Friday, July 12, 2013

Circular Breathing: A necessary skill for comfort and peace of mind

We're lucky that circular breathing is relatively easy to do on the oboe, especially compared to the flute or tuba! In fact, I believe that circular breathing, while not often used or taught by teachers of the last generation, is a skill that is absolutely necessary for all advanced oboists in our time (along with double tonguing).

So what is circular breathing?  Circular breathing is a means of breathing in and out of your nose while STILL maintaining sound on the instrument.  To circular breathe it is useful to understand that we have two types of "bellows" to hold and push air out and into our reeds. This first is of course your lungs,  which you usually use to play oboe. The second bellow is your cheeks, which will fill with air and quickly push air into your reed as you rapidly inhale through your nose during circular breathing.

Why/when should one use circular breathing? You should use circular breathing to not interrupt a long musical line and when you feel winded/tired but otherwise don't have time or a musically proper place to break the line.  I avoided learning how to circular breathe for a LONG time, thinking it was merely a "circus" trick and would practice a few exercises then put it away. It wasn't until I programmed a recital piece (the Silvestrini Etudes) that absolutely required circular breathing so that I was forced to really learn it. I'm so very glad that I acquired this new skill and I can't imagine playing without it now. Gone are the days of feeling absolutely out of breath after long passages. Circular breathing gives me a real sense of comfort,  knowing that no phrase is impossibly long since I can breathe at will with very little effort and feel fine.

If you don't already circular breathe, the following exercises will have you up and at 'em in no time. Of course,  like almost everything pertaining to the oboe, you'll first need to first arm yourself with a good dose of patience and persistence. (I know, I know, I've said that a lot before,  but it's so TRUE!) I've created a series of exercises to teach this skill and hope you find this helpful.

Exercises without the oboe

First isolate the use of your cheek bellows
1. Fill cheeks with air and hold it there.
2. With cheeks filled with air,  breathe in and out from your lungs through your nose.

Now use your cheeks as a bellows.
1. Fill cheeks with air and push the air out through your lips.
2. Try this again, pushing air out of your cheeks while you inhale through your nose.
    For some of you this is the most difficult step. You can try putting your hands on your cheeks to        
    actually "squeeze" or manually remove the air out of your cheeks as you inhale air through your  
3. When your air is all out of your cheeks,  begin blowing air out from your lungs. This is step of   expelling air from cheek bellows and changing to expelling air from your lung is often a very tricky step for some. Again, try to make this transition as quick as possible. When first learning, you may notice a difference in air support. The air from your lungs will likely have more air support than your cheek bellows. Try to really pressurize the air from your cheeks so that the support is similar to your lung/abdominal air support.  This will make the transition of expelling air from  your cheeks to your lungs smoother and when playing the oboe the pitch and sound will be more similar.

Once you've mastered the above techniques,  you'll need two tools to practice: 
 A cup half-filled with water
 A straw

1. Place the straw in the water and begin blowing through it to make bubbles.
2.  As you continue to blow through the straw with air from your lungs, VERY quickly fill your cheeks with air.
3. Engage your cheek bellows to push air out of the straw while you rapidly breath in through your lungs.
4. Finally, transition from expelling air from your cheek bellows to your lungs again.
If you are circular breathing correctly,  there should be constant air bubbles moving into the water. If the bubbles stop,  you're likely not making a transition from one bellows to another quickly enough. Go back to the first exercises above to refine your skills. (This exercise can be a really amusing bar trick to amaze your non-musician friends!) :)

Once you've mastered this step,  try circular breathing on a reed only.

1. Place the reed in your mouth  and begin blowing through it to make sound.
2. As you continue to blow through the reed with air from your lungs, VERY quickly fill your cheeks with air. The sound should never stop.
3. Engage your cheek bellows to push air out of the reed while you rapidly breath in through your lungs.
4. Finally, transition from expelling air from your cheek bellows to your lungs again.

There should be constant sound through this exercise. You may notice a change in pitch as you change from cheek to lung bellows,  but try to minimize any differences.

Finally, we get to the oboe!
Place the reed in your mouth and try the last exercise again. There will be more air support needed now, so really try to push air out of your cheek bellows quickly with a lot of support from your cheek muscles.

In music, first try circular breathing through long trills where no one will notice any potential changes in  pitch very well. Then,  add circular breathing in to places where you have long notes in loud passages where you might not be heard by others. Next try adding in your new skill while playing scales, etc. I only circular breathe during slurred passages,  but these are often not hard to find.

If you find yourself out of breath after practicing circular breathing,  you likely aren't taking in enough air in your quick inhalation. Practice taking in more air into your lungs or circular breath more frequently.

Another use for circular breathing: EXHALATION
One of the difficult parts of playing oboe is getting out unused air. At breath marks,  the first thing we do is to exhale old air and then inhale new air. But if you feel like you have too much used/old air in your lungs,  you can use circular breathing to EXHALE through your nose as well.  I often use this trick when circular breathing for long periods of time or anytime I start to feel winded and too full of "old" air.  That way on your next inhalation you can take in much more fresh air. This feels GOOD.

That's it. Hope this helps!

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

1 comment:

  1. This has really helped me. I found this a few days ago and I have been going through the exercises daily (usually a few times) and it has really helped me improve. Thank you!