I wrote these articles in 2006 for Neon’s fabulous online webzine entitled, “The Hip Circle.” I was a frequent contributor to that publication.

Finger Cymbals According to Layla — NOT a Pain in the Brass!

So…you want to learn to play cymbals? GOOD! They are such an integral part of this wonderful dance form. I love my cymbals. What an interesting instrument to play! So expressive—so versatile! There are so many moods you can convey just by creative and well thought—out use of those little brass discs…but beware! They can also be very frustrating if you try to play beyond your capability too soon. Take it slow… The cymbals aren’t going anywhere except on your fingers (often) to practice them! I am disappointed as a teacher when students say they don’t want to learn them or even worse “can’t” learn them before even exploring the experience. Cymbal playing is, of course, by choice but just to play them minimally for effect will even suffice.

Here’s LaylaSpeak on cymbal playing…

YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE! There is no way around it. You cannot put them on your fingers once or twice a week when you attend class and expect to be able to play them. Every aspiring dancer has the given right to torture their family by practicing their cymbals. Want time alone? Put your cymbals on. Of course if you want to cut your family some slack you can put socks on over your hands and that will muffle the sound but…where’s the fun in that?

THEY HAVE TO FIT PROPERLY AND BE ON YOUR FINGERS CORRECTLY! I have always preferred the cymbals that have the double slots on top rather than the single hole because you can control the tension of the elastic much better. I also find that half-inch elastic gives you much better control than thinner elastic. Unless you have really thin or small fingers go for the half-inch elastic, ladies. By the way, it is normal to have your finger-tips go bluish when you have your cymbals tight enough. Occupational hazard but I still have all my finger-tips after 28 years of dancing!

THEY CAN’T BE TOO BIG/SMALL OR TOO LIGHT/HEAVY! This is where it can get tricky and you may end up purchasing more than one pair of cymbals until you find the right set for you. When you are ready to purchase your cymbals have your teacher recommend cymbals for you or if you are a friend of a professional dancer ask her advice. Don’t buy them blindly. It can get costly. This is a situation where “size does matter.” OH BEHAVE!

When I first start teaching my students how to play their cymbals, I assure them that “CYMBALS ARE NOT THE ENEMY!” Every teacher has their own approach to teaching cymbals. The only thought I will impart on you, my potential cymbal player, is don’t wait too long to put those cymbals on your fingers. The longer you wait…the more you perfect your technique and don’t incorporate your cymbals…the harder it will be to put them on and succeed. I can’t say definitively how long you should wait before attempting cymbal playing but after 6 months or so of solid lessons cymbals should “make their entrance!”

Trillingly yours,

“Finger Cymbals According To Layla Part 2 – Exploring Rhythms, Patterns and Shading.”

My first article discussed the finer points of acquainting yourself with finger cymbals. Some of my colleagues suggested that I follow up with an article discussing the actual playing of these little brass diskies…so here it is! Wait! Hold the phone! Here’s the obligatory disclaimer: This is MY opinion and MY approach to cymbals.

Certainly every instructor has their own way of presenting things. Fellow instructors, please feel free to “jump right in” and make comments/contributions to this article. Any information that could benefit our students in their exploration of cymbals would be great. We can all benefit from sharing with each other, yes? Students, please include your feedback as well. We can’t know if there is a question or problem unless you tell us!

I have to say that to me there is nothing more interesting and entertaining that watching (and hearing) a dancer play her cymbals skillfully…utilizing creativity, musicality and theatrics. Cymbals are a percussion instrument (as well as a prop) so maximize their potential! Let’s talk about some of the wonderful patterns and sounds that cymbals can produce…

Oops, one sec…let’s back up a minute…forgive me if I am re-stating the obvious…but you cannot effectively play cymbals if you don’t know the basic rhythms that are indigenous to this dance form. Initially, you have to know your 4/4, rhumba, & chifte-telli rhythms. Knowledge of beledi and karsilama rhythms can be pursued afterward (as these are a bit more complex). Sorry…no shortcuts here! That’s why I mentioned in the last paragraph of my previous cymbal article that a student may want to concentrate on lessons for about six months or so before considering putting cymbals on her fingers (just to make sure there is a solid understanding of the rhythms).

Okay…let’s get to work!


Now, if you are dancing to a 4/4 rhythm (i.e. the song, “Shisheler”) you are going to play cymbal patterns that compliment that rhythm, i.e. LRRLR, RRL, LRL, or LRLRL. As you become more adept at playing the cymbals you will be able to weave in and out of these rhythms with some improvisational playing. It takes time!!! In terms of cymbal playing during the rhumba and chifte-telli — there are definite cymbal patterns to these rhythms—however, I must say this is personal choice. I was taught that we play “minimally” especially during the chifte-telli (where cymbals are utilized mostly for “effect” and accents). I support that reasoning to this day. Certain parts of a floor show call for strong cymbal playing…other parts call for muted tones and/or playing “just for effect”.

