Zills (Finger Cymbals)

The following is summarized from a variety of posts on the Med-dance mailinglist, which are stored in the Dancer's Archive.

Questions: Playing Tips, Types of Zills

We recently had a discussion on the history of zills; now how 'bout some help on using them? I can play them, and I can dance - I just can't dance and play them at the same time!!! Any suggestions on making this transition? Also, I notice that there are a lot of different types and sizes; I assume that they make different types of sounds etc. so, what is appropriate to what? What do you recommend as a good all around type to have for perfoming in indoor places like resturants etc.?

Answers: Playing Tips

The short answer is Practice! And practice while moving.

Response 1

For playing and dancing with the zills, there is no cure except practice. Take a movement and rhythm you are familiar with and work with them over and over until you become coordinated--i.e. Basic Egyptian Walk and Triplets.


Response 2

How to make the transition? Try practicing while you dance. No, seriously: walk as you play. Then change your walk: go sideways. Go one step back and two steps forward. Do grapevines.

Stand in place and dance with your arms. Slowly curve them up overhead as you play. Describe all kinds of graceful arcs with them. Do snake arms / cobra arms / whatever you call them: out to the sides, directly in front, going straight up overhead. Try starting with your arms down at your sides, and play while you sweep one in a big arc to the side and up overhead, then the other arm. Then the first one down and the next one down. Alternate other things like that.

Then walk and sweep your arms around. Turn in place. Turn the other way. Add hip circles and hip lifts. Trade off between hip lifts and hip circles. Think of more things like that. And keep playing those zills!

Gradually you'll be able to do more complex arms and walks...and what is dancing if not walking with style?


Response 3

When you learn it: NEVER!!!!!! play the zills, when you're sitting!!!!! The first step is a simple tack while you are going, make the tack by every step, then between to steps, find your own rhythms.

When you are really sure with this!!! begin to turn, make "a little dance". Then take a simple Rhythm (Ayoub or something like this). Play the rhythm while going, while dancing, when you're really sure whith this!!!!!, learn the fill ups and the figures and the different styles to play. You have to go slowly really step by step. Remember: when dancing with the zills, don't play them all the time, it is an effect, play them whith certain parts of the music you dance whith and when dancing change the style from time to time, otherwise it could be a little enervating to your audience.

Wish you a lot of rhythm!

Response 4

I would recommend you to practice, with just the zills, so much that playing them is an almost automatic process (so you don't have to think about how to play them). Then start practicing with very simple steps/movements.


Response 5

People have different ways of understanding and learning about rhythm, so no one technique works for everyone, and some processes may work a lot faster for you than others.

I learned the zills -- madethe big breakthrough -- while still a baby dancer, sitting on my butt for 18 hours in a Greyhound bus on my way from visiting a friend at school. I didn't even have zills on or a tape playing, but by the time I got homw I could play my fingers to the music in my head, and that was the big moment for me. Everything else went smoothly in my learning process. (Of course, the people on the bus probably thought I was autistic or something . . . ;-)

For most people the sticking point is playing while dancing, and the previous postings address that very well. Do simple moves, focus on the zill playing, but keep moving even if your movements seem awkward, and keep playing the zills even if what you end up doing doesn't look very much like dance.

It's bad to look stupid on stage. Looking stupid in class or while practicing alone isn't a problem. It's part of the learning process.

The other thing I would say is, work on increasing your level of musical connections with the zills. Listen to what the zill players on your tapes sound like. Some of the best zilling to work from, in my mind, comes from old Eddie Kochak lp's -- it's Ibrahim Farrah playing the zills, and he plays them remarkably. If you can hear really good zilling, and if you start to think of what you do as music, that moves you to another level. It may not directly get you over the hump of playing and dancing, but it improves your skill and your comfort with the instrument.

My analogy: think of a ballet dancer trying to learn balance beam, and an ordinary, untrained person trying to learn the same thing. Who would learn faster? Likewise, the good zill player will have a better chance at dancing well with zills, if she understands them as musical instruments.

Another thing -- the zills are an expressive instrument as well as a rhythm source. Try taking a pose and letting your zills reflect the music; really focus on projecting your personality and feelings along with the sound. Maybe you'll find arm movements or changes in poses starting to happen . . .

Nothing beats just plain getting up and zilling while dancing, prioritizing the zills.

But using your zills more expressively, as an instrument, *in the first place*, lets them take their place as your accompaniment in the dance. Also, you will never get stuck in boring, repetitive patterns if you're sensitive to zill music . . .

And if anyone doubts the advantages of playing zills (and well) -- I have danced in any number of venues where, for one reason or another, the sound system failed -- I have saved myself several times by zilling for music while kind folks struggled to get teh music on again, or playing to music that was almost inaudible but the audience could still get into it because they could hear my zills at least . . .

Muscial subtleties or quick save, zills are worth the work.

