What is Circular Breathing?

Circular breathing is a breathing technique that involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth at the same time. This maintains a constant flow of air, allowing for uninterrupted playing of certain wind instruments. Circular breathing is used many traditional instruments, and some classical instruments have a larger repertoire of pieces that can be played if circular breathing is used.

Circular breathing is a simple technique that requires a fair amount of practice to master, and even more practice to become an expert. Essentially, air is blown out slowly as usual, and then, when the lungs are nearly empty, the last bit of air is pushed into the mouth, puffing out the cheeks. The lungs are filled breathing in quickly through the nose as the cheeks naturally deflate, pushing air out.

If done correctly, the body will always have air in its lungs, except for the brief period when the cheeks are full of air and take over the role of providing air to the instrument. One way to think of the circular breathing technique is to compare it to drinking water from a fountain and then taking a breath. The water is left in the mouth while the same type of sharp inhalation is used.

The arghul from Egypt, the launeddas from Sardinia, and a number of traditional Asian flutes are examples of traditional instruments that use circular breathing. The Australian didgeridoo is perhaps the most well-known instrument that uses circular breathing. The didgeridoo is played making a droning sound with the lips and breathing down the long tube with circular breathing to maintain a steady sound. Expert didgeridoo players can sustain a continuous drone for over 45 minutes, giving the instrument a hypnotic, trance-like quality that many people find relaxing and ideal for relaxation exercises.

Kenny G, a saxophonist and general woodwind player, is probably the most well-known practitioner of circular breathing. He set a Guinness World Record in 1997 playing a sustained E-flat on his soprano saxophone. He held the note for 45 minutes and 47 seconds, breathing in and out in circular motions the entire time. A saxophonist from Costa Rica, Geovanny Escalante, nearly doubled Kenny G’s record holding a single note for one hour thirty minutes and forty-five seconds almost a year later.

More and more modern orchestral music is being written with circular breathing in mind, allowing for long sustained notes and continuous sequences of notes. A significant amount of circular breathing-oriented music can be found in the 20th century canon, and it is virtually assumed that a skilled wind player will have this technique in their repertoire in 21st century composition. Many classical pieces have also been transcribed from strings to wind instruments thanks to the use of circular breathing. This can be heard, for example, in Rafael Mendez’s transcription of Paginini’s violin piece Moto Perpetuo for trumpet.