Circular Breathing

Hello. I’m a college student and was wondering if I should learn how to circular breathe. I don’t see too many professional players doing it and I wonder if learning it is worth the effort. Does it affect tone quality and technique?

Sometimes I have trouble breathing on long passages and think circular breathing would come in handy. If I were to learn it, at what spots would I use the technique?

Your question opens up a huge vista having to do with musicality and sensitivity, the precepts upon which all musicians exist. Circular breathing is an interesting technique and is as old as music, for it can be traced back to the music of classical antiquity. The “aulos” was probably the first wind instrument which used a storage chamber, (within the mouth, kept sealed by a leather piece) in order to sustain passages, or perhaps to play them louder. Then, of course there is the most famous “circular breather”, the bagpipes, with its’ drone bag. Our circular breathing is about the same, give or take our human characteristics.

You ask whether “learning it is worth the effort”. I think it may be; that is, if the effort comes rather naturally, and if it does not become an obsessive goal. What do you have if you achieve the goal of being able to breathe only a few times, where another player does not have that ability?

Let us take two long and sustained solo passages in the symphonic repertoire: the passage in the “Scene aux champs” of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, and the solo in the second movement of the Symphony #4, by Brahms. The questions we must ask ourselves are only two concerning breathing: Where do we breathe, or where do we NOT breathe?

To answer another one of your questions is important at this juncture: “Does it affect tone quality and technique?” Yes, I certainly think so. It is not so much in the quality of sound, but in the fact that in the circular breathing technique players frequently lose a bit of the PITCH at the breathing place. The pitch actually goes down slightly . And, more importantly, if there is any deviation at all in the breathing space, you are giving up sensitivity for something that intrinsically is mechanical in nature.

Going back to Brahms and Berlioz, you still do not know where to breathe, and where not to breathe, right? Being able to circular breathe doesn’t give you the sensitivity it takes to play these passages with both the shading and the essential “human” and “singing” quality required. These things you get through your own personal “gift”; your study, and, of course, your teacher, which may be a real live and wonderful role model, or may indeed be your ability to listen to both live and recorded concerts and absorb all of the musical characteristics you hear. Perhaps both.

Without meaning to sound cute, that is the answer: “You hear, you hear, you hear. It is how you hear or how you are taught to hear which is the answer to breathing, whether or not you may choose or be able to breathe in the “circular” manner.

Rosario Mazzeo used to say, during those long Saturday mornings when his five or six students gathered to play for him and one another, when one of us would get into some weird breathing problem, or forget to breathe entirely … “Breathe Saturday”. It makes me laugh to think of those days and his comments. They were extraordinarily instructive. Thank you for coming by my corner. I wish you the best of all good and musical things as you continue your career.

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