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
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.
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
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.