In a recent conversation with my friend, Henna, I jokingly mentioned that “I’d like to dub February as Finger Cymbal Awareness Month.” We laughed, realized the actual importance of the statement, and thus I’ve decided to take action! Not that a finger cymbal player should only devote one month a year to practice (it’s an instrument that takes years of consistent energy, as much as any other instrument) but perhaps we can have a yearly “reminder” to celebrate finger cymbals! A time for dancers to pick them up again if perhaps they’ve taken a back-seat, introduce a new dancer to playing zils, or even encourage musicians to give them a try!
Why should we care about finger cymbals?
Finger cymbals (aka zils or sagat) are amazing, pocket-sized, percussion powerhouses.They’re an essential companion for any belly dancer. When mastered, zils can truly express and add as much to a performance as any other percussion instrument. Paring interesting zil rhythms with musical compositions can bring new vibrancy and life into a song. They can also demonstrate/express a dancers intimate understanding of the music they are performing to. It is truly fulfilling for a dancer to be able to accompany their own dancing! Finger cymbals are one of the things that tie this dance form uniquely to it’s music.
Finger cymbals are deceptively challenging to truly master, however. Good dancers/players make anything look easy, right?! Just strap them on, smash them together, and they make lots of audible noise with little effort. Many dancers consider them “just a prop”, and many musicians are mighty weary of them. Well, I’m here to offer a different, more nuanced perspective.
Finger Cymbals are one of my favorite things about belly dance. I am a percussionist as well as a dancer, so this might naturally make sense. Being a wearer of both the dancer and musician hats has given me certain insights and observations about the awesomeness and challenges of finger cymbals.
Being a musician also makes me hyper-aware of the “sound-space” every time I go to a show, especially shows with live music. In addition to melodies, rhythms, lyrics and compositions, I pay attention to dynamics, tempo, and quality of the overall auditory experience. Personally, I’m a sucker for well-balanced, dynamic, acoustic music. I have felt the incredible magic of a band in-tune and in-time, in an acoustically complimentary space, and I yearn for it. It’s not easy to achieve; a lot goes into creating and maintaining an awesome mix. I also know not everyone shares my same desire for “intentional sound making” and/or attentive, appreciative “audience-ing”… but there are many out there who do.
So, whats all that got to do with playing finger cymbals?
Belly dancers: When a dancer plays finger cymbals, they effect the sound-space of the entire room.
Cymbals are loud by nature, they were designed that way. High-pitched sounds -like cymbals- “cut” through/above other noises. With great power comes great responsibility. Finger cymbals can effect the entire composition of a piece of music, for better or worse. Cymbals become a part of the music. The dancer becomes a musician by default.
In my opinion: when creating one of the most audible noises in the room, it would be for the benefit of all to be as conscious as possible about volume, tempo, and overall quality of playing. As I mentioned, dancers become a part of the band when they play zils. That is an exciting honor, and a responsibility. A dancer should take that position as serious as other members of the band consider their instruments. Practice lots and know your stuff. (If you’re not dancing to live music, the same applies, except that you are even more visible/audible because there’s no band to share focus.)
Overall, lets admit it, it’s extremely difficult to play an instrument and execute complex, syncopated dance movements at the same time. I should specify: it’s difficult to do both well.
If a dancer choses to perform with finger cymbals, I think its as important to master as any other part of their performance. As important as perfecting isolations, remembering choreography, and costuming. Anything a dancer choses to include in performance should be presented with as much energy and consideration as possible. Things like music, zils, costumes and venue are important because they frame, support, and effect the overall dance experience.
My dream? To see a world where finger cymbals are loved, appreciated, and respected by all for the great percussion instruments that they truly are. Experiences where dancers, musicians, and audiences alike look forward to that exciting finger cymbal section of a performance!
Cheers to lots of learning, practicing, and supporting dancer musicality!
Finger Cymbal Awareness Tips:
1) Become familiar with the all the sounds finger cymbals make (yes, there are more than one! Loud rings, soft “clacks”, sharp “tics”…. etc).
2) Practice with a metronome. http://a.bestmetronome.com/ record your practice sessions, and listen back to observe your progress.
3) Learn about basic middle eastern rhythms, then learn common zil patterns that accompany middle eastern music.
4) Study music in general. Understanding even just the basics of musical counting and song structures will help immensely!
5) Finger cymbals are an instrument, if you want to get good and stay good, you ideally need to practice daily. Try for 30 mins, with a metronome and a song, at least once a week. Strive to achieve technical proficiency with the cymbals before performing with them.
6) If you live in an apartment, make an “x” with electrical tape on the underside of your cymbals to dampen the ring. Also… controlling the volume of your cymbals and learning to play quietly is a really good skill to foster.
7) Improvise! Know your instrument so well, and feel so confident, that you can turn on any song and play with ease and fluidity. *Record yourself to be sure you sound as good as you feel!*
8) If you’re performing with live music (lucky!) consider letting the band know that you are planning to play finger cymbals. That may effect the song they chose to play for you.
9) Play with a smile!!!! Relax and have fun!
10) Once you’ve mastered playing cymbals solo, find some friends and play as an ensemble. Enjoy the benefits and challenges of syncing up together and playing as one.
p.s. my favorite place to get Finger Cymbals:
Saroyan MasterCrafts – http://www.saroyancymbals.com/index.html