How to Play Zils

ZILS ARE AN INSTRUMENT

Because I have worked as a percussionist, and I love to dance the raqs, I love to play zils! But most of what I read on the web about zil playing seems needlessly confusing, so below I offer some advice.  I am not a teacher or an expert, just a student with some suggestions for other students.

Lots of dance students find zils intimidating.  But I think one reason is that dance teachers don’t teach zils as a musical instrument — but that’s just what they are, albeit a simple one.  Playing zils while dancing is an extension of the idea that your whole body is a percussion instrument, which you play to the music.

Percussion can be challenging, but playing zils at a basic level is easy.  So start this journey with a piece of good news: it is not hard at all to play zils — at least moderately well.  Playing zils is easier than most percussion, because (1) unlike for many drums, physically striking the instrument does not require complex technique or great strength (or calluses!), and (2) the basic patterns are very simple and repetitive.  You should set a goal of being able to play a basic pattern at a modest speed, and to be able to dance at the same time.  If you set that goal, you can accomplish it, and I explain the steps below.

If you know how to read music at all, you can skip some of the explanation below, but focus on the four tips.  If you don’t read music at all, then bear with me, because you need to understand the beat of the music to know how to play any percussion instrument — even the modest zil.

TIPS ON LEARNING PERCUSSION

First, here are four tips for learning to play percussion:

1. Practice to a METRONOME.  You may be tempted to avoid this step but DON’T!  There is a good one here.  Also if you have an iPhone, just get one of the many free metronome apps.

2. CLOSE YOUR EYES when you practice, and listen to the sound only.  Try to forget about everything but the sound.  Focus on playing at EXACTLY the right instant.  (No, don’t close your eyes when you are dancing!  You will run into things.)  Let the sound drive your movements, rather than vice-versa.

3. START SLOW and work up to speed.  That is one reason you need the metronome.  You should set an initial goal to play the zils at a tempo of 90 bpm.  If you can work up to 110, that will cover most belly dance music.  Start slow, break it down, get it right, and work up to speed.  If you get frustrated, go back to a pace you can play, and work up to speed.

4. CHANGE YOUR GRIP TO AVOID MUSCLE FATIGUE.  When your hands get tired or cramped, move the position of your hands.  (The tribal dancers call this a florio, and some call it Spanish hands.)  By moving the position of your wrists or arms, you should avoid cramping.  Playing zils does require some muscle strength, and you will develop it over time.  If you start cramping, and the above suggestion doesn’t work, just take a break.  You can also massage your forearms if your muscles get cramped.

Keeping all this in mind, here is how to learn.

IT’S ABOUT THE MUSIC

I recommend learning to play zils, at first, to a moderately paced song.  An example is this very popular recording of Zeina.  You can get the MP3 here — well worth the buck.  The speed is about 90 bpm.  Playing to this music is your first goal.  If you can accomplish this goal, you can probably do more complicated zil playing, too.  But reaching this goal will make you sound capable and add a great deal to your dance.

To play any percussion — or to dance — YOU MUST understand where the beats are.  There are four beats in a measure.  You have probably heard your dance teacher count, “5,6,7,8” to start a combination.  Why?  Two reasons. Because in Western music, the most common pattern is four beats a measure.  Almost all the music you hear is four beats a measure — disco, country, hip-hop, and most Arabic pop or classical music.  Also, most music is structured in groups of two measures.  Two times 4 is eight — so your instructor is counting the four beats that lead into a new group of measures.

STEP 1: CLAP TO THE MUSIC.  Listen to the music and count, 1, 2, 3, 4.  Clap to the music — it is important to get physical feedback and not just count vocally.  Over and over.  If you get lost, just over.  If you have trouble, then take some time out and listen to the metronome.  It will play slightly louder on beat one.  That is called the downbeat.  Don’t move on until you can clap precisely to the music.  Your claps should be EXACTLY on each beat.  Doing this repeatedly is harder than it seems.  You are learning the stamina to keep playing precisely.  Close your eyes and listen.  If you are clapping a little too early or late, adjust until you are right on the beat.  Most people will find they play a little late.  That means you have to anticipate the beat just a little when you start your movement, so the impact happens right on the beat.  When you do this perfectly for a minute, move on to the next step.

