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Gilded Serpent presents...
Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 1
Cymbals, Beyond Basics
by Mary Ellen Donald
Originally published in Bellydancer Magazine in 1978 as part of an ongoing column. This magazine was published by Yasmine Samra in Palo Alto, California.
This article is now available with permission from MaryEllen and GS on Lisa Chen's site in Chinese! and

Back in the '70s I recieved this question that is still pertinent today:

"I have been dancing and playing cymbals for sometime now.  I can get through a piece of music with my cymbals but I don't feel very creative while doing so.  I would appreciate your offering me some suggestions for improving my overall cymbal playing."

Here is my advice this young dancer:
Based on what you've said, I'm going to assume that you can already play the "gallop" and "singles" patterns (what I call basic and alternating strokes), that you are holding your cymbals properly, and that you know how to alter the tone of your cymbals.  Below I would like to list some essentials to keep in mind if you'd like to get beyond the mediocre level of cymbal playing.

1. Increase the strength in your hands and fingers. You have to have enough strength in your hands and fingers to execute intricate patterns smoothly and with speed.  You will be helped toward such strength if when you practice cymbals separate from your dancing, you hold your arms fairly stationary out front, forcing your fingers and hands to work instead of receiving the strength from larger arm movements.  Also, I would suggest two simple exercises.

A. Strike both cymbals together in both hands simultaneously as a long stroke and then play a quick right and left stroke afterwards, resulting in a pattern sounding like the "gallop."

B. Play alternating strokes beginning with your left hand and accent the first of every four strokes.  These exercises are especially helpful for the left hand.  Whether you begin with your left or your right, eventually try to play alternating strokes continuously through two or three minutes of a moderate tempo piece of 4/4 music.  Whenever you find yourself jerking your hands, slow down.  A smooth sound is very important.

2. Familiarize yourself with some basic concepts of rhythm and allow this knowledge to free up your imagination as you choose rhythmical variations. 

One such useful concept is that involving the filling in and emptying of spaces. 

That is, if the original pattern that you learn calls for one sound at a given beat, say, count 4-and, you can substitute two, three, four sounds, etc. for that one.  You just have to remember to make the multiple sounds take up the same amount of time as the original single sound.  So with one basic pattern in mind, you can play numerous variations.  Learning how to count time evenly should be another essential part of your rhythmical training.  Also you should become familiar with the concepts of syncopation and counterpoint.  Keep in mind that rhythmical expertise cannot replace your imagination but rather enrich its possibilities.

3. Learn the accents of the Middle Eastern rhythms popular within your dance music.  It's not necessary that you reflect the accents of a rhythm continuously but it's important to be able to pick up the accents with cymbals and/or body when you wish to. 

Sometimes you will want to coincide with the accents of the drummer and other times you will play over the rhythm and be in counterpoint with the drummer.

 Each rhythm has a distinct arrangement of accents.  If you are sure of where these accents come, you can bring a unique flavor to each section of your routine.

4. Play your cymbals with good taste.  More often than not you are probably dancing to recorded music, so you have the opportunity to study the music and decide ahead of time on what type of cymbal patterns would be appropriate for each section.  If you hear the drummer playing a series of fancy, perhaps syncopated strokes, then you should probably keep simple and not muddy up the sounds with additional intricacies.  On the other hand, when the drummer is playing  quite simply, you might choose to embellish your playing more.  Remember to aim at a pleasing totality involving your movements, your cymbals, and the various instruments in the band.  Showing off at the wrong time can destroy the beauty of the whole presentation.  Also, in keeping with tasteful playing, remember to play cymbals delicately when the melody instruments are playing gentle solos.  Good taste might also help you to decide to play solid baladi accents with very little filler when the band is playing slow heavy baladi.  You probably would sound out of place if you at that time tried to throw in all kinds of delicate and fancy variations. 

When the rhythm is not being enunciated so clearly, maybe a mellow bass keeping the beat in the background, then following the melody line or inventing a light filler type of sound with your cymbals might bring out the best in the music.

One final comment on this topic of taste.  Many question whether or not the dancer should play cymbals during the drum solo. 

I think that you can add to the excitement of a drum solo if you can play cymbals very well, fast enough, smooth enough, and syncopated enough at times.

Also, if you are playing to a drum solo that you have memorized and can pick up all of the breaks, you might consider playing cymbals.  If you don't have such expertise, then please don't play your cymbals during the drum solo.  If dancing to live music, you might ask the drummer's preference on your playing or not playing cymbals on the solo.

5. Finally, I'd like to urge you to play your cymbals assertively with feeling.  All of the rhythmical knowledge in the world will not make your dancing and cymbal playing touch and transform your audience.  I would hasten to add that playing cymbals just from a sense of what you call feeling without knowing anything about counting or rhythm in general or Middle Eastern rhythms more specifically can be a disaster.  Just as in other aspects of life, it's very important that you balance knowledge and feeling.  Let the music call forth a celebration of life's beauty from within you.  Let your cymbals sing out this celebration.

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