It’s common sense. Again, as you become more adept at cymbal playing it all falls into place. My students sometimes ask me, “Layla, is it okay if I don’t use the same “fingering” for those patterns as you do?” My instant answer is, “yes” because I am left handed and I do play “left-y” sometimes. Especially with the 9/8 patterns (which can get pretty intricate and I’ll save that for another article!), it doesn’t matter what hand you start on as long as it sounds right and “meets the music” correctly. Some people would argue that point but I say if my left hand gets tired my right hand is going to pick up the slack…


Remember that your cymbals are a percussion instrument. They can produce a variety of sounds, i.e. clicks, clacks, rings & trills. Once mastered it adds a whole new dimension to your cymbal playing. It is almost like a “conversation” between the music and your cymbals. Let’s talk about “positioning” for each of these sounds:

  • Clicks – all your fingers are on the cymbals. You can either make a “T” with your cymbals and click that way or click one cymbal midway onto the other. Both will produce a “clicking” sound but it might be at different pitches which actually could be very interesting…
  • Clacks – all your fingers are on the cymbals. Hit the cymbals “straight on” to each other. It is a very “closed” and “definitive” sound.
  • Rings – take your fingers off the cymbals. The cymbals should be only in contact with your middle finger & thumb. Some people use a “brushing” effect and some people hit them straight on. It is personal choice and what is more comfortable for you. Both are correct.
  • Trills – Cup your hand upward and make an inverted “V” with your cymbals. Simply shake your hand to create that “trilling” sound. Your arm might reverberate a bit. Make sure the cymbals are “cupped” in your hand or you run the risk of having them fly off your fingers while trilling.

“Layla, where do I begin?”

That’s something I’ve been asked time and time again by beginning cymbal students. I tell them the same thing the Good Witch of the North told Dorothy, “It’s always best to start at the beginning…”. Same thing, here. Initially (and, yes, this can get quite tedious and “old” really fast) you should be playing consistent ALTERNATES during your entire practice session. Don’t worry about anything else in the beginning (like hitting the “accents” or “breaks” in the song). As this exercise becomes comfortable to you then start introducing the basic patterns I discussed above (LRRLR, RRL, LRL or LRLRLR). Try to weave in and out of each rhythm smoothly using alternates as a “bridge”. Maybe now you can start to hit those breaks. There are songs that have definite breaks and accents (like “Aziza”) and then there are songs that almost “guide” you musically as to what rhythms to play on the cymbals (like “Shisheler”). The next step would be to start introducing shading or tone changes with your cymbals.

Remember…everyone “hears” music differently. Take your time. There is no rush. I will never pressure a student to play cymbals but I am disheartened when they say they won’t even try or won’t put them back on because they tried to do too much too soon and got discouraged/frustrated. Certainly I’m a complete cymbal advocate but I was a beginner once, too. I had to learn to isolate my hands with cymbals on them. I remember the first time I ever put cymbals on at Serena Studios so many years ago. It was quite an experience! Suddenly I felt like my feet were cemented to the floor—I COULD NOT MOVE! It was very upsetting to me but my cymbal teachers were wonderful, nurturing, PATIENT and let me progress at my own speed. There was no pressure. I remember one particular teacher would ask at the beginning of cymbal class (always with a smile), “Okay…who practiced?” We were honest with her…some weeks there was more time than others but on the average I practiced A LOT and I do mean, A LOT. Now, as a teacher, that’s the one thing I impress upon my students…putting your cymbals on only when you are in class is pointless. There is no wand waving here (sorry, Glinda!)…you have to practice!!! Try to set aside a little time as often as possible, put your cymbals on and get moving! Click your cymbals three times and say, “There’s no instrument like cymbals…there’s no instrument like cymbals…there’s no instrument like cymbals!” 🙂

The best thought I can leave you with is this: Classroom study is a wonderful thing. However, “practical application” is an education unto itself. GO SEE DANCERS!!! I tell my students from day one to do this. For the purposes of this article you’ll want to hear dancers play their cymbals and see what they do with them in terms of what I said above: creativity, musicality, theatrics. Some dancers play their cymbals all through their show. Some play them in the entrance only and then remove them. Some put them back on for the finale and some don’t. It is all personal choice. It’s all good.

I wish you thrillin’ zillin’!!!

Finger Cymbals According to Layla Part 3 – Why Play Cymbals?

Well, as most of you know…I am a finger cymbal fanatic. I love those little brass diskies! They are right up there on my Hit Parade. That is the way Serena trained me and I am thankful.  You learn to play finger cymbals…period. There was no discussion/negotiation. “Just put those cymbals on and get busy, Mary…” That was my creed.

