How to Improvise on Finger Cymbals

by Alia Thabit Arabic music is an old, rich, many-layered tradition. One tiny slice of it are the

concepts of tarab and of improvisation. Tarab is generally translated as musical

ecstasy. The music has an intention to entrain meditative states, for the artists and

the listeners. The goal of the music is to bring the group into a state of joy. The

second is improvisation. This is the bread and butter of Arabic music. Everybody

improvises. All the time.

How do they do that without creating a total mess?

Introducing heterophony and heterorhythm

Heterophony: one melody. Heterorhythm: one rhythm pattern. In some musical

traditions there is harmony—multiple musical lines that wind around each other. In

others, there are polyrhythms-- multiple drum parts that interlink and create complex


Arabic music does not have harmony. There is one melody line, and everyone plays

around that line. There is one rhythm pattern, and everyone plays around that

pattern. It’s called ornamentation.

The artists ornament the music. In the way a Christmas tree is decorated with

sparkling ornaments--tinsel, glass balls, ribbons, lights and so forth, Arabic

musicians decorate the basic song with ornaments--trills, lazimat (decorations at the

ends of musical phrases), and taqasim (solo improvisations).

Percussionists include elaborate ornamentation on the basic rhythms—just watch

the drummers’ hands in a video. They are playing a heck of a lot more than dum,

dum, tekka tek. While there may be a frame drum (or several) holding down the

basic beat, everyone else is elaborating and decorating. The musicians listen to, and

interact with each other’s playing to create a wonderful sonic brew.

Additionally, it is a point of pride to never play a song the same way twice—because

your feeling is different from day to day, you play the song differently. So we have

this culture of improvisation, playfulness, and the expression of the artists’ feeling in

the moment. It is a major feature in the music, in the dance, in the whole ethos of the

genre. It is huge part of what makes Arabic music (and dance) unique.

So why are we dancers only playing the basic rhythms?

Most of us are only taught the basic rhythms, so there is that. Then we drill them

until we are blue in the fingers (literally--if our fingertips aren’t blue, our zils aren’t

tight enough). Then we trudge through our dance, endlessly repeating our chosen

rhythm, praying we picked the right one for the song (or just playing triples and

driving ourselves insane).

The problem with this is that we have to think a lot to make sure we are still playing

the rhythm, while we try to remember our (probably choreographed) dance. This is a

lot of thinking and remembering for an art form that values expressing our feeling in

the moment from a zone of musical ecstasy. It’s quite a challenge to feel free and

expressive while thinking, worrying, and remembering, and also trying to listen to--

and feel something from--the music. And then we’re supposed to bring joy?! Yikes!

How can we do this differently?



Noooo, really! Improvising on finger cymbals may seem daunting, considering how

hard it can be to just play the rhythm. But I assure it you it is easier than the

alternative, and considerably more fun. In this article, we will look at the art of self-

accompaniment, the importance of “air zils,” and how to walk and chew gum, er, zil,

at the same time.

Let’s get started!

The art of self-accompaniment

Rather than playing basic patterns, we play our dance. This means we use our

cymbals to highlight our shimmies, accents, turn, steps, and what have you.

There will be rhythm, because we are moving rhythmically. So we might not play

during a taqsim, unless there is a rhythm behind it—and even then we would play

very quietly, as it is the solo instrument we want to follow.

In the more rhythmic parts of the song, we might play…

Frills and fragments

For general dancing, we generally play fragments of the rhythm, such as its

beginning or end, or triples (tekatek, tekatek), or we may play frills--like a series of

doubles for a shimmy. It’s like a drum solo—the drummer may play the basic rhythm

a few times to set it, but then takes off into variations on that theme. We do the same

thing--on a simpler level, since, fortunately for us, finger cymbals are way less

complex than drums.

The trick is to COMMIT.

This means we play with zest. Proper cymbal technique requires this, as our fingers

spring away after we tap our zils together. Building confidence with our playing helps

us to improvise. We get used to going for it! Plus, cymbals invite an expansive body

posture, with the arms open, away from the body. Behavior creates emotion.

Expansive bodies feel more confident (see Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses

for more about this).

As we dance, we play, in this confident manner. When we walk, we play our walk

(more on this below). We play our turns. We play our hip drops. We play our timing.

Please consider this word, play. In its home countries, belly dance is a playful, fun

activity. The more we bring a spirit of playfulness and fun into our dance and our

cymbals, the happier we will be—and when we choose to perform, so will our

guests. We play for fun.

Finger cymbals make the dancer real. Especially when all our music is canned, a

dancer playing cymbals steps across into the real world. They interact with the music

and exert their own agency onto it. Recorded music is the same every time—finger

cymbals bring in a sense of wildness—who can tell what such a dancer will do? It

makes our guests sit up and take notice.

Hit your accents!

Back in the live music days, the musicians followed the dancer, the dancer followed

the musicians, and the result was fabulous—a unique, ephemeral, creative

collaboration that reignited with every show. When you are in the moment, you don’t

have time to think—you just go. So, you commit to your choices with gusto!

