Zorba, Male Belly Dancer

Henna Design Musical Zill Playing! Henna Design
Stop Playing Mechanically and be a Musician!


There is a lot of information on the web, in print, and in multitudes of classes and workshops on the art of playing Zills, or Sagat, otherwise known as finger cymbals. Most of it is actually quite useful, and can make an acceptable cymbal player out of most dancers. This article is intended to help start the thought process of transitioning from "acceptable" to "accomplished" or even "exceptional".

I also encourage reading Janette's article on Zill playing on this site - much of what I know came from her!

"Back in the day", finger cymbals were taught to baby bellies from day one, and they were never taken off unless one was dancing with a sword or a cane. Veilwork was always done wearing one's Zills. Unfortunately, this tradition has pretty much gone by the wayside, although Cory Zamora teaches it still. This de-emphasis on finger cymbals is unfortunate, fewer and fewer dancers learn Zills being terrified of them. I often find that only two dancers are playing Zills in a given performance showcase - myself and (usually) the headliner! crying

Although it wasn't "from day one" and it wasn't "all the time", I was fortunate in that I was introduced to Zills very early, and made it my business to learn them. Wearing them during veilwork came years later!

I was a musician long before I was a dancer of any kind. I was trained in classical music, both on the piano as well as the French Horn. I've also dabbled in other brass wind instruments. When I started learning Zill playing with my Belly Dancing - the Zills came very easily and naturally to me. Dancing while Zilling however, was another "kettle of fish", it was HARD! I think most Belly Dancers can relate. The only solution was a ton of practice - about six weeks of daily practice with a simple dance that had a simple Zill part that one of my instructors (Jamaica) had put together. I could stand still and play the Zill part no problem, but what use is a dancer who stands still? To make matters worse, I had managed to learn the Zill part wrong - so I got to unlearn, then relearn it! banging head

A Review of Teaching Methods.

There are several methods for teaching basic Zilling. No one way is right for everyone - each individual needs to figure out what works. This means that their teacher's method may or may not be the right one for them!

Dominant/non-dominant playing.

By far, the most popular method of teaching Zilling is to have the student play something like "Right, Left, Right" - hereafter referred to as "RLR". Better instructors of this method will tell their students that lefties should reverse the sequence and play "LRL". This results in a so-called "fast hand" (the dominant) and a "slow hand". Some proponents of this method (Such as Aziza Sa'id) will wear Zills of differing pitches on each hand, giving their Zilling a distinct sound. Respect to the latter, but I don't do it myself.

Ambidextrous playing.

A relatively small group of instructors (such as Janette and John Compton) will teach Zilling as "RLR" then "LRL" - in other words the next Zill stroke is always the opposite hand. This has the advantage of being able to play very fast and not think about it - once the technique has been mastered. This is my own technique - its what comes naturally to me.

Semi-Ambidextrous playing.

A third method uncommonly encountered involves an attempt to make different sounds by designating one hand as "doum" (ringing Zill) vs. "tek" (closed Zill). Under this method, if the right hand is "doum" and the left "tek", you'd play "LLR","LLR", for "Tek-a-doum". This seems un-necessarily complex to me, as the same effect could be accomplished with either of the first two techniques - but may help some to have designated "doum" and "tek" hands. This method is slower than either of the first two; but if it works for you, by all means use it. This can be easily combined with the use of differing pitch zills in each hand.

The forgotten Zill technique.

Not a teaching methodology per se, but a somewhat less taught technique is for the Zillist to play BOTH Zills at the same time on notes that are emphasized (Usually "doum"). Usually indicated with a 'B' in written notation. This works with either of the first two teaching methods (above), and can add tremendous variety to the Zills' sound when done well. Try this for pure syncopation (off beat notes)!

Various Sounds.

Experienced Zillists know there are a variety of sounds possible with this seemingly monotonic instrument. Open (ringing) and closed (more of a clack) are the most common. A kind of semi-clicking is possible by clicking the edge of one Zill (usually the thumb) into the bottom of the other. Various semi-scraping ("zinging") sounds are possible. Try ringing one Zill by vibrating it rapidly between the two Zills on the other hand. Another fun technique is to ring your zills openhanded with a like minded dance sister - or even an openhanded clack on the floor!

