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The Finger Cymbal Dilema:
To Learn or Not to Learn

Much more is in the Cymbals Speak Instructional CD set

For an Egyptian dancer today (not an American or a Turk) sagat as they are called, are just a prop, like a cane. They have their place in the dance but they are not an integral part of it. However you do need to play them. You use them when you go around the audience for tips or to get people up to dance. If you play badly you will probably receive less money - for you and the musicians. You might also throw the musicians off and they don't like that. In return, the musicians will either play badly for you and/or not call you the next time they have a party. So guess what... you have to learn how to play them!

Do remember that Egyptian dancers have been dancing with percussive things in their hands for over 6000 years. Before brass 'bells' they used wooden or bone clappers. Pictures of them can be seen on the tomb reliefs of the great pyramids - the dancing girls who were part of the mourning procession are holding them. The Egyptian Museum has an entire glass case of clappers found in dynastic excavations from all over the country. Bronze cymbals can be dated back to at least 3500 years by the lovely pairs also in the Egyptian and British Museums. They look EXACTLY like the brass zills with one hole worn by Egyptian dancers today. The Henkesh family sells this style in their store. You need serious hand and forearm muscles to play them well. They are very heavy and they wobble. But putting your fingers on them doesn't deaden the sound, like with American zills. That's the trade off - mobility versus ring longevity. Don't get me wrong, I like playing good professional grade American zills. They are soooo much easier. But for Ghawazee, nothing beats authenticity. Just having the Egyptian ones on your fingers turns you into a turn of the century photograph! One more thing - Egyptians hate the loud unrefined sound of American zills. To them it's like fingernails on a black board. They prefer the muted chink of their dainty folkloric ones. But try to hear those over the din of dinner plates and restaurant conversation ...

I don't spend much time on sagat in my classes (as opposed to Artemis or Laurel). During the limited time I have to teach, I feel it is more important for me to pass on body technique than the finer points of cymbal syncopation. But I like playing them - and like it or not you have to learn them to move on to any JOM Advanced class.

I must say though, that they help you break down the music. They force you to find the rhythm and the phrasing. When you develop your ear, you can hear when you're off beat. Playing zills will also slow a dancer down (unless you are Artemis) so she doesn't rush - which in the Egyptian style is good. In the end it all comes down to finding a good pair of zills (my preference is Saroyan Professionals) and then practicing. Personally I think it is a waste of money to buy the cheap ones. If you are serious about dancing, go for the good ones right off the bat - and get your muscles used to them right away. And nothing can beat the sound. The cheap ones sound like flat tin (which is probably what they're made out of anyway). For $10.00 more you can buy a good pair that will last you at least 15 years. When they are worn they curl up at the edges - but they still sound fine. My thick Egyptian zills on the other hand are still like new after over 25 years.

My speach on zills for what it's worth.
Now a word from the master...

Finger Cymbals: Technique
By Artemis

Once a dancer has achieved proficiency with finger cymbals, they are empowering. They accentuate her dancing. They can also force a crowd to stop and listen.

There are three ways to play zills. But which ever you choose, it must fit within the skeletal structure of the rhythm and the song.

  1. You can play zills to the rhythm. Remember to play variations and embellish it with flourishes or varying intensity.
  2. You can play them to the melody.
  3. You can play them to the dance. Zills are a powerful tool for the dancer who can direct the audience's attention to his or her specific step or action. For example, if you are doing a shimmy, you would probably play "alternates" which are RLRLRLRL rather than a RLR RLR RLR, which would compete with what you are doing. If you are doing powerful accented hip articulations, you would accent this with "single" zills.

There are three sounds that you can make with zills:

  1. They can ring. To do this, you must spring the hand open after each contact of zill against zill.
  2. They can "click". To do this, touch your finger or fingers to one zill.
  3. They can make a dull "clack." To do this, cup you fingers further around them.

How to improve your skills: My philosophy is you must be able to play adequate zills. If you do not like them, you can become adequate but you will probably never play them well. If you like them, you can learn to play them well. If you love them you can be brilliant and play them like the musical instruments that they are.

The only way to improve your skills in zill playing is to practice. Practice will give you endurance, coordination, accuracy and speed.

  • When you are first learning to play them, start by simply walking around the room. Then try playing them while standing still but moving the arms. Then play them while walking and moving the arms. Then play them while you dance.
  • Play zills even when your body is too tired to dance.
  • When playing zills, go to the point of exhaustion and then "push through" the exhaustion so that you fully " fatigue" the muscles. You will find a "second wind" and try to continue to play even if only for a few seconds. This will develop speed, strength and stamina.
  • The more you play them, the closer you will get to the point where you can "forget" about them and your playing is effortless. They will become integrated into your dance. It will become as natural a part of your dance as your moving your feet and posture.
  • Learn to "spell" yourself when you are tired during the show. Be strategic about this so that it sounds intentional. You can intersperse constant playing with accents, or not playing them at all for a song or a part of a song.
  • A good exercise is to play "alternates" as fast as you can for as long as you can. Then slow down to rest your hands briefly. Play them as fast as you can as soon as you are able.
  • I suggest that you practice zills while doing your warm up and your cool down.

How to wear them: Zills are worn on the middle fingers and thumbs of both hands. They are attached by elastic strips, which are best worn across the cuticle. If you look at the zill as though it were a soup bowl, the knot of the elastic is where the soup would be. Zills should be worn very tight and they will usually change the color of your fingertips during the time you are playing them. The thumb zill should be marked on the knotted side of the elastic with black waterproof ink. You have them on correctly if you can place your palm down on a flat surface and they lay flat.

How to hold them: You must be able to play your finger cymbals with your hands in any position (palms up, palms down, palms out, palms facing in, etc.). You must also be able to play your finger cymbals with your arms and hands in motion. Play your finger cymbals as you transition from one position to another or as you are in continual motion.

Basic finger cymbal patterns: All of the cymbal patterns that we play can be broken down to four basic techniques. These are the "building blocks" for more complicated patterns. Note that "R" stands for striking the cymbals in your right hand and " L" stands for striking the cymbals in your left hand. Remember to spring your hand open after each strike. The space between the patterns indicates a pause.
  1. Single strikes: This can be R or L and is for emphasis on the dom.
  2. RLR RLR RLR RLR: Do not switch hands and play: RLR LRL RLR LRL. There is controversy over this since some people prefer to switch hands. There are two reasons why I prefer to teach with the repetition on the same hands.
    * Most teachers in the United States and Europe teach this way, so if you are in a workshop and the teacher is shouting out patterns, she/ he will use the R L R R L R system.
    * I find it easier to get and keep your speed up with the repetitive system
  3. Alternates: RLRLRLRLRLRLRLRL These are simply striking the finger cymbals with alternate hands.
  4. RLR RLR RLRLRLR: This pattern uses the second pattern followed by the third pattern above.