(This article was originally published in Saxophone Today, March/April 2014.)
At its worst, circular breathing is a parlor trick. It snuffs and snorts, screaming “Look at me!” The audience is drawn out of the music, focusing instead on the magician and his cheap trick. Circular breathing can be a crass distraction, a puffy-cheeked monster that ironically sucks the air out of the music. Of course, when used artistically, the technique allows the performer to do things that would normally be impossible. There are any number of interesting pieces out there that require constant exhalation – Christian Lauba’s Balafon, Steady Study on the Boogie, and Worksong all come mind. Jazz improvisers, notably the legendary Rahsaan Roland Kirk, have also used the technique to increase tension and intensity. When used in a subtler manner, circular breathing can make it possible to slightly extend the range of a single breath. It can assist a saxophonist in making a very long, unbroken phrase, or in arriving at the end of a phrase without having to gasp for air. In this issue, I offer some advice for developing circular breathing into a true, musical technique.
Circular breathing has been around for a very long time. It is used on all sorts of folk instruments, from all over the world, and whether one is playing an Australian didgeridoo, an Armenian duduk, or a saxophone, the technique is generally the same. The performer creates a pocket of air in the oral cavity and squeezes this reserve out while sneaking in a quick inhalation through the nose, resulting in an uninterrupted, continuous tone. The cheeks puff up and are then used as bellows, generating just enough air to briefly support the sound. The classic exercise illustrating the technique is to blow bubbles in a glass with a drinking straw. To successfully inhale through the nose while squeezing the air out of the cheeks, the back of the throat must temporarily be closed. A good way to experience this is to fill the mouth with water and hold it while breathing through the nose.
Keep the embouchure firm!
Circular breathing presents some unique challenges. Consider that a vibrating reed requires support from the embouchure and the air stream, and that when one is reduced, the other must increase to make up for the loss. As the air support decreases, the embouchure must tighten. Things go from bad to worse as the reed squeezed to the point of muting the vibration, until it finally closes up and the sound stops. As an experiment, try forming an extremely loose embouchure and slowly start blowing air until you get a decent sound. Try the opposite, setting up a normal embouchure and blowing up to the sound. Classical saxophonists are very familiar with the latter, since it is precisely this technique that allows for a super quiet entrance, sometimes referred to as an air attack, which is far less violent than the name implies! The point of this summary of the relationship between air and embouchure supports is that, by the very nature of the technique of circular breathing, the moment when the cheeks puff out that little bit of air results in a dramatic reduction in air support. This can only be compensated for by providing as firm an embouchure as is practical, but a sudden change in the embouchure will surely affect the tone quality, and the intonation.
Firm, not tight!
The simple solution is to make the embouchure firm for the entire passage, so that no change is necessary when switching between diaphragmatic air support and the bellows-action of the cheeks. There is a big distinction between firm and tight. The ideal embouchure is formed in the same way that one whistles. The lips purse forward, as in the syllable “ooh,” and the corners of the mouth come together and forward. Making this shape with your mouth, you should be able to easily move the flesh of your bottom lip with your finger. The embouchure must be firm, but also flexible. Practice making this mouth shape as an isometric exercise. It helps to also try to hold the embouchure shape in position while opening the jaw. This is best accomplished by whistling, although it isn’t necessary, just helpful.
Gently puff the cheeks
The next step in this progression is to form the embouchure shape and to blow a fast stream of air. As you blow the air, squeeze the corners of your mouth inward and forward. Blow the air as fast as you can, through as relatively as small an opening as possible, like a jet. Take care to focus your mind on the muscles of the embouchure as they tighten. Once this has been mastered, loosen your cheeks and let them puff up with air. As you keep the embouchure firm and the air-jet moving, gently let your cheeks fill with air. This should happen in a very relaxed way, letting the air naturally find the easiest place to let the cheeks puff out. Keep the cheeks puffed and continue to blow air and to keep the embouchure firm.
Finally, close the back of the throat (as when holding water in the mouth and nose-breathing) and quickly squeeze the air out the cheeks while holding the embouchure as firmly as possible. Ideally there should be no change in the embouchure as you flatten your cheeks out for that little burst of air. It isn’t necessarily important to inhale through your nose as you work on this part, although it should eventually be incorporated, so that the exercise can go on without interruption. It will feel as though the embouchure is tightening when the cheeks squeeze out the air, but this is actually the sensation of the lips fighting the urge to release pressure. It is very helpful, and highly recommended to do this part of the exercise while watching the mouth in a mirror. With practice, it should be possible to do this exercise for minutes at a time, with the primary purpose of maintaining a stable, whistle-shape embouchure.
Don't rush to the horn!
All of the above is accomplished without any saxophone, making it excellent to practice late at night, or whenever it isn’t practical to be using the horn. The final step will obviously require playing the saxophone, but skipping ahead to this last step too soon will not yield the desired results. I cannot overemphasize this point. When the horn is introduced to the process, the player must already be able to execute everything from the previous paragraphs with a minimum of effort. As I have been typing this article, I have been practicing the technique, and my embouchure feels tired. If you aren’t feeling “the burn,” you should keep working.
The path of moderate resistance
As one begins to use circular breathing while playing the saxophone, it is wise to begin on a note that is easy to play and offers a moderate resistance. I recommend open C-sharp as a good place to start. As with the previous exercises, begin with a normal embouchure. Make a nice, strong middle C-sharp. Think about your embouchure muscles and try to squeeze at the corners of the mouth, forward and together. When this is accomplished, gently fill the pockets of the cheeks with air. Avoid any change in the quality of the sound as you do this. Once the cheeks are slightly puffed, continue to make a sound with the cheeks filled. The cheeks should not be overly filled, or forced into an uncomfortable position. Simply find a relaxed position where there is enough air to allow for the bellows-action. As before, squeeze out the cheeks while maintaining the sound, but don’t worry about inhaling through the nose just yet. First, make certain that you can keep the sound going, and that the quality of the tone is unperturbed by the filling and flattening of the cheeks. Listen carefully and try to feel for any motion in the embouchure. Through all of this, let the mirror be your friend, and watch your embouchure intently.
Once this has been mastered, start taking air into the nose while squeezing out the cheeks. The inhalation should be quiet and relaxed. Just take a small amount of air (you won’t need a full tank anyway), and try to avoid making any big “snorting” sounds. Circular breathing, when executed properly, should be sneaky; nothing draws attention quicker than a noisy inhalation. As you gain success with the middle C-sharp, repeat on different notes, working your way up, and down the horn. Notes in the extreme registers are the most challenging to support with cheeks, so just do your best. It took me years to be able to circular breath through the lowest notes on the saxophone, and I’m still working on mastering the high notes. Make this a part of your long tone routine, and expand the range slowly, focusing first on the middle register. At this stage, we are still practicing the mechanics of good technique, so it is not necessary to try and sustain for long time. Just hold a note, fill the cheeks, squeeze them out while taking a little bit of air into the nose, and go back to a normal sustaining of the note. If you are doing it correctly, the sound will be smooth and even throughout the exercise.
With this amount of skill, you will already have a useful tool in getting through longer phrases, written or improvised. Remember that it is easiest to sneak a breath when you are playing a long note in the middle register. In the same way that a musician should plan spots for breathing, usually marking those spots into the music, circular inhalations should also be planned. The substantial difference is that a circular breath can be taken anywhere in the phrase, independent of the musical shapes and rhythms. In other words, the circular breath can be placed wherever it is best hidden. The beginner might take the largest breath possible and wait until nearly running out of air, then gasping in through the nose at the last moment. A far better strategy is to start with a moderate breath, and to take in a small amount at the earliest convenience. As an example, I use circular breathing in Bach Cello Suites. In the following YouTube clip, I perform the opening of the fifth suite. I use circular breathing throughout, but not always for the effect of continuous sound. Instead, I take little “extra” breaths to help me make it to the ends of phrases – especially the ones that end on low notes. It is much easier to play these phrases with strong endings by getting a little extra air in the middle of the phrase, which is easy enough, Normally I would apologize for poor video quality, but in this case, it actually helps to obscure the circular breathing. Watch and listen, and see if you can catch where the extra breaths are happening.
Don't start with a "full tank"
It is worth noting that, in this particular video, I am not starting with huge, full breaths. I take just enough air to make my best sound, and to comfortably make it to the designated circular inhalation point. If that spot is relatively close to the initial breath, I won’t take a very big breath at all. Circular breathing is really more about air management. Early on in my experiments with this technique, I frequently found myself getting backed up with stale air, to the point of needing to let some air escape along the sides of the mouthpiece. This is a frequent problem, even when breathing traditionally on instruments that have more resistance, such as soprano saxophone or oboe. If you find yourself feeling a strong urge to exhale, try starting with a smaller initial inhalation. I have my students practice this by exhaling completely, starting a note with that little air that remains in the body (which isn’t very much at all), and then immediately taking a circular inhalation. Learning to play on a medium tank of air with frequent and relaxed circular inhalations will ultimately make it easier to manage long passages without feeling stressed from too little, or too much air in the lungs.
In a future issue, I will present some ideas about using circular breathing in moving passages, scales, and more. The implications of mastery of this kind of breathing are wide reaching, and although I advocate its use in subtly musical ways, I also like to use it for extreme effects, when the situations calls for something special. I leave you with this YouTube video of my recital at the World Saxophone Congress XVI. The first piece is an etude of mine, titled Shake the Hive, that uses circular breathing in radical passages of alternating multiphonics and lip shakes. This is a bit more athletic than the Bach excerpt, and it is very obvious to see (and hear) where the circular breathing is taking place. Practice well!