So today we are going to be talking about this thing called saxophone circular breathing—what it is, when to use it, how to do it step-by-step... everything.
You are going to learn the exact technique saxophonists use to give the impression of playing notes that last forever by disguising how you breathe in. It often feels like there is a magical aura around musicians who can circular breath.
And you are going two fantastic tried-and-tested exercises to help you get up to speed with this technique...
...and of course, a few tips at the end to help you get started.
This should be fun, so let's dive right in.
What is Saxophone Circular Breathing?
Circular breathing is a technique used to give the impression of blowing a wind instrument without pausing to breath in between notes. A player gives the impression of playing notes that last forever by disguising how they breathe in.
Circular breathing is a term that even a lot of non-musicians know about, or are curious about, to some degree, because it appears as though the player is breathing in and out at the same time.
It's one of those "How are they doing it" magic tricks that leaves everybody puzzled.
Yet anybody can do it.
And it doesn't take years of training to learn circular breathing, but it does take a while—I'd say, at least a couple of weeks before you get a proper grasp on it.
Circular breathing is not breathing in and out at the same time because that's physically impossible. We can't do that. What you're actually doing is you're pushing air out through your mouth as you're breathing in.
That a completely different thing with breathing in and out at the same time. But it gives that impression.
The rest of this article explores circular breathing and then tops it off with a few breathing tips at the very end.
When to Use Circular Breathing on Saxophone
This is a point of some contention with a lot of saxophonists.
Should you let the phrase drop so that you can end it nicely and breath?
You don't use circular breathing when you don't necessarily have to. You use it to create an extra long phrase or when something in the music requires that you play something longer than you have air for.
Generally speaking, you don't use circular breathing as an effect.
So unless you need to, don't bother.
Just use your normal phrasing, take a breath and keep going but when you can't do that, you've got circular breathing.
But again, that's only just my rule of thumb.
How to Circular Breath on Saxophone: (The Step-by-step Guide)
What I want to do now is show you how you can do circular breathing on the saxophone, but the same principles can apply to any wind instrument, really.
Everyone seems to have this idea that circular breathing is a crazy difficult thing, but it's really just a technique and if your practice it, it comes really, really, quickly.
And the good news is that once you figure it out, you've figured it out. You can just call on it whenever you need it.
So let's get on with it then.
There are three steps in circular breathing.
Step #1 — Blow Normally
The first step is blowing normally, so the first thing you want to do here is pick any note to do circular breathing on.
In this step, you're going to prepare for the next one towards the very end by either filling your cheeks or lowering your jaw or both.
Whichever works best for you.
The idea is to pack in a little air in your cheeks before you run out of air towards the end.
For this step, you really need to have a steady airstream good breath control and air support. And, to control it is quite difficult at first but it gets easier as you exercise.
Step #2 — Squeeze Air Out with Your Cheeks While Inhaling
This is the step where you use your cheeks or jaw to push that air out.
As you squeeze the air out, simultaneously breathe in through the nose. Either the jaw or cheeks work here, use whatever comes naturally to you.
Instead of pushing all the air out, you need to push the air out slower, so you have enough time to inhale. How hard you push the air out should match your blowing from earlier.
When you first do this exercise, the part of the note you blow with squeezing your cheeks would voice properly, if it even voices at all. The reed will stop vibrating, and the gap will be noticeable.
This happens really consistently with people as they are learning to circular breath.
The reason the reed stops vibrating is not because of circular breathing itself but because you pinch the reed off.
As you squeeze the air out with your cheeks, your lips tend to bite down a little bit keeping the reed from vibrating.
So to avoid this biting, the thing you need to do is keep the corners of your mouth really tight to make sure that you keep a nice open embouchure and don't move your lips (especially your lower lip) when squeezing so that the reed keeps vibrating.
As you pinch the saxophone reed less, the voicing of the note itself will start to sound, albeit unevenly. Don't expect it to be even right away or any time soon.
No matter how good you get at circular breathing, it is really, really, difficult to keep the voicing nice and even.
It really just keeps dipping.
Step #3 — Transition Back to Blowing Normally
The transition back to blowing out normally is the trickiest part because it's audible.
And if you link these steps together, then you end up with circular breathing.
The eventual result with circular breathing is that it is unnoticeable so that your audience cannot tell when you are breathing in and transitioning.
That's where exercises come in.
The Two Tried-and-tested 10-Minute Saxophone Circular Breath Exercises
I have been taught two great exercises for exercising and learning circular breathing. And I've found they really work.