This confidence means that sometimes you may do something that didn’t occur to

the band. When we self-accompany, we’re covered! When we hit an accent, BAM!

Hit that accent with the cymbals as well as the body.

TAK! TAK! TAK! TAK! Takatakatakatakatakatakatak!

TAK! TAK! TAK! TAK! Takatakatakatakatakatakatak!

Dum TAK! Teka teka teka teka,

Dum TAK! Teka teka tek!

Try these patterns. You may notice your body wanting to do things. Let it!

It can be scary at first to commit to our dancing—or our zil playing. They’re so

LOUD! What if I make a mistake?!

Well, you will. Everyone else has, and so will you. There is no learning without

mistakes. The only way to be perfect is to be dead. So, embrace your mistakes. In

jazz, they have a saying: There are no wrong notes. For us, there are no wrong

moves. So…


The importance of “air zils”

Okay, all that sounds great, right? But how do we get there? How do we get to



In his excellent book Effortless Mastery, jazz musician Kenny Werner talks about an

exercise a teacher set him to. He was required to hold his hands in a ready position

over the piano and practice dropping his fingers one by one onto the keys. This work

was done with careful precision. Werner was not allowed to play at all during the

weeks he practiced these “finger drops.” He chafed at what he saw as a waste of

time, but he kept at it.

After a while, he was invited to a jam session. He apologized in advance, saying he

was out of practice as he had been doing nothing but finger drops for the past few

weeks. Then he sat down to play. He played better than he ever had in his life.

Werner said that previously he had been a stiff, anxious player. Now? Wow. His

fingers knew what to do.

Automatic, baby.

Werner had finger drops.

We have Air Zils.

Um, what?! Yep, like air guitar--but better. We practice playing with no zils on. Each

zil hit has to be strong and precise. We practice with a measured rhythm, as slowly

as we have to go to have great technique and steady rhythm (more on this

technique thing below). We start with doubles—right left right left right left (or vise

vera for lefties). Once we are solid with doubles, we move on. Singles on one hand.

Triples. And so on.

Find the rhythm from your heart. You are not a machine.

As we build up the muscles required to zil, we burn in the technique: hand/arm

position, finger movement, and so forth. We build that in a low-stakes environment.

We can air zil anywhere—even driving the car. We can air zil as we dance, too—always taking care to attend to our technique. Once we are solid, we can speed up for a bit—until our steady beat falters. Then we return to where we are solid. Over time, our speed improves. Our skill becomes automatic. And we get a nice side benefit.


But what about dancing?

Let’s start with walking.

And let’s start early. Once you get the hang of the air zils, it’s time to start moving.

How to walk and chew gum, er, zil.

Take a step, take a step, tek ka tek, tek ka tek. Triples go so nicely with walking,

they even sound the same! So this is where we start. And we can start with air zils.

A triple is three taps on one beat: Right Left Right OR Left Right Left (RLR or LRL.

NEVER RRL or LLR. It seems picky but it’s vital).

And a ONE, and a TWO, and so forth. Your foot falls on the beat.

And a ONE = Take a STEP.

Take a STEP. Take a STEP. RLR, RLR. If that feels challenging, start with singles

on one hand. Then the other, then alternating, working up to triples over time.

You get the picture. Walk as slowly as it takes to be steady with your cymbals.

Stage your arms.

Place your arms in a suitable frame. Then change their location as you go.

Start with the arms gently curved, palms in line with the inner arm, slightly out from

the body: “open pit,” meaning open armpit—the arms are out far enough to open up

the armpit (I read this term from a dancer a long time ago and it’s perfect).

This basic arm position, open pit, arms curved, can then simply be placed in different

locations. Down. Up to chest level. Above the head. To the side to showcase one hip

or another. And so forth. I invite you to start down; it’s easier.

Start walking (to music if you like). After four or eight, or however many steps it takes

to feel comfortable, change the staging of your arms. Just lift them to the next stage

in between iterations: tekatek, tekatek, tekatek, tekachange. Why am I putting four of


It helps to make these changes at the natural breaks in the music—the end of one

line of the song, or of a verse or chorus. It looks and feels more natural and it’s good

practice. We want to develop a sense of these breaks; when we change with the

music, we always look good.

After a while, start smoothing those placement transitions until you have arms

moving while zilling. Then you can play around with more freeform arm movement

while playing. Again, keep to where you can maintain a steady rhythm.

This all may sound like an awful lot of effort, but it actually doesn’t take very long to

develop quite a lot of skill. A month of daily guided practice (in multiple short bursts

per day) can take you from beginner to dancing.

As walking becomes comfortable, explore other moves. Then dancing a little bit. Or

different cymbal patterns, such as the accent hits above. Doubles with your

shimmies. Playing along with the music, without, and with dancing. Playing riffs from

drum solos. Always play at the speed you need to play solidly. Then play with speed.

