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Saxophone Circular Breathing

What is it?

Circular breathing means breathing in while still blowing a note or notes on the saxophone. It sounds much harder than it really is. When you use circular breathing, you are still breathing in and out of your lungs as with any normal type of breathing, the difference being that after exhaling, the air is temporarily stored in your cheeks, rather like a bagpipes, so that there is a always a small reservoir of air to use for the saxophone while breathing in. Circular breathing is something you do in additionto your normal breathing, it needn’t be thought of as a totally separate breathing technique. You can still use the diaphragm breathing techniques along with circular breathing.

Circular breathing is a technique that may have been first developed by Australian Aborigines for playing the didgeridoo, an instrument which requires a lot of air and has a style of playing that involves long drones, musical passages and effects that would be impossible if the player had to stop blowing to breathe. In fact I was taught circular breathing by didgeridoo artist Rolf Harris during a week I was in the orchestra backing his show at the Batley Variety Club in Yorkshire.

How do you do Circular Breathing on the Saxophone?

Stage 1 – Preliminary practice

The principle is very similar to the way bagpipes work, except instead of a bellows you puff out your cheeks to hold a reservoire of air which takes over from the lungs while inhaling through the nose. It’s harder to do if there is no resistance to the outward airstream, but with a saxophone in your mouth, there is some resistance so this makes it easier than it would be for an instrument like the flute. However to begin with it can be easier to develop the technique without the saxophone, I suggest this method:

  • Fill your mouth with water, really full so your cheeks are distended
  • Breathe in and out a few times through your nose
  • Now, without stopping the nose breathing, purse your lips and try to squirt the water out in a long thin stream as if you are blowing a raspberry.

I have suggested you use a thin jet of water, that’s because (a) you can actually see and feel it and (b) circular breathing is easier when there is more resistance so the thinner the jet the better (hence theraspberry technique, which seems to be the easiest way to grasp the concept of resistance).

Stage 2 – Applying circular breathing to the saxophone

Once you can do this with water you have grasped the main concept physically and you should be able to transfer the technique to breathing in via your nose while blowing air from your cheeks into the saxophone. The trickiest bit is keeping your cheeks filled up with air from your lungs, that’s why the resistance from the saxophone is important. It is easiest to do while playing a single note in the upper register, don’t expect the note to be too steady at first.

  • Puff your cheeks out and blow the saxophone
  • Touch the roof of your mouth with the back part of your tongue to seal the mouth from the throat
  • Inhale through your nose, concentrating on sustaining the note with the reservoir of air oin your cheeks
  • Remove the tongue to refill the cheeks from your lungs, still concentrating on the sustained note

Don’t expect it to work straight away, but if you focus on what you are doing and practice in short but concentrated sessions, it will come sooner than you think. Most people find it is much easier at the top end of the range on the higher pitched instruments, so it may be best to start off on soprano or alto. It can be very difficult on baritone and I find it practically impossible on flute due to the lack of resistance to the airflow.

Once you can do a very basic circular breathing you just need to keep at it to improve the stability of your saxophone embouchure. Sooner or later you will be able to play phrases while circular breathing – amaze your friends and family.

Another approach at Circular Breathing at woodwind.org

I would disagree with this only in that I think it’s best to keep your cheeks puffed out all the time if possible, i.e. you can continuously keep them full by small frequent puffs of air from your lungs.

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