Circular breathing is one of those brass playing techniques that seems cool to learn but really has no practical benefit.
I hesitate to even teach this, but after asking for topics to write about, I found out there are people who still want to learn how to circular breathe.
What Is It?
Circular breathing is a technique in which you breathe in through your nose while continuing to play a note at the same time.
The purpose, in theory, is to maintain playing a sustained sound for longer periods of time than a single breath allows.
I say this is “in theory,” because in practice, it is rarely used on a brass instrument. In fact, I can think of no situation that calls for it. Small ensembles will take group breaths and large ensembles will stagger breathe.
Still, I learned to do it “just in case,” so I suppose I can’t blame you for wanting to learn it, too.
Steps to Learn Circular Breathing
Here are my 5 steps to learn to circular breath. These are specifically tailored for brass playing.
Step 1: Pushing Out and Breathing In
This is the easiest step. You need to learn how to push air out of your lips and breathe in through your nose at the same time.
I did this with water. Practicing this in the shower is an easy way to not make a total mess, but you can also do it over a sink.
Take a sip of water and hold in your mouth. Now squeeze it out through your lips without using your lungs or air. This is easiest to get a feel for by using enough water that your cheeks puff out.
Squeeze only using the cheek muscles. Once you think you can do this, try breathing in through your nose while doing it.
This is the fundamental concept, so don’t move on without mastering this step. Using water instead of air helps make sure you aren’t tricking yourself somehow.
If you cheat and breathe in with water in your mouth, you’ll discover the error really fast!
Step 2: Making a Sound
You might think we’re almost done now that you can do the main “trick” of circular breathing.
I assure you, the hard parts are all to come.
Now you’re going to want to get your instrument. Do the same thing as Step 1 except without the water with your lips on your mouthpiece.
The goal is to produce a sound. This can be tricky at first because you’re juggling three things: breathing in, pushing out, and buzzing.
Don’t worry about what it sounds like, fixing that will happen naturally as you practice the next steps. I’d pick something that isn’t too low or high, like a middle concert F.
Once you can consistently make a sound while breathing in, move on to the next step.
Step 3: Cycling
This is probably the hardest step. Now that you can play a note while breathing in, you need to figure out how to chain that to the normal airflow without losing the sound.
Here’s how I do it.
Play a note normally. Immediately fill your cheeks with air. Now cut off the air flow in the throat and do Step 2. As soon as you finish breathing in through the nose, shift back over to the normal playing technique.
Do this all on one note. Don’t worry about tone. At first, don’t even worry about the note continuing to play.
This step is just about putting it all together. You must mentally practice chaining all these ideas together.
There’s a lot going on in a very short period of time when you do it right. So, just use this step to get used to blowing out, collecting the reserve air, shifting to breathing in while pushing out, and then shifting back to breathing out.
That’s the whole cycle!
Step 4: Smoothing it Out
As you get better at Step 3, you’ll want to smooth the whole thing out. Now is the time to focus on getting a single to have a consistent sound and tone quality through the whole process.
This is also a very hard step because you’ll be playing with quite poor technique during the circular breathing part. I can’t really give many tips other than to experiment as you do it to see if you strike on anything that works for you.
Once you have a fairly consistent sound through the whole process, it’s time to learn to play with it!
Step 5: Notes!
To learn to play notes while circular breathing, just take a single octave of an easy scale.
You need something you don’t have to think about. Play the scale up and down, and, as you need to, circular breathe.
Try to make the changing notes during that breath in as even as possible. It’s surprising how much harder this is than just holding a single note.
Once you have this down, you can move on to reading music, but seriously, that’s probably overkill.
Circular breathing can be learned fairly quickly if you break it into steps like this.
We have it kind of easy as low brass players. The larger mouthpiece means we have more leeway during the “bad embouchure” part. Also, there’s a lot of resistance to give us more time (try this without a mouthpiece like a flute player to see what I mean).
I hope you enjoy this extended brass technique. You’ll probably only use it to amaze your friends.