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Circular Breathing: When and How to Use It

Kevin Thompson

Kevin Thompson

Circular breathing is a technique that wind players use to avoid putting breaks in the music. This can be handy in certain situations, and anyone can learn to do it! Work to implement circular breathing in your own playing and you will undoubtedly find many practical uses for it.

A couple of months ago I was walking the streets of Victoria doing some Christmas shopping. Victoria has a lot of street musicians, and I saw this guy performing on what was supposed to be a didjeridoo, but was actually a piece of plastic pipe. He played it the way you would play a didjeridoo, with multiphonics and circular breathing. This fellow decided that he wanted to learn the didjeridoo, and he didn't even own one! Somewhere along the way somebody must have taught him the technique, and there he was: circular breathing.

Many Australians play the didjeridoo, and they all learn to circular breathe because it's part of the technique of the instrument. They don't seem to have the cultural block against it that we do. Western music is modelled on the human voice. Our instrumental music was meant to imitate singing, and the idea that we have to stop, take a breath, and start another phrase is an inherent part of it.

I once heard a student playing one of Bach's cello cuites without breathing at all, just playing it as a technical exercise, and it sounded all wrong! If you listen to somebody like Pablo Casals playing Bach you can actually hear him breathing. You can hear it in the music and you can literally hear him on the recording taking his breaths, because he knows that even though the cello doesn't have to stop and breathe, Western music—the music that Bach was writing, with its roots in imitation of the human voice—has to be phrased, and phrasing is these contours of breathing, pausing, and continuing.

Circular Breathing: Why Bother?

If Western music is all about phrasing, and breathing is a necessary part of our music, then why bother learning to circular breathe?

Well, there are some Western composers who don't seem to have realized that brass players need to breathe. Have you ever come across a piece of music that has thirty-six bars of tied whole notes? (Wagner's tuba parts are notorious for this.) Circular breathing is also helpful when playing transcriptions of string instrument music, in which it becomes quite awkward to insert the necessary time in the phrase to catch a breath.

"Used judiciously, both 'sniff' and circular breathing become useful tools in our breathing toolbox that can help us confront and overcome obstacles that composers often put in our way."
… Edward Kleinhammer

If you are playing a solo or melodic part, then phrasing should be part of it. But sometimes when you are accompanying you don't necessarily want to phrase the same way. In these situations using circular breathing can come in handy.

Trombonists familiar with Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 know that there is a long, slow, low-range solo in unison with the clarinet and french horn. Circular breathing in this passage can help make the phrases.

Here's How To Learn It

Before I get into the actual mechanics of how to circular breathe, I should voice this disclaimer: I can imagine a situation in which somebody becomes dependant on it and forgets how to breathe properly. Don't rely on circular breathing. Remember that deep breathing is an essential part of playing a brass instrument well!

The goal of circular breathing is to breathe through your nose while continuing to expel air through your mouth, allowing you to play a constant tone on your instrument while inhaling.

First try to get the idea of pushing air out of your lips using the muscles in your cheeks, rather than your lungs. Put your hands on your cheeks, then puff out your cheeks and push some air out with your hands. It'll just be a little air, but the point is that you are not using the normal breathing muscles to expel it. Using the cheek muscles to exhale is quite a different feeling. Now take your hands away and try pushing the air out with just the cheek muscles. Once you have an idea of what that feels like, the next step is to take a quick breath through your nose, so you're doing those two things at the same time. Start breathing in through your nose, and while you're doing that push the air out with your cheeks. That's the concept.

The difficult part is to go from air that's being blown out with the cheeks to air that's coming from your lungs. It takes practice to make the transition between the two types of air smooth, without a hiccup or stop.

Try this exercise with a straw and glass of water. Blow through the straw, make bubbles, and try to keep the bubbles going while you do a transition from cheek-expelled air to lung-expelled air. The straw is a good tool because it's thin and you don't need to blow a lot of air. Once you get a small air stream going, and keep it going through the transition, you will be able to apply it to your instrument. The instrument takes more air, but once you can do the exercise it's just a matter of practice and getting used to the idea.

It's best to begin on the instrument in the middle range, not too loud. When you begin to expand the dynamics and range it becomes more difficult because of the strain on the embouchure. Your teacher probably told you not to puff out your cheeks when you play because it stretches the embouchure and you have less control. When you puff out your cheeks and circular breathe the same thing is happening—you are losing a bit of control. It's a lot more difficult to play high and loud, so just start on a mid-range note, mezzo piano.

There's a difference between the trombone and valve instruments such as the trumpet. It's almost impossible to circular breathe and tongue at the same time, because adding the tongue gets in the way of a smooth transition from one type of breath to another. If you are slurring on a valve instrument, you can circular breathe while changing notes, but on trombone we often rely on the legato tongue to simulate slurring. Circular breathing while changing notes on trombone produces a lot of glissandos. It's easiest to breathe while you're going downward in a scale passage, since your embouchure is relaxing. Try this exercise, circular breathing at the asterisk, and once you've got it mastered, make up your own, more advanced exercises:

Circular Breathing Exercise

Repeat forever!

The Case of Rafael Mendez

Rafael Mendez, the great Mexican trumpet virtuoso, transcribed Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" for trumpet (it was originally written for violin). This virtuoso display is six or seven minutes long with constant, fast sixteenth notes. There's a recording of him playing it and not stopping. The story could be apocryphal, but apparently he did use circular breathing. He's the only person I know of that could circular breathe while tonguing. Winton Marsalis has a CD out called Carnaval on which he plays the Moto Perpetuo. I believe he also circular breathes, but slurs the sixteenth notes.

Other Considerations

You have to circular breathe more than you would if you were breathing regularly, and you probably can't play a whole phrase on one circular breath. You can get a little bit in, enough to go a bar or two, but it's not the same as filling up on air. You need to plan ahead and take a little bit before you really need it, because it's much more difficult when you are running out of air.

The sniffing noise of a circular breath can be distracting. If you are playing something like the low brass chorale in the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 (you don't need to circular breathe here, but let's suppose that for some reason you do), it would be a bad place to circular breathe because your audience would hear sniffing in the middle of the note. There's nobody else in the orchestra playing, and the dynamic goes down to "ppppp." You need to be careful when playing really soft.

There is some circular breathing on my CD, Euphonic Bach. I use it in the Cello Suite No. 5, in some parts of Suite No. 1, and in the Partita for flute. There are a few spots in the fifth suite where the breaths are rather noisy!

While its main use is as a gimmick, circular breathing does have some practical applications. Anybody can learn to do it. Work to implement circular breathing in your own playing, and you will undoubtedly find many interesting uses for it.

Related Web Sites

Kevin Thompson's web site
Kevin's CD: Euphonic Bach

Winton's CD: Carnaval (at Amazon.com)

About Kevin

Kevin Thompson leads a busy life as a professional trombone and euphonium player: he was formerly the Trombone Section Principal of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and is an internationally renowned euphonium soloist.

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