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A Review of

Mastering Finger Cymbals

by Mary Ellen Donald




Master percussionist Mary Ellen Donald provides in-depth instruction on how to play finger cymbals. The book addresses music rhythms from throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Armenia, Iran, and others. A companion CD enables users to work through the lessons even if they don't read music.

This book was originally written in the 1970's before desktop publishing technology came into existence, so it was prepared on a typewriter and looks dated by the standards of today's technology.

Mastering Finger Cymbals Book Cover



Fact Sheet


Mastering Finger Cymbals


Mary Ellen Donald




Mary Ellen Books


Music education






This 75-page book is a tutorial on how to play finger cymbals, written by master percussionist Mary Ellen Donald. It opens with basic technique, and then moves on to address how to use them to play many different Middle Eastern rhythms. For users who don't know how to read the musical notation in the exercises, the book's companion CD illustrates what the exercises should sound like.

Even someone who already feels reasonably proficient with finger cymbals is likely to learn something from this book. This is because in addition to providing a variety of rhythms that are appropriate for typical 4/4 rhythm, it explores finger cymbal patterns to play with chiftetelli, karsilama, 6/8 (for Moroccan, Armenian, Persian, and Greek music), 7/8, 3/8, masmoudi, and 3/4.

For each rhythm, Mary Ellen introduces simple finger cymbal patterns at first, offers drills, suggests corresponding dance steps, and then provides information on how to build and embellish the cymbal patterns. This information on embellishment helps dancers discover ways to make their cymbal playing more musical, and establishes a foundation that allows individual creativity to build upon.

This book was originally written in 1976, when the San Francisco dance scene in which Mary Ellen worked was dominated by the American Classic style of dancer. This style of dancer uses music from throughout the Middle East and North Africa in her shows. Therefore, the book is written for this style of dancer, and it explores musical rhythms from across a broad geographic region, with a taste of rhythms from each rather than covering any particular one in depth. Egyptian-style dancers will definitely find relevant material in here, but there will be other parts that don't apply to Egyptian. The publication date was also before desktop publishing technology came into existence, so the book was prepared on a typewriter and looks dated by the standards of today's technology.



Table of Contents

  • Introductory Remarks


  • Lesson 1: Music Theory & Exercises with Cymbals
  • Lesson 2: Creating Rhythmic Variation, Triplets
  • Lesson 3: Variations, Theory on 2/4 & 4/4
  • Lesson 4: Practice Tips, Baladi, Embellishing Baladi
  • Lesson 5: Rhythmic Variations, Rests, Chiftetelli
  • Lesson 6: Dotted Note, 9/8, Embellishing 9/8
  • Lesson 7: Armenian, Greek, Persian, & Moroccan 6/8
  • Lesson 8: 9/8 Revisited, 6/8 Revisited, Masmoudi
  • Lesson 9: 7/8, Fast Chiftetelli, Bolero, Half-Time
  • Lesson 10: Determining Time Signature, Mingling 4/4 & 6/8 Time
  • Lesson 11: Performance-Related Suggestions


  • Technical Exercises


  • Glossary A: Finger Cymbal Stroke & Dance Step Abbreviations
  • Glossary B: Music Theory & Middle Eastern Rhythms


  • Appendix A: Records & Rhythms
  • Appendix B: About the Author & Personal Note



Is It Right for You?

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You would like guidance in varying the way you play common rhythms on your finger cymbals.
  • Your dance style is American Classic or Turkish.

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You don't know how to read musical notation.
  • Your dance style is Egyptian or Lebanese.



What I Liked, What I Didn't

What I Liked:

  • This book approaches the topic of finger cymbals from the perspective that they are a musical instrument rather than just a random prop.
  • This book provides valid insights into playing music, and even an experienced dancer who is already proficient with finger cymbals will probably learn something by working her way through it.
  • Mary Ellen starts out simple, with basic rhythms introduced at a level that even novices with finger cymbals can manage, and then builds on that foundation with embellishments and more complex rhythms.
  • The companion CD is an excellent accompaniment to the book. It illustrates what the exercises sound like, so it's not necessary to guess whether the user has correctly interpreted the musical notation in the book. In fact, it's not even necessary to know how to read musical notation!
  • In an appendix, Mary Ellen lists a number of popular Middle Eastern songs that are representative of each of the various rhythms. Unfortunately, because the book was written in the 1970's, many of the specific albums she recommends are now out of print. However, the song titles are still valid, because for the most part Mary Ellen has recommended songs that are well-known and widely-recorded.

What I Didn't Like:

  • This book was self-published, originally appearing in print in 1976. Although it is well organized and laid out clearly, it could benefit from being re-done using modern desktop publishing technology. For example, it would be nice to have an index and varying font sizes and effects like bold and italic for the headers.
  • Sometimes rhythms are introduced without offering information on what type of music they would work well with. For example, the book recommends using a 3-3-2 pattern with the cymbals to provide a different accent to 4/4 time, but doesn't mention that this is particularly well suited to Khaleegy music.




This book is best suited to the needs American Classic style of dancer who utilizes in her sets a variety of traditional songs from across the Middle East and North Africa. It approaches the subject of finger cymbals from the perspective of treating them as a musical instrument rather than as a clattering dance prop. A dancer who learns how to bring musicality into her finger cymbal playing can gain respect from musicians and audiences alike, and this book is a useful resource that can help with this aspect of a dancer's growth.

For a dancer or musician who is just beginning to learn about Middle Eastern music, I would suggest starting with Mary Ellen's more recently-published products such as her Middle Eastern Rhythms series of CD's. Because of their more recent publication date, the newer products incorporate more knowledge of the ethnic context of many of the rhythms - knowledge that Mary Ellen has acquired since Mastering Finger Cymbals was originally published in 1976. Mastering Finger Cymbals still offers significant value as a tool for helping non-musicians learn techniques such as embellishing basic rhythms - I just think other products provide a better starting point.



I have taken percussion workshops and private lessons from Mary Ellen Donald, and I found them to be very valuable. I use the music from Gems of the Middle East when I teach my classes, and therefore I buy it wholesale from her and resell to my students. I also use her rhythm CD's in my classes.

After our first telephone conversation, Mary Ellen sent me copies of selected books and CD's to review. However, I purchased my copy of Mastering Finger Cymbals and wrote my review of it many years before receiving the complimentary copies of Mary Ellen's later products, so the contents of this review have not been influenced by the relationship that came later.


To Buy It

Mary Ellen Books
P.O. Box 411562
San Francisco, CA 94141-1562

Telephone: (+1) (510) 654-DRUM
or (+1) (510) 654-3786

Web Site:


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