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I'm trying to learn circular breathing to extend my range of "advanced" techniques. I had asked my teacher for advice, but he said he was a "natural" at circular breathing (meaning he has never learnt it and could circular-breathe from the get-go) and couldn't help me.

After following the famous straw-and-a-glass-of-water method for a few weeks and reading through a number of resources (for example, one at tamingthesaxophone.com and another one at woodwind.org), I have come across what I think is a major flaw in all of these explanations, and I'll try to describe it in a bit more detail.

Breathing in through the nose while pushing air out of the cheeks is all nice and dandy, and you eventually do get used to it, but a major problem arises once you start blowing air out normally and only using your cheeks for when you need to breathe in. After a while (0.75-1.5 minutes) I personally feel the need to breathe out through my nose, which I can only assume to be a reflex of some kind. It feels similar to suffocating (when you feel an urgent need to breathe in), except it's an urge to breathe out. It happens regardless of how much air is stored within the body. It only occurs when regular breathing out is added on top of pushing air out of the cheeks. If I only use my cheeks, I can go on for hours without ever feeling that need to breathe out (I'm assuming that's due to me breathing out in small increments every other time while pushing air out of the cheeks). What's up with that, and how does one actually "combat" that problem? Because each and every one of my straw-and-a-glass sessions basically ends with me spending a few seconds breathing out like a maniac.

Another problem that none of the sources seem to mention is the actual trouble of having a mouthpiece in your mouth. I personally can't puff my cheeks out with a mouthpiece plugging the oral cavity, because all the air escapes into the mouthpiece straightaway. Is there a trick to it? Does one use their tongue to "close" the tip opening, or does one use a smaller tip opening for circular breathing? A smaller chamber?

I'm asking those questions in the hope of expanding on existing resources. I feel like they don't go into enough detail and brush over some of the more important aspects of this technique.

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    I’m only a beginner on the clarinet but the air in your longs can become stale before you finish exhaling even on notes where you’re pushing a lot of air. I don’t know an answer to how to breathe circular for clarinet, but I might guess that not taking a whole lungful might help and also learning to empty your lungs through your nose while using your cheeks to play might be things to try. I’d say a wider mouthpiece would be easier to play with puffed cheeks than a narrow one. – Todd Wilcox Jan 1 at 1:04
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    One more thing, I’d expect clarinet and sax technique in this area to be different from recorder. In fact I’d probably try to learn this on recorder first and then try sax/clarinet. – Todd Wilcox Jan 1 at 1:06
  • @ToddWilcox, personally, I've never experienced that problem on either clarinet or saxophone with regular breathing. Perhaps, I should thank my past as a smoker for that. I'll give it a try it with a wider mouthpiece. Recorder might indeed be easier, given it doesn't have a reed (and thus should be less resistant). But my main problem is that I just can't puff my cheeks if there's something plugging my mouth, and I haven't been able to find any statements online from people with a similar problem. – Pyromonk Jan 1 at 2:24
  • @ToddWilcox, I've managed to achieve the desired effect (on the straw+glass) by using every 2nd or so cheek air expulsion to breathe out. Thank you. But I still do not understand the need for it and why none of the sources mention it. From studying them, I had personally assumed that air was supposed to escape via mouth only, and that there was something wrong with me. Having it escape via 2 different cavities seems inefficient and wasteful. – Pyromonk Jan 1 at 6:13
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    Related question concerning breathing in general. – guidot Jan 1 at 13:18
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Circular breathing imposes a new 'breathing timetable' on your body. You are trading off your natural breathing cadence for the requirements of the music. In the same way that holding your breath for a long time, or breathing rapidly, will have consequences, the rapid 'sniffs' required in circular breathing can upset the system. Your impulse to breathe out through the nose is one such result.

The answer, as with almost everything musical, is practice. If you are feeling this effect with a drinking straw, or a recorder, be prepared for some head spins if you move on to the larger aerophones. The didgeridoo is the most arduous: sometimes you can feel you need another breath immediately and you can fall into a rapid rhythmic breathing pattern which, if left unchecked, can lead you quickly into blackout territory.

There is no need to breathe out through your nose. Except for that brief time when you use your cheeks to maintain instrument airflow while you sniff in, you are always breathing out. It is worth mentioning that the cheeks should not be pumping like bellows: they are only maintaining the airflow and should slowly collapse a little, that's all.