The Two Major Styles.

According to Cory Zamora, there are two major styles of Zill playing:

"Turkish picks with melody, no beat!
Arabic plays with drummer, keeps a beat."

I tend towards the Turkish - probably because of my musical background - but by no means exclusively. If the rhythm is stronger than the melody - or it just seems/feels better - I'll play the Arabic style. Sometimes I'll play both ways in the same piece of music when it makes sense to do so.

Different teachers will teach one or the other - or even both, such as Janette - although it seems to me that Arabic (with the beat/rhythm) is the more commonly taught and is probably easier for most. I personally don't take a position that one is "better" than the other, just different - and most certainly you'll play with the drummer if you play zills during a drum solo!

Rhythms and Musicality.

"Gallop", or "threes", or "triples": Please do NOT call this pattern "Triplets" - it is NOT. A triplet is a very specific musical term that is very misused by teachers and dancers alike. Yes, you can play true triplets on your Zills, this pattern isn't commonly found in Middle Eastern music - but it isn't unheard of either; its primarily found in 6/8 and 9/8.

Whatever they're called, we all have played them endlessly; or series of 3-1-3-1-3, and similar. And of course we all learn the basic Middle Eastern rhythms, Beledy, Sa'idi, Masmoudi, etc. There are now a number of teaching videos and CDs for learning Middle Eastern rhythms, the one I used was Link opens in new window Zills on Fire, a how-to CD and book set with 18 different rhythms and variations. Put your CD player on "track repeat" and drill on whatever rhythm you want to learn. I think this one (Zills on Fire) may be available in a downloadable form now as well.

So now, we've learned to play all these different rhythms, maybe practiced multitudes of different "counted variations" such as 3-3-5, etc. We've possibly learned rhythmic mantras such as "I AM A GOD-DESS, WOR-SHIP ME, WOR-SHIP ME" or "I LOVE NAK-KED MEN, BIG NAK-KED MEN (or CHICKS Smile!)", and similar.

Gallop, threes, or triples - AGAIN: If this is the only pattern you can play, please learn some more! Middle Eastern musicians call endless gallop "Coffee Cup" - they liken it to drinking cup after cup after cup of espresso - this drives them nuts and will also make your audience batty! This is the most overused pattern in the Belly Dance community, may I humbly suggest keeping it to a minimum? Tribal dancers are particularly guilty of this, although maybe I shouldn't complain - at least they're actually playing Zills, which is something!

Now here is the secret of great Zill playing, what separates the "Big Girls" from the tyros: Forget all those boring sequences, forget the mantras, even forget what the rhythm is; just play the darn things already! The sequences and mantras are a teaching tool to get you started. Sequences also are necessary in a group situation so everyone plays the same thing (otherwise, the result is a chaotic mess). But as a soloist, transcend the sequences, transcend the drills, and play your Zills like a musician!

I've never seen or heard this advice anywhere else - yet when I made a point of asking accomplished Zillists if they did this - the answer was a virtually universal YES! Often accompanied by an expression of surprise - they had never thought of it this way before, but they all told me that they certainly don't think about playing sequences or mantras!

The experienced Zillist can put her Zills on "autopilot", knowing that she'll play something that is musically correct regardless of what the rhythm is. This enables her to concentrate on her dancing, and pay minimal attention to her Zilling. As her comfort level grows, she'll soon be adding embellishments, syncopations, and flourishes to her Zilling (and dancing) without conscious thought. Her mind is so in-tune with the music, that her fingers cannot help but play something that compliments and blends with it.

That is the goal.

How do we get there?

Practice - of course! Smile! The successful Zillist will be able to forget about the mechanics of playing. Regardless of whether she plays "RLR, RLR", "RLR, LRL", "RRL, RRL", or some other technique I haven't heard of yet; she needs to be able to do it without thinking and be utterly comfortable with it.

To truly master the instrument, I personally feel that it is far better to be able to think in "dum-tek-ese". Counts are fine in the beginning, but try to migrate away from same. RLR nomenclature drives me nuts because I don't Zill that way - but are fine for those who do IN THE BEGINNING. Move to "drum talk" as soon as you're able - then you will start to FEEL your playing; therein lies mastery. A drumming class can be an ENORMOUS help as well.

