Etude 10: Circular Breathing
"…if most Balinese farmers can play their flute with circular breathing, why not western flutists can do it?"
The phenomena of circular breathing is probably one of the highlights of the extended flute techniques. It is for sure also one of the most requested techniques. In this chapter, we will discuss the circular breathing used in ethnic flutes, like in Bali and we will look to what is circular breathing. We will speak about ‘hybrid exhaling’ and talk about why you should and how you could study circular breathing.
In Search for an Endless Sound
When I was about 15 years old, for some reason, I started to dream about extending the sound of the flute, similar to what a bow-played string instrument can do by alternating up and down strokes. Why a flutist always has to interrupt the sound for taking a breath? Isn't there a way to create an ‘endless’ flute sound, where the breath-timing becomes irrelevant? I asked my music friends, I asked my flute teacher, I asked and asked, but nobody could help me. Some declared me for insane, as many others assured me that it is simply not possible to extend the time of a flute sound beyond the one-breath limit. Fortunately, this further motivated me to search for a way to create an 'endless' flute sound.
And indeed, some years later I managed to create an ‘endless’ stream of air and to play an ‘endless’ flute sound! It was a wonderful time. Being able to play ‘endlessly’ transformed my playing considerably in a unique way. One should remember that this was around 1980 and in these days there were nearly no flutists who were able to blow an ‘endless’ sound. Eventually I learned that what I was doing - my 'endless' sound - was in fact called circular breathing.
Ethnic Flutes and Circular Breathing
Later, when I had the possibility to travel around the world intensively, I was surprised to see that so many flutes around the world do use circular breathing. Just to mention a few: the Klui (Thailand), the Suling (Bali, Indonesia), the Saluang (Sumatra, Indonesia) and the Di-zi (China). Also many other wind instruments, especially double reed instruments use circular breathing as a traditional technique. Another well-known example is the didgeridoo from the Australian aboriginals, actually a trumpet-like instrument. While in the western classical flute world we tend to call circular breathing ‘new’, we see that in the ethnic (flute) music world the circular breathing has been practiced for hundreds or even thousands of years.
Circular Breathing in Bali
In 1985, my project ‘Round About 12.5’ brought me to Indonesia (see the Introduction). There I was invited by my Balinese friend Wayan, a student at the music and dance institute Kokar in Denpasar to visit his parents. So together we travelled to Manikliyu, a remote village in central Bali in the shadow of the huge volcano Mount Batur and surrounded by coffee-fields. After we arrived at the village, we shared some delicious coffee and bananas with a group of locals, mainly farmers. Next, we played the local flute, the Suling (a recorded-style flute out of bamboo), which is indeed played with circular breathing. And it turned out that all villagers, young and old, could play the flute with circular breathing! It was like a miracle. But when all these Balinese farmer-flutists can use circular breathing, why not all western flutists can do it?
Back to the western world, we can hear circular breathing performed in more recent music styles, like in jazz, especially on saxophone and trumpet. The great master Rahsaan Roland Kirk was obviously a genius in using circular breathing on the flute as well as on multiple reed-instruments simultaneously (see picture).
Audio samples: Circular Breathing
Circular Breathing or 'Hybrid' Exhaling
We use circular breathing when we want to play an ‘endless’ flute sound. For this obviously we need to be able to blow without any pause. Normally we use only one system to blow out the air, which are the lungs. If the lungs run out of air we end the blowing. This allows us to inhale, whereafter we can exhale again, etc. Our way of breathing is clearly reflected in the musical phrases, a basic structure in most woodwind and vocal music.
So how to continue the exhaling while inhaling? Theoretically the solution is simple: we need the help of a second exhaling system, which can blow out the air while the lungs are quickly inhaling. And the mouth cavity is most suitable as the second exhaling system. We can use the mouth cavity like a balloon and blow out air while we refill the lungs through the nose. By alternating between the lungs, as the main system, and the mouth cavity, as the assisting system, we can create a constant flow of air, so we can produce an ‘endless’ flute sound! Compare it to a modern hybrid car with both an electric engine and a gasoline engine. Such a car keeps driving while alternating between both engines. Maybe we should rename circular breathing to “hybrid exhaling”!
