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Choosing Finger Cymbals

A Zill Collection

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:

Weight

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.

Size

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.

Color

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

dancer with zillsI 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!).

A Collection of Finger Cymbals or Zills

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   |       |    5 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Baraka

    Jun 2, 2010 - 10:06:07

    Some very good advice, Lara!  I’d like to add a few of mine from many years of teaching (though I no longer dance, I still remember a lot from 30+ years in the biz.)
    I always used to recommend that students have at least 2 pair of cymbals.  Use the heavier pair for rehearsal and class, and the lighter one for performance.  This allows you to build up strength and stamina with the heavier ones, and your fingers can really fly in performance with the lighter set.
    And yes, they are instruments!  That means you need to learn to play a variety of different rhythms, follow your music appropriately (I must admit my own pet peeve is the dancer who can only play 1 pattern and chatters on and on with it!), and darn it, improvise!
    And you don’t necessarily need to drive your family and neighbors nuts with the practice.  While you can sew or knit cymbal “mufflers”, it’s also quick and easy to get a pair of baby socks and slip them over your zils.   And if it’s rhythm and timing you’re working on, you might just want to snap your fingers.  The muscle movement is almost identical, and you get the sequences into muscle memory.
    Zils can be a huge asset – I remember Aida al-Adawi doing many unaccompanied “drum” solos using just zils!

  2. No Gravatar
    Tracy Benton

    Jun 2, 2010 - 12:06:35

    An excellent article. We were just debating the cleaning of finger cymbals on the Bhuz board, oddly enough! While I liked the fact that the author avoided mentioning brand names, I would like to know her opinion on silver vs. brass vs. bronze cymbals, especially when advising students what to buy.

  3. No Gravatar
    Lara Lotze

    Jun 5, 2010 - 01:06:12

    Excellent advice, Baraka! Thanks for adding that. I do suggest spending time without mufflers, tho. Muffle if you must, but know that it does affect the ability to modulate the sound. It can be hard to tell if you have a clear ring or a muted tone, so at least a little time without is important, in my opinion.
     
    Tracy, I’m not sure I’ll be much help in type of metal. It really is a personal preference. In general, with zills of similar style and weight, silver will have the highest pitch, brass lower, and bronze a bit lower still. Lower, more mellow tones tend to be less abrasive for those with sensitive hearing. A silver set that is wider or heavier may still have a lower, more mellow tone than a lighter, smaller brass set. If at all possible, it is good to listen in person before purchasing a set. If that is not possible, many retailers and manufacturers now have audio files online so you can get an idea of the tone. Not ideal, but better than nothing. If you happen to find a set you love, please feel free to ignore all other advice & get the ones you like!

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