STEP 2: CLAP TO THE MUSIC, WITH THE DOWNBEAT. Now that you understand where the beats and measures are, listen again to the music you want to dance to.  Listen particularly to the drums.  Do you hear that on beat one, there is a loud, low drum sound?  That is how the drummer is interpreting the first beat of the measure — emphasizing to you that the measure has begun.  Listen to what the drums are doing within the 4-beat rhythm.  On most of the beats the drummer is playing — often a loud, low sound.  That is called a “dum.”  (Because it sounds like “dum.”  You pronounce that “doom.”)  In between the beats there may be higher sounds or “fills” that ornament the basic rhythm.  But you should be able to pick out the downbeats by following the lowest sound of the drum.  Try clapping to the music, but emphasizing the downbeat by clapping a little louder on that first beat.  When you do this perfectly for a minute, move on to the next step.

STEP 3: LEARN THE GALLOP PATTERN.  Now go to your metronome.  Start with the metronome at 76 bpm.  Now play the “gallop” pattern below on your zils.  This is the hardest step, but if you can do this, you can play zils — I promise.

The “gallop” is the most basic pattern — one eighth note and two sixteenth notes — over and over.  That is about as simple as percussion rhythm gets.  In Western music, this pattern (one eighth and two sixteenths) is counted “one, and-a, two, and-a”).  The “one” and the “two” each get as much time as each of the “and-a”s.  The “one” and the “two” are half beats — which are called 8th notes — and the “and-a”s are each quarter beats, which are called 16th notes.   (Why isn’t one beat a whole note?  Good question!  Because in Western music, the most common time signature is four beats a measure, and so one beat is a quarter of the measure, not a whole one.)  In Arabic music, the gallop is sometimes counted with “dum, tek-a, dum, tek-a” instead.  Count it however you prefer — but at first, while you are learning, COUNT OUT LOUD as you play.

Here is standard music notation for the gallop:

0001

one and-a    two and-a

Some people denote this as DTk DTk, for dum-teka, dum-teka.

By the way, when you count music as a musician, you only count out loud the notes you play.  However, for reference you could count every beat, half-beat, or quarter beat.  So try counting: “one-ee-and-a two-ee-and-a” (giving each syllable the same time — think about a chugging locomotive sound) and you will be counting every 16th note.  Like this:

sixteenth

Then, take out the “ee” because you are not playing that note.  Now you are back to “one and-a, two and-a.”  When done correctly, this pattern has a “forward motion” so that the “and-a” actually sounds like it is the start of the pattern instead of the end.

A note for drummers: It’s typical in percussion patterns for the last and longest note in a roll is the one with the most emphasis.  The “gallop” is a three-stroke roll — starting with the “and-a.”  If you are not a drummer and don’t understand this — ignore it.

STEP 4: MOVE UP TO SPEED

Now, move the metronome faster little by little until you get to the speed you want and can play along with it.  Do not go faster than you can play.  Practice about 5 minutes a session.  Practice each speed for about a minute, then change to just a little faster.  Keep in mind that the average song is not even 5 minutes long.  Your stamina will improve as you practice — I promise.  The key is repetition.  Once you can play at your target tempo (90 bpm) for five minutes, you are ready to dance.

STEP 5: NOW IS THE TIME WHEN WE DANCE!  To learn to dance while playing zils, you need to learn coordination.  You probably think, “I am already coordinated!” — as opposed to clumsy — and I’m sure you are right!  But that’s not what “coordination” means in percussion.  In percussion, coordination means independence of movement — knowing which movements of different parts of your body to synchronize in a pattern.  If you were a drummer learning a drum set pattern, you would learn when to play your foot (bass drum) and your hand (snare drum), or two hands at once (snare and hi-hat), etc.   You learn any percussion — and the coordination that it requires — by slowing down and repeating until you don’t need to think about it anymore.  You learn coordination in small pieces — one measure or two.

So start with an easy step like a hip drop or a grapevine, and play while doing that.  Pick your favorite step.  Do it over and over, while playing zils, until you feel comfortable.  If you are having trouble, SLOW DOWN (using the metronome) until you can dance up to speed.  CLOSE YOUR EYES (but don’t fall off the stage!) and concentrate only on the sound and the feel of your body.  Don’t think.  Don’t look in the mirror.  You need to process your coordination on a different level from your conscious mind.  Once you can do that, you will be able to dance with zils.

Once you have mastered a single step, try different steps.  Each one will require you to learn separately how to dance independently from your fingers playing the zills.   Each one will have its own challenges to perform while playing the zils.

STEP 6: IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS!  Believe me, if you can play even a simple gallop while dancing, people will love your zil playing.

