Go Left, Young Man…

I had started drumming in the later years of high school and had no prior music education. I had never been in marching band or any other school band project. I didn’t have any musician friends or family members. I had taken a few years of drum lessons when I first got my kit but I was mostly focused on playing in bands and (once I heard “Reign in Blood”) learning double bass as opposed to learning tons of theory, rudiments, etc.

When I started at Berklee, I quickly realized I was WAY behind most of the drummers there. There were kids who had been playing since they were four or five years old. There were child prodigies that played more than seven instruments who could drum better than I could, even though it wasn’t their main instrument. Almost everyone seemed to have played in a school band, a marching band, or a jazz band,and they all knew how to read music and play every rudiment. Then there’s was me, who had barely ever played a simple jazz beat up until that point, let alone Paradiddle Diddle Doobie Doobie Derps. (Yeah, look that one up…)

While I believe Berklee has diversified their programs much more in recent years, it was primarily a jazz-based school when I attended. A lot of the theory classes focused on jazz or used jazz for examples and lessons. There were jazz recitals and concerts, a jazz club down the street where many students played.  Jazz, jazz and MORE jazz – almost all the time.

I had a real hard time keeping up at first.  I was basically a garage metal drummer with only a few years of drumming experience. But I started learning and practicing my rudiments. I studied lots of jazz and had to learn it well enough to pass my semester performance exams. I was also exposed to lots of latin drumming, learning a good deal of that as well. At the time, I wasn’t thrilled about any of the jazz or latin training because I wanted to learn to be a death metal drumming Jedi. Honestly, I thought all the jazz/latin was a waste of my time; it wasn’t what I wanted to be playing.

Learning all of that stuff quickly showed me a lot of my own ‘drumming weaknesses’.  One of the biggest issues was that my left side (hand and foot) were WEAK! I’m right-handed, so like most people, I favor my right side when playing – and that was blatantly obvious when learning these new styles.

One of the great things about rudiments is that your left hand plays exactly what your right hand does. I practiced my rudiments religiously then. I would get hand cramps in my left hand, and I commonly had to stop and rest because it was so tired and sore.

Latin beats were REALLY hard for me at first because a lot of latin drumming requires total body independence: each of your limbs are often playing a completely different rhythm at the same time. It wasn’t as difficult getting my right limbs to play the rhythms, but it was almost as if I was a stroke victim when it came to playing the other rhythms with my left limbs.

After a few years, my hand technique had CONSIDERABLY improved. I could play all the rudiments well and even progressed into advanced rudiment classes. While not Buddy Rich by any means, I could play my way through a jazz or latin song and fool most people into thinking I was comfortable with it. My biggest realizations were when I went home and played with my metal band again. There were hard parts in certain songs that were no longer physically challenging to play. My double bass and drum rolls were smoother and more consistent than ever. My grinding greatly improved and was easier for me than it had EVER been. I had a whole new arsenal of tricks and fill-ins, which involved more left-side activity than I had ever thought of. I had definitely shed my skin…

By now, you may be wondering “Yeah, yeah…great I guess…what the HELL are you getting at?!”

I had never realized how weak and uncoordinated my left side was until I was ‘forced’ to pay attention to it. Focusing on working my left limbs was by far one of the most crucial elements for me in becoming a much better drummer. Yeah, so I’m not the world’s greatest jazz or latin drummer, and I might not be playing in any infamous marching bands soon. However, mastering my rudiments strengthened my hands – BOTH hands. It gave me more power, endurance, and control in my overall playing. Learning jazz and latin dramatically helped with independence but also brought more focus to my left side, opening up a whole new realm of drumming ideas that I had never considered. And my favorite part – strengthening and focusing on my left limbs brought me to a whole new level with my metal drumming. I hadn’t realized that it was my weak left hand that was making grinding and fast rolls so much harder. My weak left foot had been making my double bass sloppier and inconsistent, and it also gave me less control when playing intricate rhythms. My left limbs’ lack of stamina also had a lot to do with ‘the hard parts’ in songs that I commonly struggled with.

So What’s Left To Do?

There are a lot of things you can do to work on your left side to bring it up to speed with the right. Here are a few things I work on and keep in mind in order to maintain my left side strength (the same for lefty drummers of course, just obviously switch sides):

  • Play Left Handed. I’m sure you’ve seen some ambidextrous drummers that make it look so easy (but it’s NOT!). Try playing the high hat with your left hand and the snare with your right for a change when you practice next- fill-ins and everything. After you get the hang of it, try it out at a full band practice. It’s HARD, especially at first…but if you can get comfortable with it, your playing will be so much more consistent and you’ll have a ton of new ideas to work with.
  • Practice Your Regular Routines Right AND Left Lead. Play your normal practice routines but switch it up every few times and start with your left instead. For the double bass guys, start your DB beats with your left foot, or you can even practice playing your simple single bass beats but only use your left pedal/foot. If you get really good with it, you can combine it with left hand leads – play right foot lead double bass with left hand lead, play left foot lead double bass with right hand lead, play left foot lead double bass with left hand lead, etc. Even further, you can practice routines that alternate between your left and right: play a 16th double bass beat but put a triplet on the last eighth note which will start the next measure with your left foot.
  • Set Up Your Kit Backwards.  One of my good friends, Pete, is a lefty drummer. I’m a huge Phil Collins fan, and he’s a lefty too. It looks so funky to me, so one day I had the idea to set up my kit lefty. While it WAS pretty funky to play at first, it definitely opened things up. I had never played left hand crossover on the high hat before!
  • Do Normal Daily Things With The Other Hand. Comb your hair, brush your teeth, practice writing or throw rocks at your neighbors’ house with your left hand instead of your right. Anything you normally do right-handed throughout the day, try with your left instead. While this isn’t going to make you an ambidextrous player by any means, it IS going to make you focus on your left side more and get more comfortable using it. (If you work at a steelmill or woodshop, I may recommend that you pass on this exercise…)
  • Try Adding A Few More Elements To The Left Side Of Your Kit. Commonly, you’ll see most drummers with almost all of their cymbals, percussion, on the right side of their kits – their comfortable side – with very little on the left. Try moving a few extra cymbals or splashes over to left side. I used to play double rides – one on my right AND left.  That really made for some neat ideas, patterns, and fills. Work on hitting left accents, like the E’s & A’s of sixteen note patterns or the upbeat of eighth note patterns. Practice right and left fills which end on a left crash or high hat.
  • Chop Off Your Right Limbs. Extreme for some, but forces you to strengthen your left limbs at least. (uh…no….don’t do that.)

These lefty realizations were a huge breakthrough for me with my drumming, and I hope I’ve given you a few ideas or at least made you think about your left side more with your own playing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Triple Ratamacues that need my attention…