Circular breathing


The circular respiration, said also continuous breath technique, is a particular technique that allows to play a wind instrument for the whole duration of a musical passage, without any interruption in the emission of the breath. These interruptions normally occur since they are caused by the necessity to breathe. With almost all the wind instruments, typical both of the classical music and of the popular one, musicians are obliged to perform a real break which causes an interruption of the sound during the inspiration.

The launeddas and few other instruments of ancient popular traditions (among which the most famous are the Egyptian argul and the Australian didgeridoo) use this technique as a characteristic peculiar to the instruments. This technique has been passed by over the centuries. Contrarily to what is commonly thought by those who try to learn this particular type of respiration with great difficulty, without being able to play the instrument, circular respiration is spontaneous for those who can perform a melody with the launeddas.

The particular mouthpiece, with the reeds inside the mouth, gives the lips, tongue and cheeks a great range of possible movements. Moreover there is no difficulty in the emission and in the control of the flow of air which make the reeds vibrate The oral cavity represents the reservoir of air, that is obtained with a knapsack in the bagpipe and in the zampogna.

The break in musical sense is made, as far as the launeddas are concerned, with the closing of the four holes that can be played by the fingers on the melodic reeds. It isn’t a real break, it is only perceptive, since the note produced by the arrefinu, which keeps on playing, melts with the drone.

It is difficult to imagine to blow inside the instrument and to inhale at the same time. The two movements have to be separately and alternatively performed.

The circular respiration is the first difficulty that the beginner has to overcome. Often it becomes an insurmountable obstacle. The majority of the students don't succeed in overcoming this phase and so it is commonly thought that the technique of the respiration is the greatest difficulty to be faced when learning to play this instrument. This is mainly due to the characteristics of the instrument used by students : every single reed demands a different pressure to vibrate, but a newly built instrument, as a student’s instrument normally is, has rather rigid reeds that put to a hard test the muscles of the cheeks.

The method that we have followed to learn this technique has only some small difference, suggested by the availability of new materials, if compared to the method traditionally used by the players of launeddas.

The learning of the circular respiration can be summarised by three phases:

First phase

  1. Inflate the cheeks, with as much air as possible, keep the lips shut and contract the muscles of the cheeks to the moment when you hear a light pain caused by the pressure inside the mouth.
  2. Always keeping the cheeks full of air, inhale and regularly expire through the nose.

This exercise must be performed for some minutes and repeated many of times during the day, to strengthen the muscles of the cheeks and of the lips, which normally don’t have enough muscular tone to correctly perform the technique of the continuous breath.

Second phase

  • Introduce among the lips a straw, keep it between thumb and index and press it to prevent the air to come out from the other extremity. Keep on breathing normally from the nose, as in the first phase.
  • Loosen, slightly, the pressure of the fingers so that a small quantity of air can pass, but the pressure inside the mouth is always big, holding the muscles of the cheeks in a forced contraction.
  • To regulate the exit of the air, dip the straw in a glass of water, full only for a half, in order to avoid squirts, and to observe the appearance of the bubbles that will increase proportionally to the flow of air.
  • Keep the point of the tongue on the palate as to pronounce the sound of the letter N and inhale with the nose, while the air continues going out through the straw and the gurgle of the bubbles remains unchanged.

If the straw is hold tight enough, there is no difficulty to perform the circular respiration, since the time necessary to the air kept in the mouth to go entirely from the straw to the glass is superior to that necessary to fill the lungs with air in the respiration cycle.

The first two phases of this technique don't nave any particular difficulty and can be learned quickly by whomever. To be able to pass to the following phase, however, it is necessary to have more strength in the muscles of the cheeks; some days of continuous training are necessary but please stop as soon as muscular cramps to the cheeks and the lips take over.

The training with the glass of water has to proceed until you succeed in performing the circular respiration without tightening the straw. The duration of the first two phases is very subjective and depends above all on the quantity of time you dedicate to it.

