related causes. That's actually the major cause for lack of playing ability. I think Skoog himself is guilty of what Healey is talking about, blaming the troubles of righty-playing lefties on their orientation rather than on, hey, you don't practice enough.

     Between ten and fifteen percent of the population in America and the U.K. is left-handed. While the percentage is slightly lower for Asians, Latinos, and women, it’s higher in general among kids. So if you have fifty students at least five of them, maybe more, could be lefties. If you really care about their future as drummers, you’ll need to account for their reversed neurology when you teach them. So you’ll need to do some homework, separating good information from bad, because uninformed instruction can have unfortunate consequences. 
     Earlier in my teaching career I listened to bad advice and taught a number lefties to play right-handed. It was years later when several returned, frustrated with their playing and looking for help, that I realized my role in their predicament. 

Again, if we use the word neurology, we won't have to prove that what we're talking about is actually important to drumming. It's science! And for the record, virtually all students will be frustrated with their playing to some extent a few years after their first teacher. Most drummers are frustrated their entire lives, because they don't practice enough or play enough.

That’s when I really started to do some research, developing concepts and exercises that enable them to use their strengths without turning the kit around. So even though I’m a lefty, my errors have been a major factor in expanding my understanding of lefty needs and problems. I mention them so that you can learn from my experience, starting students correctly the first time and avoiding the need to make changes later. 
     The strategies outlined below have evolved slowly over twenty years of teaching, reading, and talking with other instructors and students, both left- and right-handed. They are meant to be a starting point and are in no way comprehensive. 
     The first question is whether to reverse the drumset or not. Some teachers simply start all their students on a right-handed kit, regardless of laterality. I’ve heard teachers justify this but I think many are unaware of the problems it can create, and others are simply uncomfortable turning the drumset (and their heads) around before the lesson. They say the student will get used playing right-handed, or he can play a righty kit left-handed, or if he plays a reversed drumset he'll never be able to sit in on other drummer’s kits, or the equipment is designed this way. While it is true that reversing the tom mounts on some drumsets requires a certain ingenuity, any temporary problems are far outweighed by the advantage of being able to lead with your strong hand. Here's why.

Now, I don't disagree that there is a lead hand— as I've said elsewhere, non-understanding of that is what leads to people thinking “open-handed” is a legit, cost-free, alternative way of playing. We may value equal development of both hands, but the method is still largely oriented around leading with the right hand, and the standard drumset layout reflects that.

     The basic dynamic for playing drums, in its simplest form, is to put the downbeats on the strong side and the back (or off) beats on the weak side. The right hand plays the pulse while the left plays the backbeat. The bass drum plays the downbeat while the high-hat plays the offbeat. This confers great strength to the player. 

I don't necessarily disagree with that in principle, but it's so reductive as to be almost meaningless. In its modern form, the drumset is not a pure “rhythm” instrument, i.e., a folk instrument used just for playing 2-beats all night. Probably if a drummer were planning on playing 2-beats his entire career, never practicing, and never venturing beyond natural body motion— like in an amateur Country or Folk setting— he should probably go ahead and base his setup on his natural hand.

Reversing this dynamic negates these advantages, creating conceptual, and sometimes perceptual, problems as well. Also, the way the toms are arranged allows the right-handed drummer to lead with his strong hand while lefties are forced to lead either with their weak hand or, more awkwardly, with their trailing hand. This nullifies the advantages of the setup. Lefties, less adapted to utilizing the inherent strengths of a right-handed kit, must continually compensate, creating alternate playing techniques. This is a real disadvantage, and while I'm all for individuality in playing style, I think it’s better to base your technique on your strengths than to develop your approach as an attempt to overcome the problems in your setup. You'll get farther.

I don't disagree with this, either. The standard set up is designed to be played right-handed— another of my arguments against open-handed drumming as a primary orientation. Again, where I disagree is with the suggestion that playing a drum set orientation that is the same as your writing hand constitutes a meaningful “strength.”

     Teaching a lefty to play right-handed is like making him throw a ball right-handed. He may learn to do it but he probably won’t end up pitching for the Yankees.

