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Circular breathing

"Circular breathing" is perhaps not a very good name for this technique, as all breathing could be considered circular or cyclic - if you breath in for long enough, you will eventually need to breath out...

However, the term has come to be the standard way describing the technique of playing long notes or long passages of notes on wind instruments without having to pause to take a breath. By using the muscles of the cheeks, tongue and upper throat, a musician can maintian a steady stream of air through his or her instrument whilst taking in a fresh supply of air through the nose. Circular breathing has been used by musicians as diverse as Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Kenny G., as well as being the essential technique for players of the didgeridoo, the Sardinian launeddas and many other traditional instruments from around the world. It is also used by glass blowers.

As most harmonicas have both blow reeds and draw reeds, it would seem that circular breathing (CB for short) would be of little use to harmonica player, except possibly for showing off. Well, for a start, there is nothing wrong with showing off from time to time. Audiences seem to go crazy for long sustained trills and high notes - with CB you could hold that high note in "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" for as long as you audience's attention span will allow. I must also confess to a personal fascination with drones - the long sustained tones used to accompany Indian classical music, Irish and Scottish music and many other traditional forms. Using CB your harmonica can emulate the drones of the bagpipe, or the sruti box.

Despite having both blow and draw reeds, often a certain piece on the harmonica will wind up having a long series of blow notes, or more commonly in blues, a long series of draw notes. You can use CB to sneak in a quick breath of air through the nose, or to release a bit of excess air.

Finally, even if you never use the technique whilst playing music, you can learn a great deal about your tone production by holding a single note for several minutes at a time. It is certainly not what I would call an essential technique, but it does have some real uses.

So - how do you do it?

Well, contrary to popular belief, you do not have to spend half your life in a Zen monastery to master this technique. Really, the hardest part of learning CB is convincing yourself that it is possible. In fact, I am willing to bet that you can do it right now. Go to the kitchen sink and take a big mouthful of water. Now slowly expel the water in a fine stream using your cheek muscles - you should find that you can breathe in and out through your nose whilst maintaining a steady stream of water. Want proof that you can do the same thing in the opposite direction? Go to your local fast food joint and buy the thickest milkshake you can and start sucking on that straw - you should find that you are able to breath through your nose without having to stop sucking up the milk shake.

CB is a natural human ability - a young child can suck their thumb for hours on end without having to remove it from their mouth to take a breath. The only difference with the musical version of CB is that you are dealing with air instead of water, milkshake or your thumb. So let's try it on the harmonica...

There are two basic techniques of circular breathing - the first involves using the tongue as a piston; the other uses the cheeks almost like the bag of a bagpipe. The first method is probably more useful with the harmonica.

Take a C diatonic and select the fifth hole using a pucker embouchure, with your tongue slightly arched upwards, the tip of your tongue at the front of your mouth and your cheeks slightly pinched. By quickly pulling your tongue backwards and downwards, you can create suction at the point where your lips meet the harp, enough to get the 5 draw reed to sound without drawing any air into your lungs or throat. Now by reversing the motion, you can push just enough air into the harp to sound the 5 blow reed. If you do it quickly, it sounds like this:

All of the blowing and drawing should be coming just from your mouth; your nose, throat and lungs shouldn't be involved at all. Now in the same way that you can breathe in and out through your nose whilst sucking milkshake through a straw, you should be able to breath freely through your nose whilst trilling between 5 blow and 5 draw. Just to prove that I'm not making this up, I have exaggerated the nasal breathing and placed a microphone near the tip of my nose as I play this trill:

If you practise this trill and slow it down as much as you can, you will find that you are able to sustain either a draw note or a blow note for a second or two just by using your mouth. The next step it to learn to do this in the middle of playing a note normally. Play 5 blow, then before you start to run out of breath, use the piston-like tongue movement to force a little bit of air into the harp - at the same time that you do this, take a quick in-breath through your nose, then return to playing the note normally until you need to take another breath. Circular drawing is pretty much the same. Play 5 draw normally, then as soon as you feel the need to expel excess air from your lungs, use the tongue piston to pull some air into your mouth at the same time as quickly releasing a little air though your nose.

It may take a while to get this to work smoothly, but once you get a feel for the technique, you can even practise it without your harmonica, although you might look a little odd as you do it! Although the piston tongue method is probably easiest to learn using a pucker embouchure, it can also be applied whilst tongue blocking. As you practice the technique, you will probably also start to use your cheeks to help blow and draw air through the harmonica, in addition to your tongue.

I should probably mention a few additional points. When CBing a blow note for extended periods of time, you will probably find that the reed tends to sound slightly flat after a while. This is due to the build-up of moisture on the reed. It doesn't cause any permanent damage to the reed and it will probably return to its correct pitch if you draw on that hole a little. If you play with a very wet mouth, you might deposit enough moisture on the reed to cause it to jam completely. Again, a sharp draw in the same hole should clear it.

Some notes are much easier to sustain with CB than others. The easiest reeds to work with are the ones that give you the most resistance to your breath. Most blow reeds work well, as do notes in the upper register of the harmonica. Some lower draw notes on diatonics can be a little difficult. I still have problems sustaining the lowest draw note on harps lower than key of C. The low draw notes on chromatic harmonicas can also be tricky and I confess I have never had much success in CBing a bent note, although I would hesitate to say that it is impossible. CBing two notes at the same time will (not surprisingly) take twice as much air, but it can be done.

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