Why you should study Circular Breathing
The main reason to study circular breathing is not directly to master this exciting technique, but to develop simultaneously several aspects of your flute playing. In particular these are:
- Embouchure: you will learn to control the embouchure with much more detail and flexibility.
- Breathing: you will develop a higher level of consciousness concerning your breathing system, the diaphragm and other muscles involved.
- Sound: your flute sound in general will improve, especially concerning flexibility and openness of sound.
How to study the Basics of Circular Breathing
We will study circular breathing in a sequence of steps, where each step is an extension of the step before. It is truly important that you take enough time for mastering each step. Also, once you progress to another step you should frequently return to any previous steps. In that way you not only learn the physical muscles involved, but - and this is important - will accustom yourself entirely to each step. Probably, the action of exhaling and inhaling simultaneously might be quite a hurdle, so you should give yourself sufficient practice time to develop a comfortable sensation. To study these steps may just take a few minutes. But do repeat these short studies often. For example studying 3 times a day for 3 minutes is a good rule of thumb (3x3).
Step 1: Nose + Balloon
Close the mouth and inflate the cheeks with air. Relax the embouchure as much as possible. Now inhale and exhale through the nose normally. In this step, the mouth cavity may feel (and look like) a balloon with just static air inside and totally separated from the lungs. Alternatively, you could fill the mouth with some water and then in and exhale through the nose normally.
Step 2: Nose + Deflating Balloon
Perform like step 1. Additionally you let escape the air in the mouth, little by little, or even better, by a constant airstream through a small lip-opening. This is like a deflating balloon. We can may try this step also with water in the mouth. Make the water escape through a small lip-opening, creating a small water-jet (best to study this when taking a shower).
Step 3: Nose + Deflating Balloon → Lungs out
In step 2, one moment the balloon (mouth-cavity) will run out of air. Now, before reaching this moment, we must open the throat and straightly blow out from the lungs.
Step 4: Nose + Deflating Balloon → Lungs out → Balloon air-catch (→ repeat)
We finished step 3 with blowing from the lungs. In step 4 we will puff the cheeks, like catching the air with the mouth cavity just before the lungs will run out of air. With this air in the mouth we return to the ‘balloon’ (step 2), allowing air to escape through a small lip-opening. Here the process can be repeated, creating a full circle and an 'endless' flow of air. Congratulations!
Studying Circular Breathing on the Thumpy Flute
The thumb flute Thumpy - a creation by Wil Offermans - originated as an educational concept to attract and motivate especially the younger generation. But the Thumpy flute is also a most enjoyable addition for any advanced flutist and a perfect instrument to study the circular breathing. You can first try with wind sounds, while closing both endings with the thumbs. Next, try with a flute sound, again first with both endings closed. Repeat this often!
- always immediately at hand to do some circular breathing studying, easy to take around.
- simple, relaxed and enjoyable, learn with a comfortable body position (you hold the Thumpy centered).
- it is easier to perform your first circular breathing sound on the Thumpy compared to the flute.
- affordable and low-priced (keep your flute safely stored while studying circular breathing).
Think in Years, not in Minutes
Remember when studying extended techniques that the study itself is both the road as well as the goal. When we enjoy the road, the result will come without forcing. This is also true for studying circular breathing. Give yourself one or two years, why not? And we all know that the good things in the life do take time. This is not a fast food, but a delicious food. Don’t give up after a few days, but do continue! During the study you will progress in controlling your breathing system and your flute playing will improve significantly. And once you can indeed perform the circular breathing, imagine… the rest of your life you will have a super-technique at your disposal!