Circular breathing is the process of inhaling through your nose while playing a woodwind instrument in order to enable continuous sound without a pause for breath. It was initially a didgeridoo technique but has been adopted by other woodwind instruments where it is used in a number of contemporary compositions. To do this, you puff you cheeks out while playing, then close your throat and play only with the pressure from your oral cavity for a second or so while you inhale. While it is sometimes described as ‘breathing in and out at the same time’ and this is the effect while playing an instrument, there is never actually air passing both ways through your lungs at any one time.
The simplest step to start learning to circular breathe is to practice puffing your cheeks and then expelling that air smoothly with your throat closed. Some ways of practicing getting the airflow consistent include blowing down a straw into a glass of water, blowing onto your hand, or blowing a raspberry. You will notice that you need some ‘back pressure’ in order to keep the airstream constant.
Once that is comfortable, try inhaling through your nose while you do so.
The final step is being able to then switch from expelling air with your oral cavity to expelling air with your lungs keeping the flow constant. Be careful not to break the sound or ‘throat articulate’ (a ‘g’ or ‘k’ sound). Try blowing onto your hand for a few breaths to get this transition smooth.
To translate this technique onto your instrument you have to get used to creating enough pressure with your cheeks to get a steady sound out. With saxophone, it can be helpful to start on just the neck and mouthpiece as there is less backpressure from the instrument and any fluctuation in pressure will be noticeable in the tone. These are the fundamental steps in circular breathing over a long tone:
- First of all, play a steady long tone.
- While you are playing puff your cheeks out while continuing to exhale with you lungs.
- Then close your throat and switch to expelling air with your oral cavity like you practiced earlier. Breathe in quickly through your nose before the air in your cheeks runs out.
- Then switch back to exhaling with your (now full) lungs.
Try maintaining a long tone for a few breaths to get this process smooth.
Because the tone is often affected by circular breathing, it is usual to disguise this by circular breathing over moving passages rather than long tones. On your set up instrument, pick a simple pattern of about four notes in the middle to upper register and practice circular breathing over it.
Issues and integration into performance
Like any extended technique, circular breathing is easier to integrate with certain conditions than with others. In particular it is most compatible with:
- Moving passages that disguise any momentary fluctuations of tone or pitch
- The middle to upper register on your instrument (the lower register risks splitting up the octave and the very high register risks fluctuations in pitch)
- Softer dynamics
- Slurred passages rather than articulated ones
- The notes that speak the easiest on your instrument (anything that requires very precise voicing such as multiphonics or altissimo will risk splitting)
- (for doublers) higher pitched instruments with more backpressure such as alto and soprano saxophone rather than baritone or tenor.
As many compositions that require circular breathing exploit its ability to enable continuous technique, endurance can be a big factor in performance. One of the more usual problems, especially when playing softer dynamics, is ending up with too much air in your lungs – if you have nowhere to breathe in, you also have nowhere to breathe out. It is therefore necessary to learn how to ‘backwards circular breathe’, expelling air through your nose while you play. This is exactly the same process as circular breathing except that you exhale rather than inhale and is usual immediately followed by a circular breath in.
Like regular breathing, staying relaxed and using your air efficiently will make your life a lot easier while you perform. When circular breathing is a new technique, it can be easy to get stressed and tense while trying to co-ordinate it. If you are finding that you run out of air and lose endurance when circular breathing the exercises you apply to regular breathing will come in handy. Always stand correctly and inhale deep in your torso with open and relaxed nasal passages. If you are tense and make sudden and jerky movements you will use more oxygen than if you are relaxed and in control. To keep your tone full and consistent, think in terms of keeping pressure constant. Always keep the muscles around your lungs engaged even when inhaling and pay attention to your airstream.
Repertoire that uses Circular Breathing
- Balafon by Christian Lauba
- Ku Ku by Barry Cockroft
- Black and Blue by Barry Cockroft
- Le Api by Pasculli arranged by Kenneth Tse