Absolutely not true. Look: piano is an instrument where players have no option but to play right-handed— the basic dynamic there of dexterous right hand / simple left hand is even more extreme than for the drums. All pianists have to play the same literature the same way on the same instrument. And there are, of course, many great left-handed pianists: “Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Glenn Gould[...] Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, Leif Ove Andsnes, Steven Blier, Richard Goode, Helene Grimaud … and many more.”

Hit that link— that article is very relevant to this conversation. It states that lefties playing that right-handed instrument are actually over-represented among accomplished pianists. There are more accomplished lefties than their percentage of the population suggests there should be. The author gives one reason for that, which also applies to drummers: “All piano students must overcome the two hands' resistance to work separately; by having to work harder on what's essentially a right-handed instrument, the neurons of left-handed pianists get an extra workout and thus grow stronger.”

There's your killshot. I could have written just a four-word rebuttal: “Hey, what about pianists?”

Not only are we born with a dominant hand but we have an innate work strategy for using the weak/strong combination. The strong hand is adapted to the repetitive motions that achieve a goal, like hammering a nail or writing, while the weak hand plays a supporting role, holding the nail or adjusting the paper. When a drummer is playing time, the strong hand is naturally adapted to play the ride pattern while the other either supplies the backbeat or patters depending on the style. To reverse this innate hand-use strategy negates the advantages that are built into us. If you don't think this is important try throwing a ball, hammering a nail, or playing the ride cymbal with your weak hand, then you'll know what you are asking your students to do.

My readers, who will have spent many hours working on developing roughly equal capabilities with both hands, will understand that drumming is not analogous to these activities— where one hand is, say, hammering the nail and the other hand steadying the board. This is not bodhran or tamborim, with one hand doing all the playing, and the other holding the drum and muffling it.

     Another approach is to have the lefty student play a right-handed drumset but lead with the left hand. This generally involves putting the ride cymbal on the left side of the kit and using the left hand to play high-hat. For some lefties this concept can work (see below) but for others it’s no better than leading right-handed. For both it involves developing an eccentric playing style that requires the student to create most patterns from scratch, often switching from left- to right-hand lead as well, but it is an option for certain students. 
     The thing to remember is that our hands and feet are controlled by the opposite side of the brain. For instance, your left hand is controlled by the right-brain hemisphere while your right foot is controlled by the left-brain hemisphere. When a righty to plays his right hand and foot on the downbeat both are controlled from the same side. For a lefty to play his left hand and right foot on the downbeat he needs to use both sides of the brain. He can certainly do it but the process is more complex. And probably slower. 

These are among my usual arguments against open-handed drumming as a primary orientation— you have to make up a lot of contrivances to do normal things. And I do think it's an especially bad idea to put the primary ride hand and the bass drum on opposite limbs. Not that it can't be overcome with practice.

     Although drummers like Billy Cobham, Enrique Pla, and Carter Beauford have developed powerful playing styles based on this approach, I wouldn’t try to teach every left-handed student to play like them. They have created unique playing styles which take advantage of their particular strengths, and every laterally complex student will need to do the same for himself. Playing a righty kit left-handed isn’t the right solution for every lefty. Those with a dominant left foot will have two problems to cope with: which hand to lead with and a weak bass drum foot. Left-handed right-footers may learn to cope but for every Cobham there are ten frustrated left-footers struggling along in confusion.

Addressing this footedness business— everyone has problems learning to play the bass drum. The instrument is played with a century-old late-Victorian/steampunk contraption, using a limb that is fundamentally less dexterous than our hands. It's an artificial thing.

     I don't know any true lefties, who play left-handed, who regret it (it sure hasn’t hurt Phil Collins), so don't listen to people who tell you it's better to play backwards, especially if you have a dominant left foot. If playing reversed is so great, how come they're not doing it? 
     I’m not saying, however, that reversing your playing dynamic, playing the high-hat with your weak hand for instance, is always a bad idea. Developing multidirectional techniques can be a mind expanding experience for the advanced player. But it shouldn't be taught before, or instead of, the more traditional dynamic. There's a reason most players play this way.

Agreed on this point. If you're going to play left handed, switch the drums around completely.

