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"Finally released the handbrake" - Peer Oehlschlägel on relearning the drums left-handed

"When I play left-handed, I breathe more freely and can therefore play more relaxed overall. I also feel the music much more intensely and it's a permanent experience: I play something, I'm fully emotionally involved and I'm moved by what comes out of it. I can't remember experiencing this in the same way playing on the right, although I used to be at least as passionate about it."

The left-handed drummer Peer Oehlschlägel

Do you see yourself as left- or right-handed?

For most of my life, I was left-handed without realizing it. Since I became aware of my left-handedness, I have made sure that I do as much as possible with my left hand. Nevertheless, there are always things that I learn to do with my right hand and I always realize that I am still somewhere in the process of retraining: I only found out that I was left-handed at the age of 36. Up until then, I was right-handed and have now been left-handed for 20 years.

There are always situations where I come into contact with tools that I haven't used for many years - such as a circular saw. Then I realize: "Oh wait, you've retrained or are still retraining. Why don't you use this tool left-handed?"

How did you discover your left-handedness?

One clue was that I had always eaten with a knife and fork like a left-hander. I learned to cut with my left hand and eat with my right when I was young. Some people were even a little taken aback by this, but never myself, because I was a convinced right-hander. Later, of course, I was able to make sense of it: Fortunately, I wasn't told how to use a knife and fork back then and so I did it however it suited me. When it came to writing, I don't know whether I was retrained or retrained myself.

The clear connection came when someone approached me at the age of 36 and said: "Are you sure you're right-handed? Because you eat like a left-hander."

I then began to think about it: I had learned to use a knife and fork before I started writing.... I started researching and trying out a few things, such as writing with my left hand. But the decisive factor was the book "The Converted Left-Hander or the 'Knot' in the Brain" by Dr. Johanna Barbara Sattler. I had psychosomatic problems from puberty to adulthood. This spanned many years and I found 90 percent of my symptoms listed in this book. "I can't ignore this, it's so clear," I realized. So I started to retrain myself.

Who told you back then that you could be left-handed?

It was my mother-in-law at the time. But she didn't know anything about Dr. Sattler and that this book existed.

I think it's remarkable that someone from this generation told you that you might be left-handed.

Yes, very! My mother-in-law is no longer alive, but I assume that she was also a retrained left-hander. While I was reading the book, I knew that I was left-handed. Within a very short time, I was able to write left-handed. It was slower, but much more readable than with the right.

That's why I didn't have my handedness tested, but my children did. It took me a year and a half to get an appointment with Dr. Sattler for the test and it turned out that both children were possibly left-handed.

Did you learn your instrument left-handed from the start?

No. I started playing the drums when I was 15. My brother showed me a bit and then I taught myself for the next three years. I took lessons at the age of 18 and played right-handed for a total of 21 years.

When did you retrain to lefty playing and why?

I retrained because I'm left-handed. After writing with my left hand worked so well, I started to inform myself about drumming, because until then I was actually of the opinion - and many other drummers share this view - that handedness doesn't really matter because we use the sticks with both hands in the same way. Drummers train their hands to play evenly. This is very important and in this respect I was also initially of the opinion that handedness didn't play a role. But after doing more research and thinking about what I had learned and experienced over the years, I came to the conclusion that it's definitely not the case: there is a lead hand.

So I tried it left-handed for six months, but initially only with my hands: it's called "open-handed". There are some very good and famous drummers who play this way.

This way of playing means that I sit at a right-handed drum set which I lead with my left hand. In fact, there are also some drummers who really play with both hands and practice it. But I did it so that the left hand leads. It was all at the beginning of a concert season and I was able to lead with my left hand very quickly.

It doesn't change the structure of the instrument much, only the cymbal has to be on the other side. At that time, however, I still played right-dominant with my feet.

At the end of the concert season, I decided to change my feet on the drums as well and that was the breakthrough: after this rehearsal, I was sitting in the car and my body said to me: "Thank you for finally releasing the handbrake." I felt my blood circulating differently in my body. It's indescribable what happened! Everything felt different. And definitely good!

Somehow strange to have been traveling the wrong way for so long...

After this first rehearsal experience playing right-footed, it was clear to me: "I'm going to play completely left-handed" and since that time in 2003, I've been playing left-handed.

Please tell us more about your approach and the relearning process. What are or were the biggest challenges for you when retraining?

Apart from training to play both hands evenly, my primary goal was to be able to lead solidly with my left hand. And it actually happened very quickly that I was able to lead with my left hand. The lead hand is responsible for the timing and by playing with the left hand as the lead hand, I immediately noticed that it worked better.

I also made sure to try out certain things with my left hand in everyday life: Brushing my teeth, handling gadgets - it all went wonderfully. And my writing was immediately more legible with my left hand, as I mentioned earlier. Luckily, I didn't have to do any handwriting at work at the time, so I wasn't under any pressure. In this respect, it was a relaxed experience.

The fascinating thing was that it wasn't until the moment I switched my feet to the left on the instrument that the "knot burst". I could feel it very clearly, both physically and emotionally. Any doubts were dispelled from then on. I definitely knew that playing left-handed was the right decision.

It actually took me two years to be able to use my left foot on the drums as quickly as I had previously used my right foot - retraining my hands was much quicker, but there is also a lot of muscle memory stored up to the feet ;)

Nevertheless, I hardly had any major challenges when relearning, as I quickly realized that things worked better: The fact that I was immediately more relaxed while playing and was able to inhale more deeply and breathe freely was a gift I hadn't expected.

