Ever wondered how Kenny G can sustain a single note on the sax for several minutes at a time? KG applies the breathing technique regarded as “circular breathing” so that he can play longer musical phrases without having to take a break or pause during his phrase. Circular breathing can be applied by training one’s facial muscles to push out air that is temporarily stored in one’s cheeks while simultaneously inhaling and exhaling through one’s nose. It is naturally impossible anyone to breathe in through the nose and breathe out through the mouth exact same time because one’s lungs are temporarily closed as one breathes in. Fortunately for sax players, the embouchure one has on their mouthpiece helps one release air into the horn at a controlled rate; giving opportunity for one to give the illusion that their lungs can perform impossible feats.
The objective is to tighten your lips around your mouthpiece so that your lips will provide resistance to the airflow so that one can control the amount of air passing through the horn. With less air passing through the horn, this means that more and more carbon dioxide will build up inside of one‘s cheeks, causing their cheeks to puff up. When their cheeks puff up and feel as though they are about to burst, that is the time when one must force this excess air through the horn by using their facial muscles. The goal during this process is to inhale through the nose while the cheek muscles are at work. As one inhales through their nose, they must skillful re-supply the air in their lungs just before the cheeks completely deflate.
During the circular breathing process, one‘s embouchure must be tight enough so that none of the air that you blow into the horn escapes, however, if some air does tend to escape make sure that the air actually going through the horn is strong enough to produce a sound.
1. Puff up your cheeks like a balloon and breathe normally in and out of your nose. Now, slowly let the air out of your cheeks over the course of the next 3 seconds; try to release the air slow enough so that your lips make a soft hissing sound as if you are deflating the air out of a tire.
2. Repeat this exercise once more but allow the air to be released over the course of 5 seconds instead of three.
3. Repeat the exercise one last time but allow the air to be released over the course of 7 seconds instead of five.
I want you to take note of how you managed to manipulate your lips in order control the amount of air that was being released from your cheeks. Your lips gave the airflow just enough resistance so that you could control the air pressure in your cheeks. Resistance is key; you do not want all the air to come gushing out of your cheeks to fast, yet, you do not want the air from your cheeks to be released too slow.
4. Now, take your horn and get in playing position. Insert the mouthpiece in or mouth and form the correct embouchure. Press your lips together and close the hole between the reed and the mouthpiece. Now, take a deep breath through your nose and puff up your cheeks without allowing air to pass through the mouthpiece.
The objective now it to try to loosen your bottom lip just enough so that the air pressure in your cheeks will force a sound through the mouthpiece. Try to get a sound by lowering your lower lip at the slowest possible rate. If you manage to produce a small burst of sound then you are on the right track.
5. Now, blow a normal whole note into the horn. Immediately after blowing the whole note, hold your breath for four seconds by blocking airflow as you did previously. After the four seconds, breathe normally.
Did your cheeks puff up automatically? That is a sign that your lungs still had air inside of them, even after you blew the whole note.
Now it is time to combine all of the previous steps together into one huge step. Read the following paragraph carefully a couple times through:
(Circular Breathing in a Nutshell)
Take a deep breath and blow a note through your horn as long as you can without taking a breath. The moment you feel like your lungs are about halfway empty, it is vital that you then begin to slowly begin tightening your lips around your mouthpiece so that your lips will provide a little resistance to decrease the amount of airflow; thus, buying a little more time before your lungs go completely empty. As you tighten your lips, make sure that you still are producing a sound through the horn. When your lips are tightened that means that more air will be resisted and blocked by your lips, causing your cheeks to fill up with air. The moment your cheeks fill up with air, you must quickly and skillfully force the air from your cheeks into the horn by using your facial muscles. These are the same facial muscles that you would use to blow air into a balloon. The key now is to continue the same string of sound without breaking it up. If you get to the point where you can successfully produce a second or two of sound from the air pressure from your cheeks then you have arrived at the final step. The last step is the most interesting. While your cheeks are producing the one or two seconds of sound through the horn, that is the exact time where you only have a split second to inhale a small sniff air through your nose. You can inhale only during the period where when your cheeks are forcing a sound through the horn. The longer you can force a note from the pressure in your cheeks; the longer the time you can inhale and exhale simultaneously from your nose. When you skillfully inhale from your nose, you must then strive to re-supply your horn with fresh air without causing any breaks in the long note that you’ve been sustaining. If you arrive to this point, congratulations! You have successfully applied the circular breathing technique.