Circular Breathing in Mahler 1

I want to occasionally feature excerpts from pieces of orchestral music that composers, in their infinite wisdom, really expected the flutists to be circular breathers. 

This example is from Mahler's 1st symphony. I always feel uncomfortable here for the second flutists who don't circular breathe. Deep in the last movement, they are suddenly required to play a lovely little solo in Ab major. However, the high C is just outside the comfort zone to hold at this point in a very long piece. It is above the staff and very exposed. It is also 25 counts long and getting slower and slower! Most are forced to drop a couple of beats just prior to the solo to be able to take a sufficient enough breath. Additionally many cut the high C short due to the slowing of the pace of the music as they approach the impending collapse of a lung. Enter circular breathing! Not only does none of that effect you when you circular breathe, you complete the solo easily and your lungs are virtually full still. 

Now I know most of you are thinking that just the thought of circular breathing is sheer madness! I assure you it is not. Actually I am really surprised it is not a regularly required technique. In future blogs I will go over more of the process. I urge you start learning today. I have a bit of advantage, in that now I have been circular breathing for 30 years! It has become so natural that it has ceased being called circular breathing. I call it just breathing. 

I would say the difficulty of circular breathing in this example a solid 6. Not too hard actually. Your embouchure is already quite small due to the tessitura, greatly aiding the ability to take as many breaths as you need and being able to mask your movements easily. Fitting the breaths in while keeping a nice vibrato can be tricky, but not impossible. I would guess you would take 5 to 6 small breaths in there and no one would be the wiser. 

Do you circular breathe?