STEP 7: ONWARD AND UPWARDS

Of course there is a lot more to learn.  There are different ways to strike the zils, such as loud ringing sounds, quiet sounds, and muted sounds.  There are many patterns other than the gallop.

I would suggest learning the gallop so well that you can do it in your sleep before moving on to learn other patterns.  In fact, once you get proficient at this pattern, you will probably find yourself improvising to fit the music or your dance, and that is perfectly fine — you are the musician, so you get to play what you want.   Improvisation is OK when you are dancing solo.  Don’t be intimidated by teachers who tell you to play specific or complicated figures, or try to teach you dozens of patterns. Don’t clutter up your learning with more patterns until you feel very comfortable with the first one — so comfortable you can play without thinking.

If you are interested in different patterns, invest some effort in learning different raqs beats.  I recommend getting an album of drum tracks, like this one to learn the different beats.  You can practice playing zils to different beats that way, and you will understand much more about the music for your dance.

ALWAYS REMEMBER — YOU ARE A MUSICIAN AND YOUR BODY IS YOUR INSTRUMENT!  YOU CAN DO IT! HAPPY DANCING!

FAQ:

My husband/boyfriend/SO/child/dog hates it when I play zils.  What do I do? Buy earplugs (doghouse).  Or play in the car when you are stuck somewhere.  You need practice, don’t let these complaints get in your way.  Your husband/boyfriend/SO should not complain, in the long run — you are a belly dancer!  How lucky is he/she/it?

Why are they called zils?  Zil is the Persian word for cymbal.  Also from Zildjian, which is an old maker of cymbals.  (Though the etymology is a chicken-and-egg question, because Zildjian is named after zil, but the use of the word to refer to finger cymbals is probably related to the company.)  There is still a brand called Zildjian, but they are not exactly the original makers.  Every drummer knows about Zildjian cymbals.  Most finger cymbals are not made by Zildjian.

What kind of zils should I get?   When you are learning, don’t get heavy ones.  Here is an example of the standard beginner ones, which are stamped metal.  Beginner zils cost about $15-20.  Cheaper ones will not be suitable to learn.  Cast zils are usually heavier and have a different tone, so I don’t recommend starting with those.  Be sure to fit your zils tightly to your fingers so they don’t slip off.  If you use elastic, make very tight, because the elastic will stretch over time.  Get a couple of sets because you are going to lose one, and you will want an identical replacement.  When you get more proficient, you will probably want heavier zils.

My teacher says things like “nine pattern” — what does this mean?  Your teacher is probably referring to a nine-stroke roll, which is a snare drum pattern.  Rolls, flams, and paradiddles are the basic building blocks of percussion.  If you are interested in percussion, I highly recommend the Stick Control book to learn these patterns.  It is often referred to as the bible of drumming.  A nine-pattern (one-ee-and-a, two-ee-and-a, ONE) is actually a four beat pattern (if you count the rest that comes the last note).  So calling it a nine-pattern is very confusing for non-drummers.  Just listen to the pattern and learn it by ear, and don’t focus too much on the fact that it has nine notes.  All rolls are simple patterns.

I want to learn other patterns.  What should I do?  If you want to learn other patterns, I would suggest only a couple at first: singles (which is just a bunch of 16th notes with no stopping) and the beladi (which starts every measure with the same two eighth notes, and should be played only with a beladi beat).  Saidi is also good.  Here is a site with lots of patterns.  The different words used to describe the patterns in that link are different raqs beats.  I like the table used to depict the rhythm.  Unfortunately, a lot of the sites that describe patterns use confusing notation, so I can’t recommend them.  There is a perfectly good system of music notation that has been in use for hundreds of years and bridges across international boundaries, but dance teachers don’t seem to use it.  This is what I mean about teachers not approaching zils as an instrument.

You are wrong about your explanation.  Where do I complain?  Life is a vale of tears. Back off — I am just trying to help.

An advanced note to percussionists:  I find that zils seem to be played with a very slight “swing.” If you play them completely straight, it sounds rigid and belabored.  A swing happens when you take two notes with equal time (like the 16th notes in the gallop pattern) and play them like triplets, the first note taking up the time of two triplets and the second note one.   This is like the basic ride pattern in be-bop and should be familiar to all drummers — and most listeners, whether they know it or not.

An advanced note to musicians:  Also, you don’t always play the gallop as 8th/16th — sometimes it is half time at quarter/8th.  But I simplified my explanation.