Andrea Deagon

Response 6

Speaking of odd places to practice zills -- I am told I was not the only commuter to zill while driving. Don't do this at home, kids!

--Cheshme Bulbul

Answers: Types of Zills

Zill suppliers, like Saroyan and Turquoise International, are listed on the Costuming, Etc. page; videos/Musicians are listed on the Media page.

Response 1

Re: Zill size, I prefer to work with my Nefertitis (Saroyan). I believe that they are about 2 1/4". This size seems to work well for most venues. For learning drum rhythms, I highly recommend Michael Beach's [of Brothers of the Baladi, a musician group] video, Basic Middle Eastern Rhythms Vol. I.


Response 2

Before you buy zills, you should check the sound. It should be clear, not too loud and it shouldn't tinkle too long. For the performing indoors I prefer the american form, what means the diameter about 5 or 6 cm. Important: they should have 2 holes for the ruban [ribbon]. The turkish form is also very nice and has a good sound, but they are large and for playing very fast, I find it uncomfortable.

Wish you a lot of rhythm!

Response 3

Several kind souls have posted with suggestions on how to improve your zill work but so far I have seen no one answer about the many different styles and how to choose a pair of zills. If possible I will attempt to tackle this one!

There is no easy way to choose a pair. If you plan to buy only one then you need to be very careful. Finger cymbals or Zills come in a variety of sizes and metals & the price usually reflects the quality of the pair. I recommend to my students to invest in a good brand name. I prefer Saroyan brand because they carry a variety at reasonable prices. There are other quality brands but these are the ones I know best, so I will break them down for you.

One of the things to consider when choosing a pair of zills is that they are are be played. They are not just a pretty ornament at the end of your fingers! Therefore, pitch & tone is your major consideration. Most zills are constructed of brass, some are silver and others are a delicate mix of many metals. You need to know that the higher the tone the longer the sound carries. When dancing consider the size of the area and how many people are in the space. If you dance to a crowded hall I recommend a high pitch pair, if you dance in a home then you will probably want a more mellow tone pair. Often how I feel also affects my selection of my zills. If I feel great and am doing a super fast piece then I want a medium to heavy weight zill. However, if I have had a killer of a day, you can bet that I'll be using my lightest pair!

To help you in choosing what is right for you, you need to ask some questions first. How large are your hands? Do high pitches bother you? Are your wrist weak? Do your hands tire easily? Can you distinguish low mellow tones? How often do you plan to dance with your zills? Where do you plan to use your zills? When you have the answers to these questions then you can think about selecting a pair of zills. Remember they are a musical instrument that you will use to enhance your performance!

As I said Saroyan Brand is what I recommend - I have no connection to the Company, other than doing business with them for many years now. Here is a brief listing of what they offer and my personal recommendations about each one - Hope this helps in choosing a pair. [

These are very popular. They have a mellow tone, measure 2 3/16 inches in diameter, weith 100 grams, for a beginner / intermediate level, design of Queen Nefertiti bust with lotus blossoms, a brass zill.

Turkish Delight
A high pitch bell like tone, 2 1/16 inch diameter, 100 grams, beginners / intermediate level, these have graduating ring around the dome of the zill, they are nicknamed "The Golden Butterflies" because of their light weight, a brass zill

Medium tone, 2 3/16 inch diameter, 130 grams, intermediate / advanced level, The design is from a frieze found in the Palace of the 14th Century Sultan Hasan. A brass zill

A very high clear pitch with a pleasing tone, 2 1/2 inch diameter, 180 grams, professional level, advanced level. The ornate design has made these a collector's item in zills - it has King Tut's tomb mask surrounded by Lotus Blossoms & goddess Isis, the edge of the zill has the name of the zill on it. In silver or brass.

Turkish delight (pro)
A very high clear pitch with a pleasing tone, 2 1/3 inch diameter, 180 grams, professional level, these are a dancer's zill, there is only the brand name and the name of the zill engraved on it, these will be heard even with an orchestra. Both brass & silver

Saroyan Pro
A distinct bell-like tone with a medium pitch, 2 3/8 inch diameter, 180 grams, advanced/pro level, only the brand and name of the zill engraved on the outer edge. Brass & Silver

Arabesque II
Medium tone and quality volume, 2 1/2 inch diameter, 180 grams, advanced/pro level, design depict arabic script 180 degrees apart surrounded by an arch ornament from the 9th Century Mosque of Ahmed-ibn-Tuloon Both silver and brass

Long lasting medium tone, 2 3/16 inch diameter, Available in both light & heavy gauges, recommended for recording and to accent music. Professional level.

A low pleasing tone designed for very sensitive ears, 2 3/16 inch diameter, both Light and Heavy gauges

Saroyan also carries 3 historical researched styles they are Persian, Moorish, and Arabic!
I hope this helps you in your selection.

Thais Banu

Last Modified: 15 Jun 1997
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