A long performance where you spend two or three hours at the instrument is actually like playing soccer. That's really not nonsense, there's research on that: In the UK, they followed a professional soccer player and a professional drummer for over a year and measured all kinds of physical values: the turnover of physical energy is identical. Soccer players in action, drummers in action - both under full load, so to speak. When I once observed this carefully and went on the weighing scales before and after the concert, it was quite intense - we're talking about rock 'n' roll, where I sometimes burned up to 3500 grams of body weight during a gig. I also played very excessively and we had a lot of gigs with our band. It was a wonderful time.

Peer Oehlschlägel on left-handed drums

Breathing more freely allows me to play in a more relaxed way overall and when sight-reading anyway. I also feel the music much more intensely which is permanent: I play something, I'm fully involved emotionally and I'm moved by what comes out of it. I can't remember experiencing this in the same way when playing on the right, although I used to be at least as passionate about it.

This shows again how powerful handedness is and also how fatal it is not to live according to it: Making music is such a demanding activity because it challenges us on every conceivable level and these levels have to be coordinated and precisely attuned to each other.

I now feel what I produce and that makes a huge difference. From my experience in the past, I would say that although my motor skills were pretty good back then, I didn't get beyond that level for a long time. When I really make music now, I become an instrument myself.

It doesn't just mean a different quality - it's more! In a way, you are detached and at the same time absolutely absorbed in the music - a major difference to the past.

I find it astonishing when left-handers claim that they play even better right-handed and that it doesn't matter to them that they don't play left-handed. How can they say that when they don't even know the difference!

The first thing I do when new students come to me is inquire about their handedness and, depending on their age, ask "Which hand do you write with?", "Which hand do you draw with?" or "Raise the hand you draw/write with the most."

Music schools cannot be allowed to retrain children who write left-handed on the instrument. That's just wrong! But I still have to fight for it. It is by no means a matter of course and I sometimes get into hair-raising discussions.

A former colleague traveled around the world as a musician, and when I talked to him about this topic, he said that you used to see people playing music on the left more often, but that this is now unfortunately on the decline again due to the pressure to conform... I hope not!

How did you get your left-handed instruments?

I just take my (standard) percussion instruments and set them up the other way around. There is one exception: the double foot pedal. I had to buy a different one and inquired which manufacturers offer it. That's the only thing I had to buy separately. Everything else can be assembled the other way around.

What strange experiences have you had with your lefty way of playing?

There was one situation where I had the feeling - and it was a bit spooky - that someone was looking at my hands in an unpleasant way. Shortly afterwards, a stick slipped out of my hand and I suspected that someone had consciously seen "That's a left-hander, he plays left-handed", stared at me penetratingly and somehow judged playing left-handed negatively. But that only happened this one time. Otherwise, the audience hardly noticed.

Do you still play right-handed and if so, in what context?

There is only one situation in which I still play right-handed from time to time: There is a left-handed drum set in every classroom. If I have a left-handed student, they play on this instrument and I switch to the other right-handed drum set. I then play left-handed open-handed, but I can't play left-handed with my feet then.

The question about the instruments is important, because I often hear from colleagues: " Well, how am I supposed to do that in lessons? How am I supposed to teach a child who plays left-handed if I play right-handed?" - It's the simplest thing in the world: imagine looking in a mirror! That's it.

The terminology should also be adapted: For example, I now talk more about gripping and striking hand, but no longer about right and left hand. I point out to my students that as a left-hander I play left-handed. So I start with my left hand and if a right-hander copies something from me, it's the other way around. If I have a left-handed student, I ask them to sit next to me.

Is there something you would like to add?

There are only advantages. If you want to boil it down to a simple sentence, a formula, then it's: "Left-handed students play left-handed" and "Instrument makers should make mirror-inverted instruments". Done.

Also to get rid of this ridiculous argument that left-handers are supposedly much better on conventional instruments - what nonsense! Of course, some people may have developed great techniques, but in the music school sector, in everyday lessons, it's something completely different and that's where music education comes in.

One very positive effect of my left-hand playing is that I have had no more problems sight-reading since then, whereas when I was younger I spent a lot of time practicing to play in the big band, where sight-reading is the bread and butter (whereas in the popular sector you usually play without sheet music).

Since I started playing left-handed - pretty much from one day to the next - I've been able to sight-read without any problems. Now I also understand why it works so well: as a left-handed retrained player, I needed 33 percent more energy consumption in my brain for the same activity. So it's understandable that there wasn't enough capacity left for anything beyond that. I used to have to concentrate a lot on my playing and couldn't process the music reading in the meantime. Now I can do that without any problems.

When I was younger, the more I practiced, the worse I felt: I wanted to play in the big band and had to practise certain things for that. I did that all week long because I had to perform at the weekend. I managed this well, but was often ill afterwards and had to recover.

I would describe it as torturous, because you're working against your body.

Improvising is also easier now than it used to be. When I was still playing right-handed, I was very focused on my playing. I didn't have the capacity to notice what was happening in the overall process: How it sounds, let alone how it "feels". Since I've been playing left-handed, it's become natural for me to hear and feel the whole thing - definitely a different experience.

The interview was conducted by Sophia Klinke on September 14, 2023.

Photo credits: personal


Peer Oehlschlägel played drums right-handed for 20 years as a converted left-hander, but has now been playing left-handed and therefore "the right way round" for over 20 years.

In almost 25 years, he has taught over 400 students on drumset, percussion, mallets and keyboard, always paying particular attention to handedness.

In his younger years, he was active in the African music scene in Hamburg as a right-handed drummer. Later, in the far north of Schleswig-Holstein, he was a left-hand drummer in various jazz, rock 'n' roll and big band formations, occasionally also playing classical kettledrums.

He currently works as a drum teacher for the Nordfriesland district music school, where he runs the branches on Sylt and in Niebüll.


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