How to Play Zils — Not Software Related!

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 not very useful to me, so here is some advice.  I am not a teacher or an expert, just a student with some suggestions for other students.

The problem I see that most dance students have with learning zils is that (1) no one explains about the music they are dancing to, and (2) the zils aren’t taught as a musical instrument — but that’s just what they are, albeit a simple one.  This is an extension of the idea that your whole body is a percussion instrument, which you play to the music.

As a percussionist, I can tell you that playing zils the easiest percussion I have ever learned.  So start this journey with a piece of good news: it is not hard at all to play zils — at least moderately well — and anyone can do it.  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.  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.

But to do it, it’s best to go about it as you would learning to play an instrument.  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 really 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 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 there are 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.  [An update: I took a zil workshop recently, and the teacher suggested talking as you play.  This is a good idea to firmly cement the feel of the rhythm in your mind.  But it is harder to do than it seems.]

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 about 90.  If you can work up to 110, that will cover most bellydance music you are likely to play zils to.  Keep in mind that even the most complex percussion patterns are learned this way.  (I know, I played traps for years.)  Start slow, break it down, get it right, and work up to speed.

4. MOVE AROUND.  When your hands get tired or cramped, move the position of your hands.  (The tribal folks call this a florio, 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, 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

Above all, understand your music.  I recommend learning to play against a moderately paced song.  An example is this very popular recording of Zeina.  You can get the MP3 here — well worth the buck.  Speed is about 90.  Playing to this is your first goal.

Use this music to understand where the beats are.  Clap your hand to each beat.  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.

Listen to the music and count, 1, 2, 3, 4.  Clap or snap to the music — it is important to get physical feedback and not just count vocally.  Over and over.  If you get lost, just start counting again when you hear the next downbeat coming.  If you have trouble doing this, then take some time out and listen to the metronome.  It will play slightly louder on beat one.  That is the downbeat.  This may sound boring, but you must learn to do it perfectly, or you are not done with this step.  Your claps should be exactly on each beat.  Doing this repeatedly is harder than you expect.  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.

Now try emphasizing the downbeat by clapping a little louder on that first beat.  When you can clap on the beat perfectly for about a minute, move on to the next step.

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.”  And 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.

START WITH THE METRONOME AND COUNT

Now go to your metronome.  Start with the metronome at 76.  Much slower may be confusing to play, and much faster will probably be difficult.  But adjust it to where you are comfortable starting.

Now play the “gallop” pattern below on your zils.  This is the most basic pattern.  I would suggest learning this pattern 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.   So you may not want to spend a lot of time learning other patterns — it’s up to you.  I suggest that for now you not clutter up your learning with more patterns until you feel very comfortable with the first one.  Once you start feeling comfortable and having fun with the zils, you may be more interested in improvising than learning new patterns.

The “gallop” is one eighth note and two sixteenth notes — over and over.  That is about as simple as percussion rhythm gets.  In Western music, this 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 pattern is four beats a measure and so one beat is a quarter of the measure.)  In Arabic music, this is sometimes counted with “dum, tek-a, dum, tek-a” instead.  Count it however you prefer — but try to count out loud as you play.

Here is standard music notation:

…and here is what the gallop looks like.  The crossbars are used to make the figure easier to read, but these are the same 8th and 16th notes in the figure above.  The 8th note has one flag (the horizontal line) and the 16th note has two.

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.  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 has a “forward motion” so that the “and-a” actually sounds like it is the start of the pattern instead of the end.  It’s typical in percussion patterns for the last note in a roll — see the FAQ below — is the one with the most emphasis.  The “gallop” is a three-stroke roll — starting with the “and-a.”  But if that’s confusing, don’t worry about it — it’s just another way to look at it.

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.  Practice about 5 minutes a day at first — that will be plenty.  Practice each speed for about a minute, then move up.  Keep in mind that the average song is not even 5 minutes long.  Your stamina will improve as you practice.  The key is repetition.  Once you can play at your target tempo for five minutes, you are ready to dance.

NOW IS THE TIME WHEN WE DANCE!

To learn to dance playing zils, you need to learn coordination.  You probably think, if you are a dancer, that you are already very coordinated — as opposed to clumsy — and you are right!  But that’s not what “coordination” means in percussion.  It means knowing which movements to synchronize in a pattern.  If you were a drummer learning a drum set pattern, you would need to learn when to play your foot (bass drum) with your hand (snare drum), or two hands at once (snare and hi-hat), etc.   You do the same with dance and zils, but here you are learning to coordinate playing a zil and taking a step.  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, and play while doing that.  Do it over and over until you feel comfortable.  CLOSE YOUR EYES (because a hip drop does not move across 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 this on a different level from your conscious mind.  Once you can do that, you will be able to dance with zils.

For “extra credit” if you are wearing a coin belt, listen to your coins.  They, too, should be sounding to the beat.

Try different steps now.  Take it one new step at a time.  Each one will have its own challenges to perform while playing the zils.  Some steps are far more difficult to dance with zils than others, so keep in mind that when you are improvising and dancing with zils, you will be likely to do fewer and less interesting steps at first.  That is normal, and it’s no problem — you will be impressing everyone with your zils and they will not care that you just did 64 hip drops!

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.

Also, if you like to dance, you should 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 freakin’ 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 (and they were always my favorites).

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.  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 them a little over 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.

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.  I highly recommend the Stick Control book to learn these patterns, if you are interested.  It is often referred to as the bible of drumming.  What is really confusing is that 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 usually 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 very 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 (see the image above), but no one seems to use it.  This is what I mean about not thinking of zils as an instrument.

You are wrong about your explanation.  Where do I complain?  Get a life, I am just trying to help.  But just don’t malign any of my teachers, because I learned to play zils on my own and they are not to blame.

An advanced note to percussionists:  I find that zils seem to be played with a very slight “swing.” Call me crazy if you want.  If you play them completely straight, it sounds rigid and belabored to me.  A swing is where 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.