As for reeds, this is where you are going to have to grow new muscles. Instead of the 'doot' we learn when playing clarinet/sax, you're going to have to go with more of a 'boot', and it will be hell for a while.

Success is a matter of slowly building endurance. There is absolutely nothing mystical about circular breathing (it's just the oxygen deprivation/surfeit talking), but it certainly requires rigorous discipline and devoted practice if you are going to maintain the technique for more than a minute or so.

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  • Thank you. Are you saying that with practice I will no longer feel the need to breathe out through the nose? I'm practising daily, what I'm trying to avoid is improper technique. Interesting note regarding cheeks. The video my original post links to (around 7:00) led me to believe that cheeks should be puffed out to the max and completely emptied out. "Boot" won't be much of a problem, assuming you mean attacking notes with bottom lip versus tongue. I practise that daily as well. – Pyromonk Jan 2 at 5:49
  • I think so. If you're not ready to make the leap to an instrument (although a recorder uses a ridiculously small amount of air) try just blowing into the air or at your palm held in front of your face. Blowing into the air means you can practise while walking around or sitting in public; people won't notice, or if they do they'll just think you have a funny expression on your face. Blowing to cool down your coffee or tea? Do it with circular breathing. – Areel Xocha Jan 2 at 10:36
  • As for advice to bulge cheeks then fully collapse them, this may give you an air stream for a longer period of time, but the whole idea of circular breathing is to maintain that flow of air to the instrument while you sniff in a fresh supply, and this takes less than a second. Heavy-duty driving with the cheeks may boost the volume momentarily, and this may be an expressive technique, but I aim for a seamless effect. As for 'proper technique', any technique where the sound doesn't stop and you don't lose consciousness is a good technique. – Areel Xocha Jan 2 at 11:07
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    Pressure inside a closed 'container' remains the same throughout that container. Basically what you are doing with circular breathing is using the back of the tongue and soft palate to momentarily create a second 'container' for air inspired through the nose. It seems you have mastered this. You then have to use your mouth and front of the tongue to get a suitable embouchure. Experiment with the following 'sounds': t, d, bw, who and two (the blowing on coffee one). They have more relevance than the drinking straw embouchure, which is mainly for blowing bubbles or inflating balloons. – Areel Xocha Jan 7 at 20:12
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    Place your hands on your belly on either side of your navel and exhale strongly. Feel a slight movement outwards? This is your diaphragm 'pumping' your lungs to expel air. Every time you breathe out, or blow an instrument, the mechanism is the same: it's the diaphragm doing the work. When you are circular breathing you continue breathing out. Don't stop. Keep it happening. You then , in one synchronised move, close your jaw slightly, press the back of your tongue up against your palate to make a chamber behind it and quickly snort in while bringing your cheeks in a bit. Don't give up. – Areel Xocha Jan 17 at 6:15
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I'd like to point out two issues:

First, you write

regardless of how much air is stored within the body

Here the most important distinction is missing: any sufficiently dense gas will do for making an instrument sound, including exhausted air. Unfortunately the latter will not help your body getting its oxygen, and this could be the reason for the mentioned need to breath out. Your body wants to get rid of this useless stuff. As I mentioned in my answer to the linked question, this is an effect the players of bassoon and even more of oboe are used to, since their respective reeds permit only a small airflow and the danger of not getting rid of exhausted air is well-known and requires conscious exhale. I can imagine, that you start with inhaling part of circular breathing too early (too much air still in lung), so too little fresh air fits in.

Second issue is, how to fill cheeks in spite of an opening as a present mouthpiece. With your standard air stream and pressure (which you are used to apply for normal playing) you won't succeed because there is no excess on air. You may try to exert more pressure by the diaphragm or imagine to exhale faster or whatever helps so more air is provided than flows through the mouthpiece but only the excess will be available for cheek storage. You have to work against the muscles of your cheeks, which have to sustain the pressure to make the instrument sound.

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  • Thank you for reminding me of your answer to the related question. Somehow, I have completely forgotten the last point you made there. What do you mean by "starting to circular-breathe too early"? Thank you very much for providing more insight into the process. How does your answer coincide with Areel Xocha's? From reading his response, I've come to the conclusion that the need to breathe out eventually dissipates. Is that assumption correct? – Pyromonk Jan 2 at 5:56

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