How Can I Learn Circular Breathing?

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Circular Breathing
A Method
Dr. Robert S. Spring, DMA
Professor of Music
Arizona State University


Circular breathing is a technique that enables the wind instrumentalist to maintain a sound for long periods of time by inhaling through the nose while maintaining air flow through the instrument, using the cheeks as "bellows". The procedure involves four distinct stages:

  1. As the performer begins to run low on air, the cheeks are puffed.
  2. Air from the cheeks is pushed with the cheek muscles through the instrument and used to maintain the sound while inhalation occurs through the nose.
  3. As the air decreases in the cheeks and sufficient air is brought into the lungs through the nose, the soft palate closes and air is again used from the lungs.
  4. The cheeks are brought back to their normal embouchure position.

The process of "switching" from air in the lungs to air in the cheeks and back again is the single factor that keeps many individuals from succeeding at circular breathing. There are many methods to teach this "feeling". The following is one method used to learn this technique as well as several exercises that I feel particularly helpful. As in any new technique, circular breathing must be practiced on a daily basis for success. In addition is is very important to begin work with the instrument as soon as possible during study. Exercises are important, but are not helpful if the student cannot achieve the desired result with the instrument.

Preliminary study is done in 8 steps:

  1. Puff the cheeks and breath normally with the cheeks out. This will aid in the "feel" of breathing with the cheeks extended.
  2. Again puff the cheeks and create a small aperture in the lips, letting air escape through the lips while inhaling and exhaling normally through the nose. By controlling the muscles in the cheeks, try to maintain an air stream for three to five seconds.
  3. Place a straw in a glass of water and repeat step two with the straw in the water. Sufficient air should be used to force air from the staw to create bubbles in the water. This step should be repeated many times until the process feels somewhat natural.
  4. While the air is being forced from the cheeks, inhale quickly and deeply through the nose. While the cheeks are still slightly puffed, begin to exhale through the mouth and empty the lungs. Try to keep the air stream and bubbles as constant and even as possible. Repeat several times.
  5. Repeat step four but do not empty the lungs. As the lungs begin to empty again puff the cheeks, inhale quickly and deeply through the nose. After a small amount of air has been inhaled, close the soft palate and "switch back" to air used from the lungs. Repeat several times. This is the process that is used while circular breathing.
  6. Place only the mouthpiece and barrel into the mouth. Practice holding a pitch as steady as possible by alternating a normal embouchure with an embouchure with the cheeks puffed. The student will notice the firmness necessary in the corners of the mouth and support needed from the upper lip area.
  7. Repeat steps four and five with the mouthpiece and barrel only inserted in the mouth. The student is likely to squeak quite a bit during these first few attempts. The student will probably notice a "bump" in the sound while changing from the sound produced by the air in the cheeks to the sound produced by the air in the lungs. This is natural. Exercises later will try to eliminate or smooth this bumb as much as possible for each individual.
  8. The remainder of the instrument should now be added. It is important to begin using the entire clarinet as soon as possible. The student should not be as concerned with getting a great sound as long as one that is usable is attained.

The following exercise proves very useful in beginning circular breathing study. It is important to remember that this technique does take time to develop. Most performers takes several months of study prior to any public performance attempt.

The most workable register is the upper chalameaux. It is also easier to mask the bump in the sound if your breath during passages of moving notes. See examples 1- 3. The student is encouraged to compose other similar exercises.

The upper clarion register is the most difficult for circular breathing. Motion of the soft tissue in the mouth and throat that is involved during inhalation through the nose causes a scoop in the pitch that is very difficult to control. During the early stages of study, G on the top of the staff is the upper limit for successful circular breathing. Articulation is also difficult while circular breathing and should not be attempted until the student is very comfortable slurring.

Copyright © 1993, Dr. Robert S. Spring

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