I really enjoy watching a dancer who can skillfully play her cymbals…musically (inside and around the rhythm) and theatrically (use them as a prop as well as an instrument).  Again…this is how Serena trained me. We had specialized cymbal classes at the studio and we had to “graduate” to the next level. I practiced until I could no longer feel my fingers! 

Before you can play your cymbals musically or theatrically YOU HAVE TO KNOW YOUR RHYTHMS. My previous article (July ’06) deals with rhythm and shading. Now I want to talk about the actual performance process itself:

  • Entrance: Usually a “4/4 rhythm” (an example would be Shisheler). In a Turkish or American format, the dancer is veiled. There is no sense in getting intricate with body work at this point because the veil is covering it up. A dancer’s cymbals and wonderful smile is what hits the audience first and makes that first impression. Have your cymbals be assertive but not overbearing. Have your eye contact strong, steady and welcoming. With time and experience you will know when to play, when to be silent, when to “converse” with the band with your cymbals and how to play “in and around” the rhythm. This is something that is hard for me to describe because it is something that is “felt” and not learned. That is why it is important that beginning dancers go see dancers who are known for their mastery of finger cymbals. There is a wealth of knowledge in just watching…
  • Veil Section: This is a “rhumba rhythm” (an example would be Bir Demet). Cymbals are usually played minimally during this section because the dancer is occupied doing her veil work.  There are some dancers who choose to take off their cymbals for the veil section as it makes it easier to manage manipulating the veil. That’s fine and it works if you can put your cymbals back on smoothly to continue your show. I say the true skill is being able to do veil work and keep your cymbals on. I have been told that dancers will turn their cymbals around to free up their finger pads. I think that would give your hands that “tentacled” look… You should be practicing your veil work with your cymbals on. It’s a skill and it takes practice. Will you drop the veil? Yes…probably a zillion times. So what? You learn to make clever recoveries! There are many theatrical ways to pick up a veil that has slipped through cymbals…
  • Middle Fast Song: Could be a “4/4” or a “Beledi” (examples are Beyolunda or Habibi Eini). These are two great songs to dance to because they both have such fabulous breaks and musicality to them. A skilled cymbal player can have a field day with these two… I discussed the various 4/4 rhythms in my previous article so let’s talk briefly about the beledi. What a GREAT rhythm and so much opportunity for the cymbals to shine. There is a “base” rhythm (boom boom tek-y tek boom tek-y tek with the connecting tek-y) and then you have numerous variations on this base rhythm. Again…it is hard to describe this and challenging to teach. You have to know your rhythms and your songs. There is no way around that. Anyone can play a base rhythm incessantly. The true skill comes with being able to play in and out of that base rhythm. It is really monotonous to listen to a dancer play the same rhythm over and over while ignoring the drum and the nuances in the song.
  • Chifte-telli: It is what it is. It is based on eight beats but played almost “separately”. I can’t explain it but we all know what a chifte-telli sounds like so you know what I mean. Cymbals during chifte??? Well, that has been a hot topic of debate for quite some time. I play my cymbals during the chifte-telli but for effect only. I wouldn’t dream of playing them constantly or even semi-constantly. Shading (which I also discussed at length in my previous article) plays a BIG PART here…clicking, especially…and then building to a ring or trill. The chifte-telli should be dreamy and hypnotic…and your cymbals are used to “drive those accents home!” An example of this might be the oud player starting a slow strum on the oud and building on it while you mirror what he is doing with slow clicks that go to clacks then rings then trills and POP! There’s your accent!
  • Drum solo:  A veritable potpourri of rhythms depending on the drummer du jour! We are blessed here in New York with many talented and wonderful drummers. In terms of cymbal playing…you don’t want to “over-play” your cymbals during the drum solo.  It is important that the dancer & drummer “communicate” with each other…your hips/cymbals and his/her hands/drum. I enjoy that “back and forth” with the drummer and so does the audience.
  • Finale: It can be a “9/8” rhythm (that’s a whole other article!) or a reprise of your entrance or an entirely different song. Again, this is your good-bye to the audience. You want to leave them amazed with your skill and versatility in your dance and your cymbal playing.

It’s hard for me to describe accurately things that I do during a show. A lot of what I do comes spontaneously and is not something that can be “taught” per se. I am extremely flattered that dancers have come to me for advice and/or instruction in improving their cymbal technique. I know that there are dancers out there who choose to not play cymbals for whatever reason.  I say…what a shame! It gives your show so much more depth…  The cymbals bring life to a performance. My only teacher for cymbals was Serena. She taught me that they have a personality all their own…it is up to you to tap it.

Keep playing!