Teaching Lefty Drummers

by Don Skoog

     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.”
     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. 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.
     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.
     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.
     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.

     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. 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.
     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. 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.
     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. 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.
     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.
     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.
     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.
     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.
     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.
     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.

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.

     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.
     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.
     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. Laterality is a factor in Latin percussion, mallets, and ethnic drums like the bodhrán, but a detailed discussion of all these instruments would be outside the scope of this article. Just let me leave you with a small example.
     Conga drummers seem less resistant to turning the drums around because, while you need to slap with either hand, it’s important to put the tumbao slaps on the strong hand, at least for beginners. When teaching congas, I have northpaws sit across from me and mirror my movements (When I first started taking conga lessons this mirroring approach surprised my teachers but was actually very effective, once they got used to it). I have the leftily-gifted sit next to me so they can follow my motions without reversing them. In ensemble, I generally refer to strong or weak hand when addressing the whole group, and save the terms right or left for dealing with the problems of individual students. Since all my conga teaching materials are written for right-handers, I reverse the handings for lefties, but perhaps there will come a time when the general sensitivity to left-handers needs enable enough of them to progress to the point that they will be able demand specialized materials and concepts designed to help them reach their true potential.
     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.

     When this article was first posted on ContemporaryMusicProject.com. it received as fair amount of feedback. Not surprisingly, most of the reader comments came from lefties recounting their problems with right-handed teachers who didn’t understand their needs. Here are some reponses that were posted up on the web site:

     As a lefty, I understand the phenomenon of a student being shown a drumset without ever being asked about his "handedness." I've made it work just fine on a right-handed kit, and developed a few techniques that only lefties would want to try on a right-handed setup. So, like most lefties, I've found a way to turn lemons into lemonade.
     For most musicians, however, I think it's completely worth the trouble to turn the drums around to play more comfortably and musically. Even a right-handed player sitting down at someone's kit wouldn't feel entirely comfortable with a setup different from his own. I always INSIST that my students adjust the height and angle of their instruments before playing.
      By the way, the whole notion of the "standard" setup is, itself, a slippery concept. In my initial lessons with drumset students, I purposely avoid defining a "hi-hat" hand and a "backbeat" hand, just to see what the student chooses. I only make "corrections" of techniques that will inevitably lead to dead ends. So, the ride cymbal belongs on the comfortable side, whichever side that may be. (Maybe you're a Wertico type, and both sides are the ride side!)
     As a budding conguero, I decided to start the learning process from scratch, so I'm playing congas and bongos southpaw and loving it. The key to instruction of congas or drums, I believe, is getting to students from the beginning, so they don't waste any time using a system that they may eventually abandon.

Dr. Kurt Gartner
Kansas State University

     I loved your article on left-handed drumming! I was in band and always lagged behind the other drummers in learning things, which caused me great frustration.
      Add to that the fact that I was awful behind a trap set, and I gave up drumming altogether after high school.
     Years later, when I was in my thirties, I noticed that when I tapped my feet, I always tapped my left foot.  The light went on over my head, and I realized that not only was I left-handed, I was left-footed as well!
     After seeing pictures of Mickey Dolenz playing the drums left-footed and right-handed, I discovered that there were other possibilities than the old "right foot/right hand only" setup.
     I'll never get back the years I lost, but it's great to have the drums back in my life now. . . and I hope other percussion teachers realize that left-handed drummers may need a little extra help!

Edna Rose

     I believe that it is absolutely critical that the strong hand supplies the groove. Teaching young players the importance of strengthening the weak hand is necessary. However, for advanced players, using the strong hand to its fullest advantage gives the player an extra edge to be his/her best. I teach all of my college and graduate level students to use their strong hand to lead and supply the groove in whatever lick they're playing. 
     The same problem exists in the orchestral literature. All of the standard stickings are right-handed.  I relearned everything with a strong left-hand lead because the lead hand supplies the phrasing in addition to the rhythmic groove. I believe that the success that I've had in winning professional auditions has been possible in part because I was extremely conscious of left-hand lead in a right-hand world!

Ed Harrison
Principal Timpanist, Lyric Opera of Chicago
Director of Percussion Studies, Chicago College of Performing Arts

Further Reading

The Dominance Factor, by Carla Hannaford, Ph.D. Great Ocean Publishers. Detailed explanations of dominant hand, foot, eye, and ear, as well as profiles of the various learning processes associated with the different combinations.

Loving Lefties, by Jane M. Healey, Ph.D. Pocket Books. This general guide to understanding lefties also has some information on the problems faced by left-handed music students.

Right Hand, Left Hand, by Chris McManus. Harvard University Press. An entertaining, big-picture work on the history, sociology, and neurology of laterality. Also, check out his web site, www.righthandlefthand.com

The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson. Vintage Books. A great resource for anyone who wants to know more about how the hand connects to the brain.