Third phase

When you succeed in blowing with the straw inside the glass of water, uninterruptedly for a few minutes, the moment has come to pass to the instrument.

The resistance offered by the air is inferior however to that that water opposes, therefore all the movements must be carried out a shorter time since the air goes out from the mouth more easily than when it is blown in the glass.

This the phase that discourages the majority of the students who, having met no difficulty at the beginning, think they have already learned. After a few days of failed attempts, many students give up. As for the preceding phases it is necessary to give time to the muscles of cheeks and lips to get fit for the bigger performances that are now requested, just as it happens with a sport activity.

First of all, it is better not to use the complete instrument. It is better to proceed by degrees, as with the straw.

  • Start with the mancosedda having care to choose one with a reed that requires little breath. The first attempts will be represented by phases in which you will remain completely short of breath alternated to phases in which you will be able to inhale, even though in a way that is still not well coordinated.
  • When you can perform correctly the technique of the continuous breath with the mancosedda, pass to the croba and finally to the complete instrument. Every phase requires different days of tries. If the instrument is not hold strongly between the lips, the air will pass between the instruments and the lips, making every attempt of correct management of the air kept in mouth vain; and this problem will occur, punctually, to the least sign of tiredness of the interested muscles.
  • The training can now proceed together with the learning of the first exercises, to perform at the beginning only with the croba and then with the complete instruments.

Now that the technique has been learned, some months are necessary to succeed in playing uninterruptedly for different minutes. With the refinement of the technique, after a short while you will find another problem. There are no losses of air at the sides of the instrument, between cabitzina and lips, thus all the air stored in the lungs is sent on the reeds.

If you don’t succeed in expelling the air contained in the lungs and you feel like inhaling again with the nose, then the pressure in the area mouth-lungs increases greatly and you have the sensation you are about to burst. This happens above all when the instrument is played walking and particularly walking up-hill since, in this situation, more oxygen is needed by your body. Beginners are so forced to remove the instrument from their mouth and to breathe normally. Later, you will learn nearly automatically how to breathe in such a situation. That is to say you will have to be able to expire from your nose while the air contemporarily goes out from your mouth through the reeds of the instruments.

The technique of the continuous breath has always been surrounded by a halo of mystery and the naturalness with which it is used by the performers of launeddas always wins the attention of those who get in touch with this musical style for the first time.

The theoretical principles of the circular respiration can easily be understood however on the bases of respiration physiology.

The contraction of the diaphragm, muscle which has the shape of a dome and that is placed beneath the lungs causes an expansion of the chest and consequently a diminution of pressure inside the lungs. The low pressure is corrected recalling air from the outside. This air reaches the lungs passing through the nose or the mouth. The relaxation of the diaphragm, that works as a spring, causes an increase of the pressure inside the lungs. The column of air that was there contained is pushed toward the outside, the pulmonary pressure decreases and another respiratory cycle can begin. .

The fundamental principle of the circular respiration is to keep constant the pressure inside the oral hollow independently from the pulmonary one.

During the expiration the oral hollow is in communication with the lungs, where, therefore, the pressure is the same. The most critical moment is met in the inhaling phase because the lungs are directly in contact with the nose and the pressure inside the mouth decreases quickly. In order to keep the pressure of the air constant, it is necessary to compensate immediately. This is allowed by lifting of the back part of the tongue and by lowering the soft palate. In such a way two separate areas are formed. The first one consists by the nasal hollow and by the lungs, the second one by the oral hollow, which is closed in it rear part by the tongue and by the soft palate and which is open in the front part toward the reeds. Since in this last zone the pressure quickly decreases, it is immediately balanced by the contraction of the muscles of the cheeks. The pulmonary pressure is restored thanks to the contemporary inspiration. The two pressures are now equal and allow the tongue and the soft palate to go back to their resting position. Thus, the air expired by the lung is again free to flow through the mouth and to stimulate the vibration of the reeds.