     Handedness is only the tip of the perceptual iceberg. Every person has a dominant hand, foot, eye, and ear that may not all line up along one side of their body. These different lateral predispositions, and their relationship to the two hemispheres on the brain, influence a person's learning style and creativity, making some visual learners, others aural or tactile learners, good or bad dancers, good at math or slow at reading. A working knowledge of how they affect your students will help you learn and teach better. This gets a little deep for some people but if you’re interested in learning more see Carla Hannaford’s book listed in Further Reading. For most teachers, a working knowledge of the student’s dominant hand and foot will suffice.

The line he has drawn here is completely arbitrary, based on nothing but his own desires as a teacher. Why wouldn't you take tactile vs. aural learning into consideration? Unless, Eh, I'm just not really interested in that. I'm into handedness. That's fine, but he's telling us that considering other stuff = optional, considering handedness = not optional. I'd like to know how he came to that conclusion.

     Remember that both hand and foot should be considered when choosing a setup, so the first step is to determine which are dominant. Ball throwing and writing are the two best indicators of the dominant hand. The dominant foot is the one the student kicks a ball with. If the student writes, throws, and kicks from the same side then the choice is easy, but some people write with one hand and throw with the other so sometimes the dominant foot can be the deciding factor in choosing a setup.
     If you’re sure the student is right-handed and right-footed (and most are since righties generally kick with their right foot) this issue is solved, but if the student is a mixed laterality then there are more neurological variations and a range of options to consider.

At this point— I want to say we blast off into insanity, but let's say we “part ways sharply.” Just because at different points in the day someone writes a sonnet with his right hand and kicks a dog with his left foot doesn't mean he'll be good at doing both at the same time. Playing the drums, the limbs have to coordinate.

     The goal is to match the student’s strong hand with the ride cymbal and strong foot with the bass drum so there are four possible combinations: righty kit/right-hand lead, righty kit/left-hand lead, lefty kit/left-hand lead, and lefty kit/right-hand lead. Two are clear-cut and two are more complicated. 
1) Dominant right hand and foot. The majority of your students will be true righties, so teach them on a righty kit/right-hand lead. 
2) Dominant left hand and foot. A true lefty, so reverse the drumset and the stickings to get lefty kit/left-hand lead. 
3) Dominant right hand but dominant left foot. Luckily, this combination is rare. Logic would dictate that these students could play a lefty kit right-handed. I’ve only seen one drummer who actually played this way but, while I was as fascinated as a witness to a hanging, it was disconcerting to watch him play. I’m sure it worked for him but I just can’t get myself to teach this setup. It looks too weird. It would also require that I take all the teaching materials I’ve created for left-handers on a righty kit and transpose them for right-handers on a lefty kit. I think this is too far from the norm, so I start them on a righty kit and work extra hard on their bass drum technique. 

There goes his entire rationale. I thought players taught with the wrong orientation were consigned to a “living hell” of sucking at the drums forever. I didn't know you could just “work extra hard” to get around it. In my world everyone has to work extra hard to learn to play well.

4) Dominant left hand but dominant right foot. These are students who might do well playing a righty kit left-handed, but they are fairly rare so double check before starting them this way. Remember that they are going to have to develop their around-the-toms patterns for themselves and it’s extra work. They also do fine playing a lefty kit, with some extra bass drum exercises, so I often start them as lefties. However, I have several of these students who came to me already playing right-handed kit, so I’m still creating teaching materials for that setup. They can do well either way, depending on their individual abilities, but if there’s ever any doubt be sure to ask the student which way he would prefer before charging ahead.

Thank God they're rare, because I would hate to think too many people had been misled into playing with this screwed-up orientation. What a nightmare.

If I may be frank: my feeling is that process of figuring out OK, what-handed are you? OK, now what-footed? is a form of jerking off one's client. Not to be crude. Pretending something is important when it really isn't is a thing done in business, as a sort of ritual display of seriousness, ritual proof that the contractor is taking the client seriously as a unique individual. In this case, we'll spend a lesson figuring out the student's “hardwiring”, and acting like it's very important, consulting with him about what is most “comfortable” to him before he has any idea of what is entailed in learning to play the drums.

