How to Master Circular Breathing on the Saxophone

It has been so many years since I first learned how to circular breathe that I rarely give the matter a thought anymore. It occurs to me, though, that to many sax players, circular breathing remains a technique shrouded in mystery. There is, after all, something about it that appears almost miraculous. Most saxophonists would be challenged to hold a tone for thirty seconds. So how on earth did saxophonist Vann Burchfield manage to sustain a single note for 47 minutes, 6 seconds, in 2003, beating the previous record set by Kenny G of 45 minutes, 47 seconds? (An even more interesting question is, why did he do it? But the point of this article is to discuss the mechanics behind such a feat, not the psychology.) Sensationalism aside, circular breathing is a useful technique with practical benefits for those who add it to their tool kit. But how does one go about doing so?

Begin by understanding the basics of how circular breathing works.

The principle is fairly simple (which is not to say, easy to master). You support your tone with air from your lungs in the usual way. However, when your air supply begins to dwindle, you store a quick reservoir of air in your cheeks. Then, closing off the back of your throat, you sustain your tone by contracting your cheeks while simultaneously--and very quickly--replenishing your lungs with air by breathing in through your nose. This accomplished, you reopen the back of your throat and once again blow from your lungs. Repeat the procedure as often as necessary. It sounds tricky, and it is at first, but the essentials really aren't any great secret. Like any discipline, though, circular breathing takes time and persistence to master. Once you've got the hang of it, you'll find that you're able to continue playing indefinitely, spinning out lines for as long as you please without having to break the flow.

Here's a simple, step-by-step process to get you started.

1. Get in touch with your air reservoir. How do you do this? Simple: take a breath and then puff out your cheeks. Now continue to puff out your cheeks while breathing in and out through your nose. Note how the back of your throat automatically closes in order for you to accomplish this, sealing off a reservoir of air in your mouth that keeps your cheeks "inflated" while your lungs continue their normal breathing rhythm. 2. Repeat the above procedure. But this time, blow a controlled stream of air through your lips, allowing the reservoir of air in your cheeks to empty itself like a leaky balloon. When you start losing pressure in your cheeks, then--without interrupting the air flow through your lips--breathe in through your nose and then release the air from your lungs into your mouth, replenishing the reservoir of air. Then close off your throat again. Continue doing this till it seems easy (which will probably happen fairly quickly because it is easy, much easier to do than it is to describe!). The objective is to maintain a steady air stream through your lips while opening and closing your throat to replenish your air reservoir. 3. Till this point, the focus has been on getting a feel for the air reservoir in your mouth/cheeks. The reservoir is key, but in circular breathing, you'll only use it for the second it takes to fill your lungs with air, after which your throat remains open and you blow in the normal fashion. So in this exercise, blow a steady stream of air through your lips, allowing the pressure to puff out your cheeks, but support the air stream from your lungs. Keep it going for five or ten seconds, until your lungs begin to empty. Then close off your throat and keep the air stream moving by using the air in your mouth reservoir, as in exercise number two. Simultaneously, inhaling through your nostrils, fill your lungs back up with air. Then open your throat back up and blow from your lungs once again. 4. Once you can comfortably and consistently perform the above exercise, you'll have gotten your arms around the essentials of circular breathing. At this point, you are in fact performing the technique. Now it's just a matter of transferring it to your instrument. When I was first learning to circular breathe, I found it helpful to work with the soprano saxophone. Assuming a conservative reed/mouthpiece combination, the soprano uses less air than the larger horns, making the learning curve easier. If you've got a soprano sax, I highly recommend that you practice circular breathing on it before you try it on your alto or tenor. Start by seeing how long you can sustain a single tone in the middle register of your instrument. The note C on the staff works great. Avoid extremely high and low notes for the time being. Concentrate on making a smooth transition between lung support and reservoir support, striving for minimal pitch wavering, change in volume, and certainly break in tone when closing and reopening the back of your throat. From here on, gaining proficiency is just a matter of focused, self-analytical practice. However, there are...

A few things to be aware of.

These involve the way you use your mouth reservoir to sustain a tone. In the above exercises, you've had your cheeks puffed out and allowed the air to leak out of them in a controlled stream. Once you start blowing through a mouthpiece, you'll find that things aren't quite so easy. The air goes at a faster rate, and you need to contract your cheeks like a bellows in order to provide enough air pressure to sustain a tone on the horn. Ultimately, of course, you want to dispense with puffing out your cheeks as much as possible. Cheek-puffing is handy as a preliminary learning device, but it's ruinous on intonation and good breath support. As you spend time refining your circular breathing technique, you'll find that you can exert air pressure from the back of your throat by lifting your tongue forward. I don't know how better to describe what I'm getting at, but I'm quite certain that you'll discover it for yourself if you continue to practice circular breathing. Once you're able to sustain a single tone with reasonable control, try playing a scale using circular breathing. From there, try a favorite lick. Circular breathing while playing lines is challenging at first, but once you've acquired the ability, you'll find that moving notes are actually more forgiving than long tones. They tend to mask the unwelcome waver that often attends the shift in air support. And that, my friends, is that. My job is done. Yours is just beginning. Grab your horn and get started.
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  1. Maximiliano says:

    Hola Muchisimas gracias por el aporte.
    Es un gran maestro saludos desde Argentina Gracias..

  2. Thank you, Maximiliano! I don’t read or speak Spanish, but I’ve gotten the gist of your comment and appreciate it very much. I hope you’ve found the article helpful. Keep blowin’!


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