Stop when it falters and go back to your fastest solid speed. Over time (and not that

much time), speed and dexterity increase dramatically.


As we gain enough comfort to dance and play rhythmically, we can branch out from

the rhythm.

Yes, we can play the melody!

Play along to your music. It’s tricky, as you usually have to play faster to get the

melodic quality. Over time, you will get there. I suggest starting with simpler, old-

school songs. Complex orchestral music can wait a bit ; ).

But we have to know allll the rhythms!

No, we don’t.

We do have to be able to dance on them. We have to be able to hear the beat and

the accents and move to them. We can play zils and dance on most rhythms

perfectly well without knowing them or their names (most 4/4 rhythms are

remarkably similar on the zils—just the accents are in different places).

It is very useful to know the major rhythms and their names. It’s great to ask a band

to play us something in maqsoum and know what we are talking about. It’s great to

be able to play them. I can. You will, too--that will come, with time and curiosity.

Anyone who loves this dance will naturally want to learn more--and your knowledge

will grow. But knowing everything is NOT a prerequisite to dancing and playing zils.

In the beginning, it’s way more important to feel them than to name them.

In Ibrahim Farrah’s classes, back in the 70s, I do not remember us spending much, if

any, time learning the basic patterns by rote. We started right our playing around the

pattern and playing our dance. Bobby taught two classes back to back—dance and

cymbals. We did something different in every single class I went to (and I was a

teenager with a job. I went to a LOT of classes).

In each class Bobby taught a short combination, and in the cymbal class there were

zil patterns that went along with the combination. The zil work reinforced the dance

combo, explicating the movements, accenting the accents etc. Somewhere I have

an ancient notebook with a bunch of his zil combos.

Not one of them was a basic rhythm.

I did not even know the names of most of the rhythms (much less the rhythms

themselves), until way later. But I could dance to them. And I could play with them.

Again, most 4/4 rhythms will take most 4/4 zil patterns. I did know Tsiftetelli and

Karsilama, which are different from the rest of the common dance rhythms, and

(maybe?) Beledi (aka maqsoum). But that was it.

Of course, now I know a lot more. I’ve had decades in which to learn. Learning takes

time, and true learning is uncomfortable. Learning new skills (unlike collecting new

information), is, by its very nature, out of our comfort zone. So we tend to think we

are no good at the thing and drop it.

It’s important to know that those feelings of discomfort, stupidity, frustration, and

hopelessness are, in fact, the hallmarks of success! It takes a lot of energy to learn

something new. The brain has to lay down new pathways of neurons, and then more

neurons. It’s exhausting.

When we stick with the new skill long enough, the brain says oh, fine, and starts

wrapping our new neurons in myelin a white, tape-like structure), which sets the

skills in place. All of a sudden, something that was immensely challenging just

works. Stick with this, and that can happen for you, too.


Start with air zils. Use good technique. Go slowly enough to keep a steady beat.

Speed up until you falter, then go back to steady. Start moving early on. Once you

can walk and zil, start playing with other moves. As you get comfortable, reach for

the next level. Learning hurts. Frustration is a sign of progress. Keep going.

Arab musicians hone their chops (technical skills) so that when they reach for

something in the moment, it is there. This is what we’re doing, too. Rather than

drilling the basic patterns, we’re developing flexibility and confidence in the moment.

Musicians may develop phenomenal technique. They are more than able to do all

sorts of flashy, show-off stuff. But Showing off is NOT their purpose.

The purpose of developing technique is to create the richest, most beautiful


Your dance is a gift you give to the world. Your dance creates a container for ease

and joy. As you practice, seek to meld your dance and cymbal skills. Let them

become effortlessly connected, so when you reach for them in the moment, they will


You bring joy to the world. Make that your purpose.

Where do we go from here?

It’s easier to show this stuff than to tell. Plus there is a lot of important technique

involved to make playing easier, reduce hand fatigue, and broaden our range. We

can learn a lot on our own, but it helps to have guidance. So, I’ve made a class to

teach this, with lots of video.

Ziltastic! Fast, Fun Finger Cymbal Improvisation ( is a four-week,

carefully graduated course. It’s daily assignments ask for a modest amount of

guided practice that progresses from air zils to dancing with self-accompaniment. It

can help you get more deeply into improvisation—and level up your confidence and

musicality, too!

Good luck, good practice, and happy zilling!

Alia Thabit is an Arab-American dancer, writer, artist, and guide. Her teaching, coaching, and performing celebrates belly dance’s cultural ideals of feeling, improvisation, playfulness, and joy.

Alia became a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner to better help people connect to their body and soul with pleasure and ease. Her dance classes, coaching, and SE sessions help participants reclaim their joyful spirit and deep well of creativity.

An international and online instructor with decades of experience, Alia is the author of Midnight at the Crossroads, a book about the heart and soul of belly dance. Thrive - Alia Thabit

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