A Sleight of Lung – Circular Breathing

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday!

I have been reminiscing a lot this week about past flute lessons and some of the obstacles I have faced in previous chapters in my flute playing life. A reoccurring theme back in my younger days was breathing. I often placed breathing at the bottom of my performance priority list to focus on technique and playing my high notes as loud as I feasibly could. This was often to the dismay of my flute teachers (sorry, y’all!). The good teachers helped me devise better breathing plans and the great teachers introduced me to tools designed to help me work with the air capacity I already had (breathing bags, breath builders, etc.). Even so, there was always one technique that seemed mysterious and unattainable yet way too far over my head. I knew it would help if I could master it, but I could not muster the courage to try. That technique was circular breathing. Some of the professional flutists I admired most wrote about this technique, practiced it religiously, and regularly performed incredible phrases on what seemed to be a single breath of air. Was it a magic trick? Was it a sleight of hand (or, I guess, in this case it would be a sleight of lung)? I wanted to know but was too shy to ask. As an adult regaining my flute mojo, I am ready to dive headfirst into learning more about this technique (however unsuccessful I end up being at actually executing it). In today’s blog, I will be looking at circular breathing – what it is, how to do it, what resources are available, and if it is worth learning. For all of you fellow shy or rebellious breathers, hopefully this post will inspire you to try something new!

CIRCULAR BREATHING

What is it? Circular breathing, in a nutshell, allows a player to simultaneously inhale air to fill the lungs while exhaling air to seamlessly sustain a note or phrase. Learning how to do it takes a lot of patience and teaching it takes a lot of cheerleading. It often takes months to years to learn how to do it and it can be used on all types of flutes (including piccolo). Circular breathing on the flute is quite difficult because the flute does not have much natural resistance (instruments such as the oboe have a much easier time learning this technique because a reed or mouthpiece offers a larger degree of resistance). Instead, flutists must have great control over their embouchure to create enough resistance to keep the airflow moving. The sound produced from circular breathing is similar to that of a stringed instrument (such as the violin) when it sustains a note, changing bow directions without changing the sound.

Background. It is said that circular breathing originated with 13th century Mongolian metal workers who used the technique to continuously blow into tubes to melt gold and silver as they created ornaments and various other trinkets. It has since been used widely on various flutes from around the world including the Australian digeridoo (to sustain drones), the Klui (Thailand), the Suling (Bali, Indonesia), the Saluang (Sumatra, Indonesia), and the Di-Zi (China). Will Offerman has a wonderful page where you may hear audio samples from some of these very unique instruments: https://www.forthecontemporaryflutist.com/etude-10/ . Check it out! Circular breathing is quickly becoming more mainstream. Kenny G, for example, used circular breathing in 1997 to set the Guinness World Record for the longest-held note on a wind instrument at 45 minutes and 47 seconds, a record that has since been broken several times (For those way younger than me, Kenny G. is an American Smooth Jazz Saxophone player who was super popular in the early 90’s). Kenny G. even has his own tutorial on circular breathing: https://youtu.be/bkA_pxHaNZQ

How to Do It (The Simple Version):

1. While playing, store some air in your mouth by inflating the cheeks.

2. Expand the cheeks and allow the remaining air in your lungs to fill the newly created space in your mouth.

3. When the cheeks are inflated, move the back of the tongue upwards to touch the back of the hard palate, creating a separate reservoir of air in the mouth and an open pathway from the nostrils to the lungs.

4. Play a note until just before you are about to run out of air. Use the pressure and resistance from your cheeks against your embouchure to push the air out at the same speed as when you are playing normally.

5. SIMULTANEOUSLY (yeah, you read that right..), play for a short time by squeezing the air out of the mouth and cheek muscles while filling your lungs with air by inhaling through your nose.

6. Return the back of the tongue to the normal position, restoring the airflow from the lungs to the flute again and play normally.

7. Repeat (as many times as needed).

A great way to start practicing circular breathing is by using a straw and a glass of water. Blow bubbles into the water through the straw using the resistance of your cheeks to keep the bubbles going while inhaling simultaneously through your nose.

Resources. There are a handful of great resources to use while you are learning to circular breathe. I really like the following videos by Melissa Keeling (who recommends 5-10 minutes of practice per day) https://youtu.be/UtpGyZif-h8 and the video series by Rogier de Pijper https://youtu.be/9qegpjuxBe0 because they both break down the technique into smaller steps that you may practice gradually. I really like this approach and recommend starting here! Robert Dick’s book, Circular Breathing for the Flutist, is essentially the flute bible of circular breathing: http://robertdick.net/product/circular-breathing-for-the-flutist/. Wil Offerman also has an etude devoted to circular breathing in his book, For the Contemporary Flutist (Etude #10): https://www.forthecontemporaryflutist.com/etude-10/. Finally, there are a handful of flute works that require the performer to know how to circular breathe including Gergely Ittzes’ Projections and Ian Clarke’s The Great Train Race.

If you are struggling and just want a pep talk (or a chuckle), check out Angus McPherson’s article, The Seven Worst Things about Circular Breathing. https://www.cutcommonmag.com/the-seven-worst-things-about-circular-breathing/ He touches on some of the downsides to circular breathing which include snorting and drooling (eww). The moral of the story, however, is to keep working on it even when it gets difficult. It is a skill that is well worth the effort to learn!

Potential Benefits. Learning to circular breathe makes playing transcriptions of string repertoire much more attainable. Is there a piece written for violin that you would LOVE to play on the flute? Learn to circular breathe to sustain those notes and unending phrases! It is also great to use in orchestral works (such as Mahler symphonies). Robert Dick, for example, used circular breathing as principal flutist of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in New York and has made it, “part and parcel of my compositional and improvisational approaches to the flute.” (from this awesome blog post on the NFA website: https://www.nfaonline.org/community/the-nfa-blog/community-blog/nfa-community-blog/2020/05/20/why-and-how-i-learned-circular-breathing)

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Do you know how to circular breathe? How did you approach learning this technique? What resources do you recommend? Have any inspirational success stories about circular breathing experiences? Please comment below!

Happy fluting (and breathing)!

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