Do you know any flutists who circular breathe? Chances are that you do not. The obvious question of course is, why not? Circular breathing is one of the most exciting and useful of all techniques a flutist can learn. It can open a whole new world of playing for you. It is the process of taking in air through your nose while simultaneously expelling air with your mouth, or in other words breathing while you are playing. Robert Dick, one of the world's foremost authorities on contemporary flute techniques, describes the process of circular breathing as follows: "To circular breathe, the flutist inflates his/her cheeks in a controlled, gradual fashion while playing. Then, the back of the tongue is raised to touch the roof of the mouth at or near the back of the hard palate. The mouth and cheeks now contain a reservoir of air. At the instant that his reservoir is isolated by the tongue's blocking off of the mouth, two actions are performed simultaneously: the cheek muscles are used to squeeze air out of the mouth, continuing the flute sound while a small amount of air is inhaled through the nose. As soon as the air is inhaled, the tongue is lowered, reopening the normal pathway for exhaling, and the normal breath is 'restarted.' This cycle is repeated for as long as necessary." Couldn't be easier, right? Well, he stresses although it does take time, it is really not that difficult to learn (at least not as difficult as it sounds). Once you have mastered it, you will come to understand what an essential tool it is. Many inconsistencies arise while studying the flute. All flutists have played pieces in which the phrases were just a little too long to play comfortably in one breath. As a student, one cannot help but think if this instrument has been around as long as it has, why do these inconsistencies in phrase length exist? Or do these composers just not know how to write properly for the flute? While the latter is often true, the fact is that unlike some other instruments from two-hundred years ago, the modern flute has drastically evolved into an instrument that has but few similarities to flutes of the past. The older instruments had smaller embouchure holes and smaller bores, therefore producing a correspondingly smaller sound. This sound in turn required less air. As a result, baroque composers were able to write what we would consider to be long phrases. This was even true well into the nineteenth-century. The problem for the modern flutist is that much of the music that the flute plays today comes from these earlier time periods. That leaves the flutist with a number of difficult choices as to how to manage these longer phrases. Some may choose to leave out notes in their entirety. Others choose to save air and play with an uncomfortably weak, inappropriate sound in order to make the phrase length work. A third choice might be to breathe wherever needed, breaking the phrase itself into any number of small pieces and negating the composers original intentions. (This is certainly not to say that all phrases have be played in their entirety. Often the phrase itself asks for a break or a breath, even though it is of a manageable length.) These confusions of when, where and how often we breathe are readily apparent when studying any of the music of Bach. Circular breathing can be a solution to problems of phrase length, allowing the flutist the freedom to play with all possible means of expression, while not having to worry about breathing. I first learned of circular breathing on the flute at Northwestern University when Robert Dick came to conduct a masterclass. I had known that circular breathing existed, 1 but I would never have thought it possible on the flute and never gave it a second thought. Mr. Dick performed Flames Must Not Encircle Sides as a part of the class. It is a piece he wrote in which one must be able to circular breath. While I enjoyed the piece immensely, the fact that he could play for minutes at a time without stopping intrigued me. He performed with a sense of freedom that I had rarely heard. He demonstrated examples where circular breathing would be helpful. The one example that stuck with me was the beautiful solo from L'Enfant du Christ of Berlioz. The phrase itself is just too long to play comfortably on the modern flute without breathing somewhere, thereby ruining the musical flow. I suppose if one takes a really big breath, he/she could make it to the end without stopping to breathe. I myself would probably have been forced to break the line somewhere for a quick breath. Mr. Dick played the solo so beautifully and eloquently that I was instantly sold on circular breathing. I realized that one just could not perform phrases like that adequately, without circular breathing. At the time, I had no idea how long it would take to learn, whether it would be difficult to learn or just what kind of affect it would have on my playing overall, but I knew that I had to learn it. One concern I had in the beginning, however superficial, was that I wondered how it would look to play with your cheeks puffing out. Sometimes it is essential to circular breathe by puffing your cheeks in order to take in the maximum amount of air. However, depending on the tessitura, the dynamics used and the phrase itself, the process can be done without puffing the cheeks. One's nostrils usually give away that a circular breath has been taken. There are inherent difficulties in learning to circular breathe on the flute. The difficulties lie in the fact that of all the instruments in the orchestra, it uses the most air with the least pressure behind the air, or resistance. In contrast, the oboe has a lot of resistance created by the presence of a reed and its small opening. The more resistance an instrument has, the easier it is to circular breathe. It is therefore technically easier to circular breathe on the oboe than it is on the flute. In addition, an oboist who circular breathes need only keep a consistent pressure upon their reed during the whole process. A flutist however, having no reed, has a much greater challenge. The embouchure must be trained to keep its shape during the specific movements involved in circular breathing. The lip muscles themselves must be developed and it is that which takes the most time in the learning process. Without the support of the lips, each circular breath would be accompanied by a noticeable drop in tone quality. It is this drop in tone quality that has kept most flutists from believing that circular breathing can be used adequately on the flute. (One concert by Robert Dick will cure that!) By "adequately" I mean that unless you were watching the person's cheeks puff and nostrils flair, you would have no idea that they were using circular breathing. You would probably just think that they had amazing breath control. However, the excuse given why not to learn circular breathing is often something like "It just doesn't work. I can tell when they are breathing. I can hear the breaths." This is a result of hearing someone who circular breaths badly and thinking that there is something inherently wrong with circular breathing on the flute. Circular breathing works well on the flute. Quite well, in fact. Nevertheless, to learn to circular breathe as flutist is a two-part process: learning the coordinations of the