The Glass Exercise
What you'll need:
- A half-full glass of water.
So we are going to do this exercise with a glass of water.
This exercise is for practicing squeezing that air out in step #2 above in a really steady way.
When you're doing this, your windway is closed. As if you go to voice the letter i. No air is being blown out of your lungs.
- Take a mouthful of water to completely fill up your cheeks.
- Spit the water back out into the glass on a steady stream. You probably noticed that the exercise is harder than it looks. And in the beginning you'll probably find that it goes all over the place, so you have to make some adjustments.
- Once you've got your nice steady stream, simultaneously keep the steady stream going, as you breathe in through your nose. Make sure the stream does not change. So that what you want to practice in this step—steady stream out breathing in.
- The next step we need to practice a steady stream of water out while breathing in then out through your nose simultaneously. No interruptions on the steady stream.
I tend to spit the water out more with my jaw (pushing my lower jaw up and down), rather than squeezing my cheeks to better control a steady stream.
This is how I find it works better.
If you'd rather use your cheek muscles to push out, without making a mess, you're probably just fine.
The idea of all of this is to make the squeezing out muscular action completely independent from your breathing action.
If they are independent you can control them better—they are not interrupting or relying on each other.
The Glass and Straw Exercise
What you'll need:
- A glass of water half-full (or maybe a little less than that).
- A drinking straw.
What we are going to do is we are going to blow bubbles by immersing the straw in water. The bubbles will be a visual cue that the air is coming out of your mouth so you know when you stop blowing.
As I said earlier, sometimes the air is coming through your lungs out your mouth, and sometimes it's just the air that's in your mouth that's coming out.
You're bypassing the oral cavity while you breathe in and squeezing the air out as you do that breath in and then dovetailing the lung air back into your cheeks, as it were.
- The first thing you need to do is immerse the straw in the glass and pinch it lightly. The reason we need to pinch the straw as we blow into it is we want to simulate what it feels like to have a little bit of resistance like the saxophone gives us. But do not pinch the straw too hard or you will have shortness of breath and need to exhale sharply later.
- Then start blowing some bubbles through the straw, just normally, you can use your lung air, like you normally would. You don't have to blow hard and make a mess.
- The next thing you want to do is low those bubbles using your cheek air. What you'll do is put air to puff your cheeks and just squeeze it out slowly through the straw.
- This is the hardest part (the part that will take weeks of practice). What we'll do now is the three steps we covered earlier while keeping the bubbles going at a steady rate. By now you know that the idea is to keep the bubbles going as consistently as possible.
Once you get the hang of it, you could really go on forever because you are just breathing out normally, capturing that air, and then transitioning.
The transitioning is the part that is going to take a lot of practice to get a consistent stream of bubbles going.
Once you've practiced with your straw glass and water for a long time until you feel totally comfortable with the whole process of keeping consistent bubbles going, then and only then, are you ready to try on the instrument itself.
You shouldn't really be thinking of trying circular breathing on saxophone until you can do this 10-minute glass and straw exercise consistently.
And that is all there is to circular breathing. It's a lot to learn and a lot to practice.
Top 3 Tips for Saxophone Circular Breathing
Tip #1 — Start with Glass and Straw Exercise Before Trying circular Breathing on the Saxophone
Understanding how to do circular breathing with the glass and straw is the tried-and-tested way to learn circular breathing.
Almost everybody I know has done it.
And then once you have that down, move to the saxophone. Not sooner, and definitely, not the other way round.
And again, it will take a while, and once you get to the instrument expect it to take another couple of months.
It takes time.
But once you get it, you start to use it without even thinking about it. It becomes muscle memory.
Tip #2 — Never Circular Breath on a Long Note
Remember how I said that when you circular breathing a long note you always get a dip, no matter how good you get.
Of course, the better you get at it the less of a dip you get, but the dip never really goes away.
So what I tend to do, and this is just me, is never circular breath on a long note because this dip is very audible to your listeners.
Tip #3 — Cover Circular Breathing Dips on Long Notes with Trills
If you really need to circular need on a long note you need to cover the dip up somehow.
My go-to technique is to cover up circular breathing dips on long notes is with trills. A sharp or flat trill of the note you are circular breathing is very effective for this purpose.
So if you are playing a C as your long note, for instance, you can cover up circular breathing dips with a C to C-sharp trill.
You will still hear it a little bit this way, but it's covered up by the notes themselves for the most part.
But if it's not a long note, like on a scale, you really have nothing to worry about. A scale, for instance, is already a really great way to cover up a circular breathing dip.