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Circular Breathing for Brass Players

Have you ever learned to do something you thought was easy and simple, only to be told by
others that the thing you are doing is actually very difficult? Did you notice that once you’ve
been told that it’s difficult, it becomes difficult? That’s the way it is with circular breathing.
Western music, by its neglect of this simple technique, has been telling us that it’s a difficult
thing to do. And we believe it, without trying. Our brain tells us it’s difficult, so our body
responds by refusing to do it. But it’s not true! Everyone can learn to circular breathe!

When you learn to play a brass instrument, you learn certain physical techniques (such as
contorting the lip, making unfamiliar tongue movements, and synchronising air with finger
movements). There are several musical instruments that require circular breathing as part of
their technique. Many people learn to play these instruments, and they all learn to circular
breathe. It is simply part of the technique of the instrument. The fact that there is no parallel
musical technique in the Western world is the only reason we don’t know how to circular
breathe: we simply haven’t been brought up with it.

The goal of early instrumental music was to copy as perfectly as possible the sound of the
human voice. Since vocalists must breathe, the concept of phrasing was inherent in our
musical development from its beginnings. No competent musician of our time would give a
performance without proper phrasing. And phrasing is nothing more than imitating breathing.
Instruments such as the piano and the violin use phrasing constantly, even though they don’t
need to stop to take breaths, because the original purpose of Western music was to imitate
the human voice. The idea that circular breathing is impossible is built into our whole concept
of music.

Definition

There are many names for circular breathing (rotary breathing, permanent exhaling,
permanent breathing, etc.); essentially though, they all describe the same technique: the act
of maintaining a continuous sound from a wind instrument while inhaling (through the nose),
and then channeling the inhaled air through the instrument, with no break in the sound. It is
thus possible to sustain a note indefinitely.

Technique

The traditional way of expelling air through a brass instrument is by using the muscles of the
lungs and diaphragm. But this is not the only way! Circular breathing involves using the
puffed-out cheek muscles to push air through the instrument. While the cheek muscles are
doing this, the lungs are free to expand, and take in more air (through the nose). If you can
understand this simple concept, you are well on your way to mastering the technique. The
most difficult part of circular breathing is making the transition between “cheek-expelled air”
and “lung-expelled air.” It involves a kind of “swallowing” technique that is best learned apart
from the instrument, with one of the following exercises:

1. Blow through a straw, into a glass of water, and keep a steady, constant stream of
bubbles going.
2. This exercise is similar, but requires more air: have a friend put his or her hand in
front of your mouth (or use your own hand), and blow a constant stream of air. You
(or your friend) will be able to tell when you’re not making a smooth transition
between inhaling and exhaling.
After you’ve mastered these exercises (or before, if you’re getting frustrated!) try it on your
instrument. The easiest way to begin is by playing a note in the middle range (middle B-flat is
good) at a moderately soft dynamic (mp), If you’re able to do the preliminary exercises, you
should have no problem working this out. Now your goal is to make the breathing transitions
become completely unnoticeable. You can have a friend turn his back, and see if he can tell
where you’re breathing. It will take some practice, but you’ll soon be able to produce a
seamless tone that will last as long as your embouchure will last. (It’s amazing how quickly
your embouchure becomes tired when you don’t have those momentary breathing rests!)

Your next goal is to play notes in different ranges and dynamics. You’ll probably find that as
you deviate from a moderate dynamic in the middle range, it gets more difficult. Loud notes,
and high or low notes also become more difficult. But again, it’s just a matter of practicing
these things, and getting used to them. You can do it!

The Case of Rafael Mendez

Rafael Mendez, the great Mexican trumpet virtuoso was able to play Paganini’s “Perpetual
Motion,” a five-minute long fiesta of sixteenth-note runs, complete with double tonguing, all
without stopping to breathe! Tonguing while circular breathing is a difficult technique to
acquire. It is, however, fairly easy to learn to slur notes while you are circular breathing. It’s
easiest to breathe while you’re going downward in a scale passage, since your embouchure
is relaxing. Try this exercise, circular breathing at the asterisk, and once you’ve got it
mastered, make up your own, more advanced exercises:

Repeat forever!

Caution!

Breathing deeply is a vital aspect of good brass playing. If you use circular breathing too
much, you may get used to it and “forget” how to breathe deeply. Just like other aspects of
brass technique, deep breathing requires constant practice. Because it is so different from
day-to-day breathing, it can easily be forgotten, so don’t let circular breathing become a
crutch!

Practical Uses

While its main use is as a gimmick, circular breathing does have some practical uses. Have
you ever come across a piece of music that has thirty-six bars of tied whole notes?
(Wagner’s tuba parts are notorious for this). Circular breathing can come in handy when the
composer doesn’t seem to have realized that brass instruments need to breathe. And there
are also many other pieces of music that just don’t have any space for breathing, such as
some accompaniment band parts, where phrasing would be inappropriate. As you work to
implement circular breathing in your own playing, you will undoubtedly find many more
interesting uses for it.