Then, and only then, can work begin on playing with, and complementing, the music; also without conscious thought. Janette's drill at the end of her article is an excellent way to get started. Especially the part about "Singing along" (Zilling) to music you like. As "Singing Along" is another way of thinking of our goal (whether we "sing" with the melody ("Turkish") or with the beat/rhythm ("Arabic")), why not start doing it from the very beginning?

A note:

Regardless of WHAT you practice, the HOW is very, very, very, and EXTREEEEEEEMLY important. Do NOT just sit there and try to play your Zills. Do NOT just stand there and try to play your Zills either. MOVE! You don't necessarily have to dance, but move and keep your arms moving. They don't have to move fast, they don't have to move in time (to start with), but they MUST move. If you hold your Zills at chest level ("T-Rex arms"), keeping them there while you practice/learn - that is where you'll always play them, your hands will be "locked" there. Janette and others have beat this into me, and they're right. I've found that if I can do snake arms while playing something - I own it. You're not planning on standing onstage in one place playing your Zills - practicing them standing still is useless.

Don't have rhythm? Can't find the beat? Can't find the first beat? This actually affects more dancers than you'd think. Trying to play Zills like this is a pointless exercise. You'll need to learn the beats first. Sitting and clapping is fine for this - and DON'T GIVE UP! It *can* be done. I once had a dance sister who was like this - we'd have to clap for her when she was performing to give her the beat, and she *still* had a hard time with it. She persevered, and eventually "got it" - living proof how sheer determination can overcome anything. We were all so proud of her!

As you grow in your Zill playing, you'll find that sometimes you'll play the basic rhythm, sometimes you'll play with the melody, sometimes you'll play a "counted sequence" (without counting) and sometimes you'll play a syncopated counterpoint - all without thinking and without effort. You'll find that you dance better with Zills on your fingers - they help you "become one with the music". Your audiences will love it, your dance sisters will be in awe; and the musicians will respect you because you too will be a musician!

The only downside is that you'll find it limiting and frustrating to play simple Zill patterns in class!

Zill Choice.

What Zills to use? Whatever works for you. This will likely evolve over time. It isn't about the Zill, its about the player. I have come to overwhelmingly prefer Zildjians, I like their versatility. They're not for everybody: They're heavy, they're not particularly pretty, and they're LOUD - requiring the Zillist to modulate their power. Some dancers, such as Cory Zamora as well as myself, swear by them. Other perfectly skilled Zillists swear at them! You also really can't go wrong with the ever present Saroyans, and I've liked the Turquoise brand Zills I've tried as well. But a quad of garbage can lids will teach you the basics (although your audience may not appreciate it...)! I do recommend "double slot" Zills rather than the "single hole" variety, the latter of which are becoming increasingly rare and are seldom found these days. Even horrible sounding cheap Zills are now virtually all double slotted - that wasn't true in the not so distant past. Zildjians come in both flavors: Single hole "Musician's Zills" sold as a pair, and double slotted "Dancer's Zills", sold as a quad - they sound the same, but make sure you get the latter when buying this brand.

Another thing, there are some ridiculously HUGE Zills out there, some of them promulgated by very well known teachers and performers. I have a set obtained from a now retired male dancer that measure out at 3 inches! Yes, I can play them, and yes they have a unique and lovely tone. But I feel that they are, at best, a specialty instrument used to obtain a special sound, not for general performance use. Most musicians/bands won't be particularly impressed either: "She plays sagat as big as her head!" was one musician's comment about a similar set. They're hard to play, harder to play well, and extremely hard to play fast - so I have to ask "WHY?" You can also put a 454 V-8 engine into a Volkswagen Beetle, but "WHY?" Sometimes I think all the phallic comparisons are spot on!

As I continue to grow and evolve both as a dancer and a Zillist, I find my hands feel empty without my Zills. I feel that I dance better,and my arm and my hand positions are better when I'm playing Zills. "Old Skool" masters like Cory Zamora and Janette will agree.

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