Want to Learn How To Play Finger Cymbals?

Start With the Basics

ZAGHAREET! magazine; "For Beginners" July/Aug 2008
by Anthea Kawakib Poole

Part One: Singles, Doubles, Rolls

Get Your Cymbals On!  

To learn where to buy the best cymbals, and how to attach the elastic the best way, see these articles:

I originally  learned how to play from reading instructions too - especially Mary Ellen Donald’s book, which helped me figure out rhythms (and rhythm notation); but my teacher taught me when and where playing cymbals is appropriate, and had me play them when I did belly grams. And that’s where I developed my expertise in playing cymbals (as well as skill at improvising, audience rapport, and plain old “showbiz” too: from Belly grams!)

A quick etiquette tip: if you are lucky enough to get finger cymbal instruction in class, then follow your teacher’s directions even if they conflict with what you read here - at least while you’re in class.  Every teacher has her own method, so just follow along without “helping” her by announcing that you’ve learned something different. If you’re really concerned about it, bring up the subject with her outside of class.

Hit ‘em Hard

Put your cymbals on, and open up your hands into their regular dance position. Now bring the middle finger to the thumb quickly, and with force.  Don’t be a wimp - we want a clear RING. Immediately open your fingers up again because you must keep the cymbals from hitting each other accidentally and messing up the sound.

That’s all for sitting down, now you have to get on your feet!  Do the rest of your practice while in basic dance position; and most importantly, keep your elbows up, pointing toward the back.

In the pattern notation below we’ll use a capital H for the dominant hand and a lowercase h for the other one. Whatever your dominant hand is, right or left, that’s the one that usually starts patterns as well as hits the beat or rhythm accents, which we’ll explore later.

(I’ve put some video online to help demonstrate what’s covered in this article, on my YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/DanceEternal  It’ll be easier for you if you can hear what I mean so you don’t get confused. There is also a clip of some of my students playing cymbals in performance, and there’s also a link to my Finger Cymbal Solo, which is on Serpentine Video’s channel.)
Your Basic Cymbal Patterns

The patterns that follow are the building blocks of our typical belly dance cymbal patterns. They are very simple, which is good because right now you’re learning cymbal technique as well as how to think about and count the patterns. If you like, find a song with a slow, simple 4-count beat (beledi works if it’s not too fast), or better yet, a metronome at about 70bpm (Beats Per Minute); there are online metronomes you can use, for instance  www.MetronomeOnline.com/

We’ll start with Singles: 1 cymbal hit (stroke) per beat, in 4-beat sets (so 4 strokes per set, or “measure”).
Arms in dance pose from #1 through #5:
  1. Use alternating hands: H h H h (1,2,3,4). Go ahead, slowly count 1 2 3 4, and play along. Congratulations on your first cymbal pattern!
  2. Now shift your weight from side to side on the beat, like this: right, left, right, left. (Yes, even if you are left-handed). Continue to count out loud (1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4) in time with your weight change, and play your cymbals as before.
  3. Next, walk around while you play - one cymbal stroke per step - in a circle if possible, like you’re onstage. Walking also helps your timing stay steady.
  4. When that’s comfortable, practice starting and stopping your cymbals: that is, continue walking the whole time, but play cymbals for 4 steps, then NO cymbals for 4 steps, etc.
  5. When that’s comfortable, then do your practice pattern of “4 steps playing, 4 not playing” while walking forward for 8 counts, then backward.
NOTE: you may want to start #4 and #5 with the silent measure (4 steps not playing), to get your body moving first, then add the cymbals.
Continue for several measures, then stop, then start again and continue for several measures. Starting and stopping on time is a skill too, that’s why you practice that as well.

After a couple of minutes, take off your cymbals and relax, that was great (I hope)!  While you’re relaxing and getting some blood back in your fingertips, read about Doubles: two strokes per beat (so that’s 8 strokes per 4-beat measure).

We will still use alternate hands, that is, HhHhHhHh, and you can count the beat like this: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and. Do you see how your DOMINANT hand “H” will be playing on the numbers (the metronome beat/click) and your NON-dominant hand “h” will be playing on the “ands” (the silence in between each beat)?

OK, now please get up again and try Doubles in your dance pose (#1 through #5, above): or start out walking again - you are walking the same speed as before - but now you have a faster cymbal pattern! Each step gets its own “H h”.

(Side note: are you way ahead of this already? Good for you. But if you are new or having trouble “getting your cymbals on” then don’t skip this - it’s basic programming for your new cymbal-playing brain cells.)

Practice your Doubles as you did Singles:

Getting fancy!

Drum roll please.... because now YOU are going to do “Rolls”! Good Rolls are the secret to good cymbal playing...and also where the messiest messes happen if you don’t practice!

So what you just did with Singles and Doubles, you are going to do with Rolls.
Rolls are 4 strokes per beat, or 16 strokes per 4-beat measure:
HhHhHhHhHhHhHhHh (the bold shows where the beat is - it always falls on the DOMINANT Hand)

Go through all steps #1 - 5 as you did with the other patterns; and you can count it like this:

1 a and a 2 a and a 3 a and a 4 a and a 1 a and a 2 a and a 3 a and a - etc. etc. etc.!
Yes, each step gets 4 cymbal strokes, and the dominant hand is always the first one on each step. Remember, you are stepping on ONLY the numbers.

When you are comfortable playing all 3 patterns while walking (Singles, Doubles, and Rolls), substitute Hip Sways in place for steps.... remember to also alternate your patterns as well. What fun you are going to have!

Would watching me do this in a video and following along be better? Then look at this:
Video Tutorial on Playing Singles, Doubles, and Rolls, on YouTube

Contact me if you have any questions about your cymbal playing; and subscribe to my YouTube channel to get updates.

Ready for more? Here's the next article: How to Play 3's - triples!