Tutti Reedi

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Circular Breathing

Circular breathing is a technique that is regarded as essential for reed-instrument players pretty well worldwide. It is used on other wind instruments also: I have heard it used with Tibetan ritual instruments such as the human thigh-bone horns and also on the long trumpets, and in India, in a recording, by a conch-blower who blew two conchs simultaneously. It is also a basic element of the technique for the Australian didgeridu. It seems to be used less often with flutes but I have been told of some people who do use it.

Its purpose is to allow a continuous flow of sound of the melody, and also from a drone accompaniment wherever a drone is used. It is done by breathing in through the nose at the same time as blowing out through the mouth, and using the cheeks as an air reservoir in alternation with the lungs. It is widely taught with a straw and a glass of water, the player having to learn to keep a steady flow of bubbles rising through the water. The water, like the instrument’s reed, provides an element of back-pressure, which makes it rather easier. This, I think, is why it is so rarely used on flutes, because blowing a transverse or a duct flute produces much less back-pressure than either a reed or a cup mouthpiece. It is possible that blowing a rim-flute, because the lips are more nearly closed, does provide rather more back pressure, and certainly that is where I have heard of it being used.

The main problem in learning to use circular breathing is air pressure. The use of the straw and a glass of water is fairly quickly learned, but the muscles that run across the cheeks are not as strong as the diaphragm, which means that the air pressure from the cheeks is lower than that from the lungs. It is a natural acoustical feature that lower air pressure produces a lower pitch and a higher air pressure a higher pitch. As a result, a long-held note can waver in pitch as the player changes from lungs to cheeks. Learning to equalise the two is the most difficult part of the process. Nazir Jairazbhoy produced an excellent example of this problem in one of his recordings from his journey through India. A small boy was blowing a reed instrument by the roadside and the pitch did indeed waver as he played, but his elder brother, who was more advanced in learning this technique, ran up to assure Nazir that this was not the proper way to play, and proceeded to demonstrate his greater skills in keeping the pitch steady. The difference between the sounds of the two children was very clear.

A lesser, but still serious. problem lies in the behaviour of the cheeks themselves. When used as an air reservoir they are of course distended. If distended too much and too often, the skin will stretch and may eventually fail to return to normal. To avoid this, in ancient Greece, a culture where bodily perfection was regarded as important, aulos players used a phorbeia, a strap running across the cheeks to support them. In Java and other parts of Indonesia a winged pirouette on the reed’s staple is sometimes used to support the cheeks in the same way. A more permanent solution is to replace the cheeks with an external air reservoir, and it is arguable that this was the reason for the origin of the bagpipe. The only other alternative is to learn to strengthen the cheek muscles and so avoid excessive distension.

There was an attempted solution in our orchestras, especially for oboists, cor anglais players, and maybe clarinetists and bassoonists, with the invention of the Aerophor. This was a foot pump with a tube that entered the corner of the mouth. It was invented, in 1912, by the Dutch flautist Bernard Samuels, who worked as a musician in Germany, but an unfortunate result was that users got sores and boils in their mouths, and so it was abandoned, despite some composers, especially Richard Strauss in his Alpine Symphony, having taken advantage of it. Instead, some of our orchestral players have followed the musicians from other cultures by learning to use circular breathing.

© Jeremy Montagu, 2018

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