5 Ways to Improve your Zill (Finger Cymbal) Playing

Playing zills/sagat (finger cymbals) during your belly dance performance is a great way to add excitement and more skill to your show. Playing zills during your belly dance performance is also a great way to drive your audience away and searching for an aspirin bottle.

1. Limit your zill playing

Zills finger cymbals to live music in Sacramento

Playing zills with live music in Sacramento

The drummer is already keeping the song rhythm so there is no reason to mirror the drumming for the entire song. Play for a couple phrases through a melody and then switch to adding accents for a while. There is no better way to agitate an audience than playing a gallop/triple through an entire song.

2. Share the sound space

In Arabic music, the singing is a very important part of the song. If audience members understand Arabic, they will want to hear the lyrics, not constant zilling over the voice. This is especially important when dancing with a live band. Limit your heavy finger cymbal playing to the musical interludes and use accents during the verse and chorus sections. This also applies to instrumental pieces where an instrument takes the place of the singer.

3. Vary your intensity 

Singers and melody musicians play different notes. Drummers also make different sounds by using different drums or hitting the same drum in different ways. Although you may not consider yourself a musician, you are playing a musical instrument and need to follow suit to make the song pleasant to listen to. At the very least, finger cymbals can make 3 different sounds. A flat clack or clap, a ring, and a click.

  • To make the clack or clap sound, use your pointer and/or ring finger to stabilize the zill so the sound is muted when you hit the zills together.
  • To make the ring sound, make sure nothing is touching the zill (except for where it is attached to your finger) and release the zills immediately after hitting them together.
  • To make a clicking sound, play the finger cymbals in a “T” formation where the thumb zill is vertical and the middle finger zill is horizontal.

4. Learn your rhythms and use them

If your current belly dance teacher doesn’t teach finger cymbals, instructional books, tapes, and videos are a second best. If you do a quick Google search for “finger cymbal instruction”, you will find a wide variety of books, CDs, and DVDs to buy. I recommend using Mary Ellen Donald’s finger cymbal instructional book and CDs. Start by learning the basic rhythms and learn how to recognize them. If the drummer is playing a fellahi rhythm, you should either be playing it too or accenting where appropriate. Playing a different rhythm can confuse the musicians or make a recorded CD sound too “busy”.

5. Take time to prep your zills

This may seem like a no brainer, but how many of us have played finger cymbals that were either too tight and cutting off circulation, or too loose and flopping around to mumble the rhythm? Safety pins are not the answer to securing the elastic. Safety pins will get hammered out of shape eventually and will either fall off or the pin will stick in the elastic of the opposite zill and keep it stuck shut. The safety pins and extra elastic will also dampen the sound in a finger cymbal. Measure the elastic so it fits snug on your fingers and sew the ends together so they overlap and don’t leave a tail hanging in the bell space. To keep your zills fitting properly, don’t let other people wear them. They might stretch out the elastic if their fingers are bigger than yours and you’ll have to spend time sewing new elastic on.


For more information on finger cymbals, check out these articles by Yasmin and Artemis and Shira’s online finger cymbal workshop.
Have more finger cymbal advice that I didn’t talk about or links to other zill articles you like? Please leave them in the comment box below. Thank you!

• Meet the Author • Nyla Crystal

Dr. Nyla Crystal holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and performs family-friendly shows for weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events in the Silicon Valley portion of the San Francisco Bay Area. She also co-directs the international award-winning Troupe Scimitar and the Dangerous Beauties Belly Dance show. Learn more about Santa Clara belly dancer, Nyla Crystal.

24 comments… add one

  • Aloha there! I completely agree with your thoughts. I really appreciate what you’re writing here.

  • Some great tips, thank you. I really need to work on my sagat!

  • Awesome site! I’ve just added it to favorites.

  • Thanks ladies! I wish you the best on your finger cymbal quests!
    Nyla Crystal recently posted..Wedding EntertainmentMy Profile

  • I really like #1 and #3. I kind of figured these out on my own as they seemed to make sense. Too much zilling is too much. And varying the intensity is very powerful for bringing the pace down and then accentuating a crescendo in the music. Cool.

    • Yes, it is intuitive to figure out over time, but I hope many students can pass over this awkward zill phase and go straight to good zilling :)

  • Thank you for your tips they are very good. As a zill playing beginner you do feel pressured to play them constantly so it’s good to know that we can break it up into small sections :) xxx

  • Interesting post. It’s good to try your tips.
    Alfarizi recently posted..Beat Making SoftwareMy Profile

  • Hi, I just received a couple pairs of finger cymbals. I got them to use at a choir performance and we are singing a piece with middle east flavor. However, the cymbals have elastic that for most would fit, but my fingers are quite small in diameter and they just hang on me. What should I do? should I put a stitches on the inside of the cymbal? There isn’t a lot of room to negotiate! Can you email me about this? Thanks. Ellen

    • Most finger cymbal elastic is not great quality or is so old that the elastic isn’t very stretchy anymore. I recommend going to a sewing store and buying some better elastic with a lot of stretch. Then you can put them on your fingers and mark where you need to sew them. Make sure they aren’t too tight or your fingertips will turn blue. You also don’t want them too loose or they will fall off or spin around on your fingers when you try to play them. Have fun with your new finger cymbals!
      Nyla Crystal recently posted..Bay Area Father’s Day Belly Dance ShowMy Profile

  • Very Nice Post..! I’ve not play Finger Cymbals before but I thinks I’m going to learn how to play it. Thanks!
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  • interesting site. this is very enjoyable also…………………………………….thanks for sharing.
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  • Great Post ! I really like this process ! it’s very enjoyable. I wish you the best on your finger cymbal quests! Thanks for sharing.
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  • Best way for imroving zill finger playing…

  • Hey there!
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  • Great tips! Thanks for sharing Best way for improving zill finger playing. I like how you cover a lot of topics in a short amount.Keep posting!
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  • I like the third one, Above information is very helpful to improve your zill finger playing at ease

  • I love belly dance .. lovely post sharing in the blog ..thanks for this sharing with us

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