     As you can see, there are a variety of laterality combinations that can make it difficult to decide how to start a student. Some students’ laterality is more complicated and you will need to put extra thought into it. It's important to get the setup right from the beginning as it's possible for the student to develop perception and cognition problems from playing the wrong way, just as lefties can develop dyslexia from being forced to write with their right hand. Also, once a student has established his kit setup it should not be changed as this can also create problems. 

I play that way, why don't I have dyslexia? Why wouldn't anyone who develops their off-hand at all experience these problems? The drums aren't that one-sided of an instrument. I do agree that it's probably best to stick with whatever orientation you start with, so long as it's standard-lefty or standard-righty.

     The decision to start lefties on a reversed kit brings up the question of stickings in your teaching materials. Since most of my students are right-handed, I write most of my teaching materials for them. With lefty beginners, I reverse the Rs and Ls by hand, but once the student learns the basics of left-hand-lead sticking this usually becomes unnecessary. Lefties are used to getting along in a right-handed world and generally learn to translate right to left without problems. This is not as big a concern with most drumset patterns as the stickings are not normally indicated, but even if you have to reverse the stickings by hand it's always worth the effort. 
     Some right-handed drum teachers feel uncomfortable reversing the kit and stickings, so if it makes you nervous, consider sending the student to a teacher who is experienced with left-handers. But if you feel up to it, I would encourage you to turn the kit around for the next southpawed beginner who walks through your door. It will challenge you to think and teach differently. Remember, you won't grow as a teacher unless you try new ideas. 

Here's a new idea: stop treating students like they're machines— Oh, this one's wired to do this! This one's wired to do thisThey have brains and intellects. Teach them to conceptualize a musical idea, and their limbs will figure out how to do it. Examples of players doing remarkable things with their so-called weak/non-dominant limbs are endless.

     As a lefty myself, I was so used to transposing to teach righties that I found myself reversing the stickings left-to-right-back-to-left-again before I could explain them to my left-handed students. This has improved with experience but I thought I’d mention it so that other left-handed teachers don’t think they’re going insane by themselves. I’ve been there too. 
     For lefties who play a righty kit, I’m developing a set of around-the-drums patterns to help them make the best use of their setup. Again, if they have a dominant right foot this approach can work well for them. This gray area of lefty drummer/righty kit has led me to work on concepts and materials for other instruments as well.

A little strange to put someone on that kind of set up in the name of catering to natural strengths, and then have to contrive a whole new literature just so they can play normal things.

     Having grown up lefty in a somewhat more enlightened time, I wasn’t subjected to the overt prejudices we’ve had to face for centuries. One result was that I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the neurological realities of training lefty musicians. In hindsight it’s not surprising since there was virtually no printed information and most of my teachers were insensitive to the issue. Many drummers I talk to today have never even thought about it and there are still no resources for lefty drummers either in print or on the internet. 
     I was lucky to have started with a teacher who did understand. I would never have survived playing a righty kit and if it wasn’t for him I’d be working on a loading dock or standing in a toll booth instead of sitting in a comfy studio collecting money from other people’s children. Teaching is the greatest gig in the world -- you can talk all you want, no one can argue with you, and you get to listen to your favorite tunes. But teachers have a responsibility toward the people who come to them with dreams of being a musician. You can help them achieve their goals, or damage them for life. Think about that before you hand them the sticks.

Well, that's certainly a big close: Do it this way, or damage your students for life. I'm happy to hear about how other professionals do things, and about their results— I don't need to hear “Do it this way, or else.” I just see this hyperbole as coming from awareness of a point not proven.

1 comment:

Anonymous said... - Not sure if you've seen this article - it's from Psychology Today and summarizes a 2011 German study addressing handedness in pianists and string players. A quote from the article seems to support your position:

"...First, left- and right-handed pianists performed equally well on the test. Being left-handed seemed not to present any disadvantages. Second, whether the pianist identified as right- or left-handed, the performance of the right hand always displayed a higher degree of evenness between notes, and therefore a higher degree of motor control, than did the left hand. And the more practice time that a left-hander had accumulated, the better the performance of his or her right hand.

Again, researchers were a little surprised by their results and discuss several reasons why right-hand motor control might be superior even in left-handed pianists."

Here is the study itself - interestingly titled No disadvantage for left-handed musicians: