What is Circular Breathing?

Brendan McGuigan

Circular breathing is a breathing technique in which air is inhaled through the nose while simultaneously being exhaled through the mouth. This allows for uninterrupted playing of certain wind instruments by keeping up a constant flow of air. Many traditional instruments rely on circular breathing, and some classical instruments have a wider selection of pieces that can be played if circular breathing is used.

Circular breathing allows musicians to play continuously without stopping to breath.
Circular breathing allows musicians to play continuously without stopping to breath.

The method used for circular breathing is quite straight-forward, but requires a fair amount of practice to be able to do it, and a great deal of practice to become expert. Essentially, what happens is that air is blown out slowly as normal, and then when the lungs are almost empty, the last bit of air is pushed into the mouth where it puffs out the cheeks. As the cheeks are allowed to naturally deflate, pushing air out, the lungs are filled by breathing in quickly through the nose.

Drinking water from a fountain while taking a breath is an example of circular breathing.
Drinking water from a fountain while taking a breath is an example of circular breathing.

If done correctly, this allows the body to always have air in the lungs, except for the brief time when the cheeks are full of air and take the responsibility of providing air to the instrument. One way people think about the circular breathing technique is as being analogous to drinking water from a drinking fountain and taking a breath. The same sort of sharp inhalation is used, while the water is left in the mouth.

Traditional instruments that use circular breathing include the arghul from Egypt, the launeddas from Sardinia, and a number of traditional flutes of Asia. Perhaps the most well-known instrument that relies on circular breathing is the Australian didgeridoo. The didgeridoo is played by vibrating the lips in a droning sort of sound, breathing down the long tube, while using circular breathing to keep up a steady sound. Expert didgeridoo players can keep up a continuous drone for more than forty-five minutes, giving the instrument a hypnotic, trance-like feel that many people find soothing and ideal for relaxation exercises.

The most well-known practitioner of circular breathing is likely the saxophonist, and general woodwind player, Kenny G. In 1997 he set a record for the Guinness Book by playing a sustained E-flat on his soprano saxophone. He held the note for forty-five minutes and forty-seven seconds, using circular breathing techniques the entire time. Almost a year later a saxophone player from Costa Rica, Geovanny Escalante, held a single note for one-hour thirty-minutes and forty-five seconds, nearly doubling Kenny G’s record.

More and more contemporary orchestral music is being written around circular breathing, allowing for continuous sequences of notes and long sustained notes. A fair amount of circular breathing oriented music can be found in the 20th century canon, and in 21st century composition it is virtually assumed that a skilled wind player will have this technique as part of their repertoire. Additionally, the use of circular breathing has allowed many classical pieces to be transcribed from strings to wind instruments. This can be seen, for example, in the Paginini violin piece, Moto Perpetuo, which was transcribed to trumpet by Rafael Mendez.

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