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Saxophone Circular Breathing

What is circular breathing?

Circular breathing is similar to bagpipe technique

This Croatian musician is playing bagpipes made from a pig. When using circular breathing on a saxophone, the air in your puffed out cheeks is working in a similar way as the air in the pig.

It 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 is that you are also storing air in your cheeks, so that there is always a reservoir of air to use. Your cheeks will need to be puffed out to contain as much air as possible, and you can think of this like the bellows in a set of bagpipes. While you breath in, you exhale this air stored in your cheeks into the instrument. Yes, I know, you have been taught that puffing out your cheek is bad technique, which is true in many respects for normal playing, but this is a technique that is normally used only when required so shouldn’t be considered a part of normal saxophone technique.

Circular breathing is something you do in addition to 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 actually taught circular breathing by a famous didgeridoo artist.

Why would you do this?

Many (probably most) saxophone go through their whole life never needing or wanting to use it. I can only think of three situations to use it:

  • When you want to play an extended phrase that is longer than the amount of air in your lungs allow. This could be because you want to play a very long uninterrupted phrase in your improvisation or because a composer has written a phrase that is too long for you to play in one normal breath. Theoretically a good composer won’t do this – they should never assume a player can use circular breathing. Nor should you use circular breathing if you are not using your lug capacity adequately – I think it would be better to work on developing your lungs in this case. However if your lung capacity is too small due to health issues then this could be a good case for using circular breathing to compensate. However if you are using it for this reason I strongly advise you get medical advice first.
  • You need more air due to the instrument/s. This is related to the above, except that the length of phrase you would normally play in one breath is necessarily very short due to playing an excessively large instrument such as a contrabass, or playing more than one saxophone at a time. For example Roland Kirk frequently played tenor and soprano or stritch at the same time as an extended technique and used circular breathing as normal breathing would only allow very short phrases.
  • As an effect or performance technique. Kenny G is famous for his circular breathing ability and holding a note for a about 45 minutes, a record that has since been broken. Although many purists may look down on this kind of thing as a gimmick or cheap showmanship, there’s no denying it has entertainment value in the right circumstances.

How do you do Circular Breathing on the Saxophone?

Stage 1 – Preliminary practice

As we said, the principle is very similar to the way bagpipes work, except instead of a bellows you puff out your cheeks to hold a reservoir 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 you may find it easier to develop the technique without the saxophone, I suggest this method:

  • Fill your mouth with water, really full so your cheeks are distended
  • While holding the water, breathe in and out normally a few times through your nose – keep a steady rhythm.
  • 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 the raspberry technique, which seems to be the easiest way to grasp the concept of resistance). You can also practice this without the water and just blow raspberries – you can do this anytime anywhere, though you may want to avoid doing it in public places if you want to appear sane.

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 in 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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