31 January 2012

"Circular breathing" vs. audible inhalations

From an article in the Wall Street Journal:
There’s a 1976 recording of James Galway playing Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” on his golden flute, in which you never once hear him draw breath. At the time, it was lauded as an almost superhuman feat; a virtuosic example of circular breathing, a technique that allows wind players to simultaneously inhale air through the nose while breathing it out through the mouth. (Galway later confessed the recording had been spliced together.) In 1997, saxophonist Kenny G used circular breathing to play a continuous, unbroken note for a total of 45 minutes and 47 seconds, earning him a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
The article goes on to discuss how important the breath is to flute players, and how some contemporary flautists are choosing to leave the inhalation audible rather than trying to suppress the sound (video at the link).
Her inhalations, too, became part of the music. Contemporary composers like Fujikura, says Chase, “have started to think of breath as an ornament and as an expressive device in its own right, whether it’s a subtle, moody breath or the dramatic gesture of an inhalation. Some breaths are even notated in the music: it increases the drama.”
In the video, Kenny G demonstrates the technique of circular breathing.


  1. Circular breathing isn't simultaneous inhalation and exhalation. That's impossible. It's more like being a human bagpipe. You snatch quick inhalation through your nose while using air stored in your cheeks (like the bag in a bagpipe) to keep a relatively constant flow of air flowing through your instrument.

    It's quite a trick of coordination to be able to do circular breathing smoothly.

    Listen to Kenny G? I'll pass...

    1. It IS simultaneous inhalation and exhalation. You are thinking of doing both into the lungs at the same time, which is quite impossible. They are inhaling into their lungs while exhaling stored air in their mouth.

      And you have to at least watch the video, he has such soft, bouncy hair curls...

  2. I love how you can hear Ian Anderson gasping for breath on many Jethro Tull songs. It's almost like the music is getting away from him, and he's gasping for air to keep up! Not the best technique, perhaps, but it really captures the rawness and emotion of his playing.

  3. This method was also used by goldsmiths before the advent of pressurized gases. Using an open flame and a tapered brass tube the goldsmith was able to generate the heat through constant air flow that was necessary to solder and weld pieces together. This was taught well into the 20th century, one of my mentors was highly proficient in it's use having learned it in Germany just after the war. I have tried it but it takes a lot of patience.....

  4. The Australian Aborigines commonly use circular breathing when blowing through their didgeridoos. I was able to do it once or twice for a few seconds each time. It was very difficult to maintain the note while concentrating on the breathing technique. An old dog new tricks deficit I suppose.

  5. Our daughter was a natural and would have mastered this technique were it not for the invention of texting....

  6. Rhasaan Roland Kirk was the master...

  7. The wife dragged me to a Kenny G concert back before we were married.
    Uggh there is only so much of that I can take. Ain't never don' that again.


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