21st Century Oboe
Christopher Redgate & the Howarth-Redgate Oboe
   Home      Breathing and Circular Breathing
Breathing and Circular Breathing

Circular Breathing

There are two sections below; first a basic guide for the oboist as to how to learn the technique and, second, a guide for composers; though both groups of people could learn from the information it the other section.

Circular breathing can be found being practiced by many different people in different situations: Glass blowers, didgeridoo players, jazz musicians and of course oboists. Any oboist can be taught to do this technique and I suggest that it is more of a knack than a technique.

It has been said that circular breathing makes you unmusical. This is of course nonsense and has no more truth to than saying that eating ice cream makes you unmusical. What it does do is to add a significant technique to your arsenal and can make some of the more demanding solo easier to play. It also brings into your grasp, at least in theory, works that really cannot be performed without it: Globokar’s Atemstudie for example. The unmusical charge is often used because it can be used unmusically, that is without reference to good phrasing, but, I suggest, the musical performer will be able to avoid this problem.

The Technique: 

Some people suggest using a straw and water in order to practice the technique in the initial stages. This is not necessary but if you want to try it this way then there is no reason why not.

The way the technique works is as follows:

The air is taken in through the nose while air, which has been trapped in the mouth, is pushed out through the reed thus maintaining a continuous sound. 

Learning the Technique:

I have broken the technique down into a number of stages. Each stage needs to be practiced until you are happy with it before moving on to the next. Some people get it quite quickly but others take time; like anything else it will take practice. 

Stage one...

The back of the tongue is placed on the roof of the mouth, near the back, where the top becomes softer. This has the effect of closing off the air column. It is very similar to preparing to say the word ‘good’. The ‘G’ placing for the tongue is just about right. Instead of taking the tongue of the roof of the mouth as you would do when saying the word ‘good’ you leave it there. By moving the tongue forwards in the mouth, and holding the back of the tongue in the ‘good’ position, you should be able to force air out through the lips. If you make a small aperture with your lips it will be easier to test this.

This is worth practicing until you feel you have it.  You should be able to make a small and brief ‘jet’ of air through the lips. 

Stage two...

Having got the idea of stage one start practicing using a free reed: At first simply rest the reed on the lower lip while performing the actions of stage one and then begin to fold the lips into more of an embouchure position until eventually you can make the reed squeak.

Stage three...

While the air is being forced out through the reed you will need to be able to take air in through the nose. Once again this needs to be practiced. Start breathing in through the nose slowly and, with your mouth in the ‘good’ position, squeak the reed. This gets your mind ready to cope with making a sound while breathing in! (As well as practicing a significant part of the technique.) When the embouchure is properly formed you should be able to maintain the squeak for a couple of seconds or more. This should be aimed at when practicing the above. 

Stage four...

Now place the reed on the oboe and choose a pitch in the middle of the range. Going back to stage two try maintaining a sound for a couple of seconds. In other words placing the tongue in the ‘good’ position and forcing air through the reed but with the oboe attached. Don’t work if the sound is not that great – it takes time. 

 Stage five...

You now need to practice stage three once again but this time with the reed on the oboe and fingering a pitch somewhere in the middle register. Work towards making the sound as long as you can. 

Stage six...

Having got used to stage five you are now ready for the trick bit – joining up the breath of the mouth with the breath of the lungs. Keep as relaxed as you can. Follow the stages above and as you make a sound by pushing air through the reed with your tongue inhale through the nose. As soon as you have a reasonable amount of air in the lungs release the tongue as you start to blow normally. Once again this takes a little practice.

As you work on this technique try, rather than playing a single note, doing it on a trill of other faster passage. This covers up a multitude of problems! The first time you decide to use it in a performance, especially in an exposed section, I suggest that this is a good way of starting, rather than on a long note. As you gain confidence you will find yourself able to use it in all kinds of places.  

One last point – I tend to double take when circular breathing. Because on the oboe, as we all know, we need to breathe out as well as in. I therefore make one pass in order to exhale air and another to inhale. On some occasion I will do only one or the other depending on the demands of the music.

On the video you can see the technique in use in a variety of ways.

Circular breathing – The composers guide

Circular breathing can be used on the oboe in any register, with multiphonics, on fast passages as well as on long notes. It cannot be used, with one exception, on passages that require articulation simply because the tongue, which is used for articulation, is also employed for circular breathing.

On the video I demonstrate the exception to the rule. I have been developing a single tongue articulation that can be used with circular breathing. However to my knowledge there are only a couple of other oboists able to do this in the world; at the moment!

There is no need to notate circular breathing as the oboist will use it as and when needed.

There are limits as to how long a performer can maintain a continuous flow of sound and this is will vary from performer to performer. The problem is not the technique itself, which can take pressure off the performer, but the length of time the performer’s embouchure can last. This is the area that will tire first. I regularly perform works of six or seven minutes without rest and with no problem for the embouchure.   

The Video