Circular Breathing: Oboe & English Horn
Circular breathing — both inhaling and exhaling — make playing the oboe a much more comfortable experience. The big hurdle one needs to overcome in order to circular breathe is this:
“Convince the brain that it’s possible and okay to have sound coming out of your oboe while you are inhaling.”
The brain is conditioned to believe:
EXHALING = PLAYING / INHALING = NOT PLAYING
So, we must recondition ourselves…Here’s how to do it:
- Away from the oboe, just puff your cheeks way out, lips closed.
- Force the air in your cheeks OUT, making a loud “pfffphhppfff!” sound. Do this aggressively and enthusiastically…It must be a very definite, CLEAR action.
- Repeat step 2 quite a few times.
- Now (still without the oboe) EXHALE, then puff your cheeks and make the “pfffphhppfff!” sound and inhale simultaneously. Focus on having the “pfffphhppfff!” and your inhalation happen at exactly the same moment. Practice this many times so you become very confident with it. (The more flamboyantly and dramatically you do this, the more quickly you will pick it up. You should definitely look and sound silly while practicing this.) Stay on this step until the “pfffphhppfff!” and your inhalation become not two paired actions, but rather ONE SIMPLE ACTION that you hardly need to think about to do. (This is important because when circular breathing on the oboe, you need it to be ONE action, not TWO. So practice without the oboe until the above is really ONE event, not a combination of two.)
- Once step 4 is old-hat, play a note on the oboe. While playing the note, puff your cheeks way out. Just that. Do this a few times to get comfortable with it…puffing and un-puffing your cheeks as you play a note.
- Now do step 4 again (away from the oboe). Next, play a note and try doing step 4 while playing a note. **MAKE SURE YOU EXHALE ALL THE WAY BEFORE TRYING TO CIRCULAR BREATHE, SO THAT YOU REALLY NEED TO INHALE. THIS HELPS A LOT!!!!** If you get stuck, STOP, and do step 4 again a few times without the oboe; then try it again while playing a note. IF YOU CAN DO STEP 4 AWAY FROM THE OBOE, YOU CAN ALSO DO IT WHILE PLAYING. It’s just a matter of getting accustomed to it (getting over that hurdle!). Keep fooling around with this step for a while, patiently and playfully. Remind yourself as you go to exaggerate your actions and enthusiasm, and make sure you look at least a little ridiculous in the process. You will eventually get the hang of it.
- Gradually incorporate circular breathing into your practice. Try it during scales, long tones, trill exercises and so on. Little by little, circular breathing will become a comfortable part of your normal technique. As you become familiar with circular breathing, you will realize that exhaling is possible as well as the more common inhaling (the air simply travels in the other direction). As oboists, we have a perhaps unique use for this variation, exhaling all that air we don’t use.
Circular breathing on the oboe can also be done without puffing out the cheeks. The TONGUE can be used to push the air out of the mouth to sustain the sound.
Take your time with this process. It is normal to spend a year or more of steady work getting comfortable with circular breathing. Be patient and enjoy the process!
As you are developing your circular breathing, it will be helpful if you go through all the steps each time you work on it, so you remain organized and confident. Always begin with what you CAN do. Then move on to the steps that are challenging.
Remember, you are convincing your brain to reconsider the most fundamental aspect of playing: breathing itself. It makes sense that the process will take a while. Be patient.
Once you can circular breathe, you will refine your skills over time so that you can circular breathe imperceptibly. In the beginning, practice during scales and long tones. Try it in public during loud tutti passages, during trills and other places where no one will notice you circular breathing. After you become more confident, try circular breathing in more exposed situations. Gradually, you will develop the skill to circular breathe very well in many musical situations.
Persist gently, methodically, patiently and with a sense of humor.
You will succeed.