circular breathing process and the training of the embouchure. The way to learn circular breathing quite simply is by following the steps found in Robert Dick's book entitled Circular Breathing for the Flutist (Multiple Breath Music Company, 1987). This is a comprehensive text covering all aspects of circular breathing. He takes you by the hand and leads you through the process clearly and concisely, from the very beginning stages to some advanced techniques. This is really the only way to learn circular breathing properly. The reason is because Mr. Dick stresses the fact that work on the embouchure should be done first, before learning the coordinations of circular breathing. Many have overemphasized learning the coordinations, not realizing the importance of the embouchure's development. To this end, Mr. Dick has developed seven exercises which are introduced in the book's first chapter. Each exercise is accompanied by easy to follow directions and pictures, including elaborate descriptions of the mechanics involved. When followed closely according to his direction, the exercises lead to a mastering of the basic mechanics of circular breathing on a single, sustained tone. To be able to circular breathe on moving notes is much more challenging. This is covered in the second chapter in what he calls the intermediate phase, including how to incorporate Taffanel & Gaubert and other exercises into your practicing. In the third chapter, he shows where circular breathing can be applied to specific orchestral, solo and concerto repertoire. This is where it get really exciting. The final chapter deals with advanced techniques, using circular breathing while articulating and in extended techniques. What I found most helpful during the learning process was his style of writing. It was personal and encouraging. Just by beginning to work on circular breathing, he leaves one with the feeling "I can do this!" The obvious question to ask now is "How long does this process take?" He estimates giving a two-year commitment, where circular breathing is practiced between ten to fifteen minutes a day. It was this that really made me believe that I could learn to circular breathe. Who, no matter how busy they are, does not have ten to fifteen minutes a day in which to learn an essential tool to flutists? He says at the end of the two years, circular breathing "can be used artistically, beautifully and freely." You will, however, be able to use circular breathing on a regular basis well before the two years is up. It just takes that much time to fully incorporate it into your playing. I first started to practice circular breathing the summer after the masterclass. Each of the seven steps took a different amount of time to master. Some took only a few days while others took a few weeks to do satisfactorily. I really wanted to just jump to the last step and get it over with, but I knew that I would have been disappointed. Instead, I took my time and was very patient, however antsy. But a few months later after the seventh step, to my amazement, I was able to circular breathe. I take it for granted now, but I remember distinctly what a strangely liberating feeling it was to do the first time. It has now been over twenty years since that masterclass. There is not a day that goes by that I do not use circular breathing! I now could no more think of being a flutist without circular breathing than I could think of golfing without a golf ball. If it is not clear at this point, let me point out that "classic" circular breathing is done either on sustained tones or tones that are slurred. Although it is possible to circular breathe on articulated passages, to do so is quite difficult to pull off successfully (see Chapter IV of Dick's book). Although it is possible to mask the circular breaths on soft, sustained tones, some adverse effects or "bumps" can occasionally become audible if the 3 pressure during process is not kept constant. For that reason, optimum places to use circular breathing are during trills, turns and other fast-moving notes. The number of places that circular breathing would be an appropriate solution to problems of phrase length and breathing are too numerous to list and well beyond the scope of this article. Literally any piece that you happen to have on your music stand probably contains a few passages that circular breathing would be appropriate. There are, however, a few examples worth noting. Knowing that I wanted to play in an orchestra as a profession, I had a keen interest in applying circular breathing to my orchestral playing. Namely, The Afternoon of a Faun. If there was one driving force behind my learning to circular breathe, it was to play Faun comfortably. That is to say without the fear of imminent collapse in my lungs and without fear of the loud, sucking noise I would make after playing those last, gentle tones. It was not a problem of making the phrase in one breathe. That I could do, albeit softly. Rather, it was feeling free to do what I wanted with the phrase without any other preoccupation. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to take two or three short breaths during that phrase. Due to the low register and soft dynamic however, it is one of the more difficult excerpts to circular breathe on. I first attempted it at an audition I took about six months after first starting to learn to circular breathe. I did not do well on the audition, but for me it was a great success. Another good example would be the solo from Dvorák's 8th Symphony. This solo is difficult to play and made even more difficult due to the lack of adequate places to breathe. Taking a few quick circular breaths here and there can alleviate some of the resulting stress. That is not to say that I would not take regular breaths whenever available (after the high F# for example), but they would be more like catch breaths instead of "trying-to-survive" breaths. When you do not have to worry about how you are going to get your next breath, you feel much more able to bring out the full expression of the music itself. One solo full of expression is the solo from Salomé. It is perfectly acceptable to breathe throughout the solo. However, playing the whole solo with circular breathing is much more effective. One normal breath is taken 4 after D. The second half is then played in its entirety with the aid of circular breathing. Mr. Dick asks in his text "Can I better express the musical content with circular breathing?" There is no reason that circular breathing has to be used on every piece of music. It can often detract from the intentions of the music. The answer here though is that circular breathing would be appropriate, due mainly to the fact that the solo is one continuous phrase. Each of the long tones can then be elided into the moving passages without break, thereby creating just the right picture of Salomé's Dance. Mr. Dick discusses many more examples in his book, and there are many more to be uncovered. I hope that this article has gotten you excited about learning to circular breathe. It is not a particularly difficult tool to learn if you take your time and do it properly according to Robert Dick's book. Circular breathing's value to the flutist is considerable, especially when considering the benefits it affords. For me, it is an essential tool.