What is Circular Breathing?
Circular breathing is the ability to maintain a sound for long periods of time by filling your cheeks with air when you start to run low on the air in your lungs.
It differs from connected breathing or conscious connected breathing, that is used in transformational breathwork sessions for emotional release/catharsis and altered states of consciousness.
When you circular breathe, you use the air in your cheeks to power whatever sound-generating source you have, you inhale through your nose and at least partially fill up your lungs with air to maintain a constant sound. Wind instrument players use it such as saxophone, trumpet, and didgeridoo.
Circular Breathing is an Ancient Art
Glassblowers used a very similar method for centuries; they couldn’t stop and inhale, so they used air from their cheeks to keep the glass bubble at a constant pressure while they inhaled through the nose.
Inhaling While You’re Exhaling
It’s a really strange feeling, inhaling while you’re exhaling. You’re not really exhaling, you’re using the air in your cheeks, but the biggest obstacle is just achieving the feel of what it takes to inhale while you’re forcing air out. You almost have to divorce the front of your mouth from the back of your mouth.
Once you get the feeling, it’s actually quite easy to do.
I read about a man who was very effective in teaching young students to circular breath.
He told them to puff their cheeks and maintain their sound.
While they were puffing their cheeks he would yell, “Inhale now!” and he would squeeze their cheeks with his hand in order to force the air out while they were inhaling.
So there are a number of ways to get that feeling initially, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome.
The other is that it’s a different set of muscles you’re using to maintain the sound, and you find that you have to fine-tune those muscles. To begin with, you really have to understand the four distinct steps of circular breathing:
4 Distinct Steps of Circular Breathing
- As your lungs begin to lose air, you puff your cheeks.
- Air from the cheeks is pushed with the cheek muscles through the instrument and used to maintain the sound while you inhale through your nose.
- As sufficient air is brought in, you begin exhaling through the lungs again.
- The cheeks are brought back to their normal position.
You have to understand that this isn’t something that happens right away. What I find particularly with older students is that they want it to develop immediately because they’re quite advanced in other areas. But the reality is that it takes a while for all that to develop, just like it took a while for them to learn to play at the beginning.
Developing Circular Breathing Skills - Try This Exercise:
- Puff your cheeks out an breathe normally in and out through your nose.
- Do the same thing again but create a very small hole in your lips. As you breathe in and out through your nose, allow the air to escape through your lips. The first time it all goes out at once. Then you learn to hold back and let it escape a little bit at a time.
- Get a straw and squeeze it almost all the way shut. While your cheeks are puffed, work the straw into your mouth and put the other end in a glass of water. While inhaling in and out of your nose like before, see if you can get bubbles to come out of the end of the straw in the water. The reason for squeezing the straw is that the first time you inhale through your nose the natural thing is to inhale through your mouth and this way you’re not going to drown.
- As you’re breathing in and out through your nose, once you get a big breath, force yourself to exhale through your mouth, and that’s circular breathing. Fundamentally, you’re doing it at this point.
- Actually get involved with your instrument as soon as possible. A lot of people end up being able to do it with a straw but they can’t do it any other way because they’ve neglected to spend the time doing it with the instrument in their mouth. The whole notion of having something going on besides just blowing bubbles through a McDonald’s straw really does stop a lot of people.
Mask "The Bump"
There’s always a little bump when you switch from the air in your cheeks back to the air in your lungs. Everybody wants to get rid of it, but there’s always going to be a slight hitch or bump. Always. What you need to do is find exercises that will help mask the bump as much as possible.
What I have read about is that with most students is that the bump isn’t noticeable if you’re wiggling your fingers or doing some kind of technical pattern while you’re going through the circular breathing. And the concentration for listeners will be on the notes being changed as opposed to the variation in sound.
One has to practice circular breathing every day. Just include it as part of your warm-up. It’s something you have to do on a daily basis, otherwise, it just doesn’t develop.
What Does Circular Breathing Have to Do with Natural Breathing?
Circular breathing may strengthen the diaphragm somewhat but other than that, not much. The primary key to breathing is the size of the diaphragm - not its strength.
Circular breathing is mostly a cute trick with severe limitations to meaningful wind instrument expression or performance. Most people want to breathe better due to the desire or need to take in more oxygen. An oxygen concentrator comes only second to breathing development when it comes to creating more oxygen.
With a large reservoir bag connected to the oxygen concentrator one can breathe in many more times the oxygen (perhaps 100 times more depending on how fast one is breathing) of anyone who tries to breathe without one regardless of how well their breathing is - either circular or well developed.
Recent Comment from a Saxophone Player
I view circular breathing as a circus trick, quite divorced from the art of wind instruments. In my view, the most profound thing about wind instruments is how they give the listener a deep tour of the emotional life of the artist, through a raw and completely naked revelation of the artist's breathing: diaphragm, posture, ribs...and every little emotional nuance along each millimeter of the exhale and inhale.
Circular breathing completely circumvents this connection between listener and artist's emotional/breathing life, allowing the listener into the artist's body only as deep as the cheeks....a very superficial tour of the artist's inner life.
Furthermore, the artist's muse (his "inner composer") is highly sensitive to the freedoms and limitations of the artist's breathing mechanism....and will "serve up" musical phrases to the artist in accordance with these freedoms and limitations. In other words, if the artist has a profoundly coordinated and supple breathing mechanism, the artist's muse will create phrases to take advantage of this.
This connection is automatic, and out of the artist's control. Therefore, in my view, an artist who disconnects their wind instrument playing from their diaphragm, by circular breathing and consequently providing air only from the cheeks, will inadvertently signal the inner muse to provide phrases limited to revealing the limited expressiveness of cheek breathing.
I should add that great wind art reveals the entire "story" of each exhale, with the shifting emotions and sensations that correspond with each fraction of the exhale....e.g., there is a very different emotional feeling to the beginning of the exhale than there is to the end of the exhale. Always.
Circular breathing is designed to circumvent that "story"...a strategy that I personally have no interest in participating in as an artist nor as a listener. While I can't prove any of the above, I note that _none_ of the great jazz artists employed circular breathing. Not one.
In short: circular breathing is based on the incorrect belief that the age-old "story of the exhale" (a story that has moved the human spirit deeply for millions of years) has run it's course, and is now an artistic limitation....i.e., that great wind art is defined by the duration of the exhale, rather than how naked and alive the exhale is.
- Paul A.
From Mike: What about Dizzy Gillespie with his huge jowls?
From Paul: ..it's difficult to discuss him with others rationally because he's taken on mythical proportions. However, in my view and to my ears, and this is a view that contradicts popular wisdom, Dizzy's main fault is indeed his cheek breathing, and the depth of his sound and "exhale story" suffer tremendously because of it.
From Mike: Any thoughts on that. There is a little quickie breath involving the lower breath that singers can develop that is hardly noticeable.
From Paul: I don't have a clear theory about that. Again, what I wrote to you is off the top of my head. But I gather that the "quickie breath" feeds a little more air to the diaphragm mechanism in a moment of need. That's entirely different than the circular breath, which feeds air to the cheek breathing, a hopelessly superficial and emotionally disconnected breathing style, regardless of whether the fuel for it comes in big inhales or in quickie breaths.
From Mike: Does Dizzy have a rep for slightly longer passages?
From Paul: Considering my background, I should know the answer to that, but I don't. But even if he does have such a rep, I wouldn't count on it being deserved.
One should not lose sight of the fact that the true diaphragm breathers achieved _remarkably_ long phrases, but all perfectly shaped to tell a profound emotional story.
In other words, circular breathing may attract a "fast food" crowd of students that don't want to do what it would take (both mechanically and characterologically) to truly expand the breath.
And more importantly, there may be some confusion over priorities....do the great diaphragm breathers have the capability of playing tremendously long phrases because they got connected with the suppleness of their breath or vice versa?
I suspect the former, that "long exhale" is a side-effect (not a cause) of great and alive exhaling...but I'll bet many of the circular breathers would guess the latter and believe that if one can lengthen the breath, that a side-effect of that would be great art.
Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Kenny G. are also purported to do this.
Circular breathing can be dangerous.
The lack of a feeling of security, when aiming for a continuous flow of sound, can easily lead you to breathe very quickly and with shallow breaths. Thus you hyperventilate and become dizzy. There have been instances where people have fainted. I read of an extreme instance where someone once died of hyperventilating when circular breathing!
Another disadvantage of circular breathing is that it enables you to play continuously, with no phrase ending or spaces in your music. The music has no full stops or commas. It has no punctuation a place to breathe, hence commas are marked on sheets of lyrics. Music needs these breaks. Why spend hours perfecting a skill which enables you to spoil the music?
Those who are looking to improve their breathing should focus on improving the volume, and that includes musicians. Breathing techniques and support from types of equipment like Oxygen Concentrator help you achieve just that, without any circus tricks or gimmickry!