by Lara Lotze
Learning finger cymbals can be intimidating for many dancers. It is not just another prop, it is a musical instrument that should be used to enhance the dance and help accent the music. One the major barriers to learning finger cymbals is simply finding a good pair of cymbals that you like. I have talked with many, many dancers who quite literally hated finger cymbals, until they found the right pair to work with. Just like any other instrument, quality will affect the sound and the student’s continued interest in playing!
Everybody is different and expecting everyone to like the same cymbals doesn’t make sense. A tone and weight that one person loves may drive another person up the wall. If you are going to be practicing for hours on end, you really need an instrument that you actually like! Before you give up cymbals all together, here are a few things to consider:
Many instructors recommend using light weight cymbals for beginners, but I like my students to start with slightly heavier gauge. 130 grams is the lightest I allow in my classes, because I think the slightly heavier cymbals are actually easier to play! Enough weight allows the cymbals to ‘bounce’ more naturally, allowing for a nice, clear ring without extra effort, and up through about 180 grams is generally not too heavy for beginners to handle. I do suggest holding off on cymbals over 180 grams until you have built up hand strength. I love the sound and feel of the 180+ gram cymbals but it is tiring if you haven’t worked up to it, which can be discouraging for beginners!
Tone or Pitch
This is probably the most important factor in finding cymbals that you like enough to eventually fall in love with. The set of cymbals my first teacher started us all out with had a tone that literally put my brain to sleep. One of my students used a pair that I loved but gave her migraines. In both cases, switching to another pair helped us fall in love with cymbals! It is really amazing how quickly my student’s cymbal technique improved once she had a pair of cymbals she liked! Once you are proficient enough to go public, there are a few other pitch issues. I have several pairs for use in different venues – a lower, more mellow tone is better if you know you will be playing for people with specific hearing issues, in a nursing home, for example. If you will be in a very noisy restaurant, it is easier to hear the high pitched cymbals. For stage, I generally prefer a mid toned, heavy weight cymbal that carries well to the back of the auditorium. One pair of cymbals I own sounds beautiful, but clashes with some of my music, so music choice can also affect which pair I choose.
I hear dancers use the excuse of small hands over and over again when they are trying to avoid the heavier cymbals, but there are cymbals that are both over 130 grams and small enough for beginners & small handed people to handle. It is difficult for a beginning dancer to handle very wide cymbals and it is worth finding something you are comfortable holding, but if you really like the mellow tones of some of the larger cymbals, a little stretching & a lot of practice can prepare most people for dealing with the larger diameter cymbals.
Many dancers choose their cymbals based on what color will match a costume. That is fine as a secondary consideration, but if the tone doesn’t settle with you, the best color match in the world won’t make a bit of difference to your long term happiness! Fortunately, there are many cymbals out there in both gold & silver & even bronze. None of these factors should be considered in isolation, and I readily admit that I want pretty cymbals too!
Single Hole or Double
I used to think that single hole cymbals were inferior and harder to play until I took a class with Artemis and she showed us that single hole cymbals are just different. Many dancers do prefer the stability of the double hole cymbals, but if you find a set of single hole cymbals that you love, you can either learn single hole technique or use various tricks (such as sewing a small button to the elastic on the underside of the cymbal) to make them more stable. I highly recommend the Zill Speak and Sagat Speak instructional CDs by Artemis and Yasmin for specifics on how to play either style.
Use & Care
Everybody’s hands are shaped a little different. Some dancers recommend putting the elastic over the first knuckle while others will tell you to put it just above the knuckle. Either method is fine, you need to experiment and see which position is most comfortable for you and secure enough to keep the cymbals on your fingers during a spin or two. I recommend using pins at least the first few times a set of cymbals is worn so the elastic can be adjusted. Please pin them on top of your fingers since putting the pin under the cymbal will deaden the sound and may scratch the cymbals as well. Once you are sure how tight the elastic should be for a good fit while dancing, you can choose to either sew them shut or stick with small safety pins. If you sew them, they are inherently less adjustable. If you use pins, you need to make sure they are holding up and not about to pop before each use. No one has ever noticed that I still use pins rather than sewing. I prefer the adjustability and there are enough other things to distract the audience, no one seems to notice the little gold glint on the elastic.
For my silver & brass cymbals, I try to wipe the set clean with a soft cloth after each use to prevent oxidizing, and use a little brass or silver polish about once a year. I actually like the patina on my bronze cymbals and do not polish those at all. Polish does make elastic stiff, so be careful when cleaning your cymbals. The elastic will need to be replaced periodically. There are only so many times you can tighten elastic before it gives out, and it is best to check the elastic after a performance rather than be surprised at the beginning of your next performance!
Some dancers like to bake or cure their cymbals. Heat (& cold) changes the tone of cymbals. I prefer not to bake mine since the tone I sample them at when buying is generally the tone I want. If a cymbal looses it’s original tone, however, curing the full set in the oven does generally return them to their original tone. Do not leave your cymbals in a hot car or let them freeze. Besides, no one wants to get frostbite from their cymbals (ouch!).
Ready for more?
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—Added Feature! See our Gallery of Men in Middle Eastern Dance
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The finger cymbals: The cheapest money can buy, likely made by orphaned children in a third world country, yet an exceptional value for $9 at Borders books.
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A special thanks to the artists and producers who made these CDs possible, and may they individually and collectively preserve and revitalize an aspect of the dance, playing finger cymbals, that, sadly, has been withering on the vine in the community of late.
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"Hi, I’m Suhaila’s mum; I hear you Underbelly girls are good zillers!"
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Bashing zills and barking shelties competed.
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"My dear: some of these people have zills older than you."
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My experience with Bert was the opposite, however; the cymbals were hardly a secret.
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…my zils flew off into the audience, and George stopped playing, went down into the audience…Was I embarrassed!
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A community does not operate in a vacuum and there is no room for cattiness or drama if the community is to be effective and truly benefit the area as a whole
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If they are good musicians, they will abide by the rules and respect the dancer. We have to work for her, not against her. The young lady depends on you. She depends on the musicians.
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When she introduces me to her dance friends, it’s the first story out of her mouth – eighteen years after the fact. We still laugh about it.