STEP 1. “Balloon Cheeks”
Breathe in and out normally through your nose. With your lips sealed and your cheeks fully puffed out, continue breathing in and out normally through your nose. Maintain an even pressure behind your cheeks while breathing normally. Everything should feel relaxed apart from the stretch around your inflated cheeks and the lip muscles, which stop air from escaping out of your mouth.
Use a mirror to check that your cheeks remain constantly puffed out. Experiment with how to increase the volume of air by relaxing muscles, expanding all the cavities in your mouth, filling up available areas in front of your teeth as well as to the sides. Seek to reduce effort to a minimum. Only a few muscles need to work; all the others can relax.
It feels like inflating a balloon; the bigger, the better. When you are used to breathing normally, with your cheeks puffed out and feeling constant pressure, almost to bursting, then you are ready for a variation.
Change the rhythm of your breathing to a short, sharp in-breath and a long, slow out-breath. Flare your nostrils for the in-breath, reducing resistance so that the air reaches the bottom of your lungs as swiftly and quietly as possible. Your cheeks remain puffed out throughout: the pressure behind them is completely independent of your breathing.
Practise both rhythms for a few days, finding ways to reduce the effort. How many muscles are working unnecessarily? Your neck? Shoulders? Switch off unnecessary tension, muscle by muscle, till only the ones you need are switched on. As Joseph MacDonald advised in about 1760, a piper wants to discover “a gracefulness of carryage in Feature and Attitude” and to be “as aggreeable to the Eye as Ear”.
STEP 2. “Raspberry Sound”
Begin with the second rhythm of step 1, but increase the air pressure behind your cheeks a little more. Now, simultaneously with each quick in-breath, make a short raspberry sound between your lips. To replace the air you expel when making the raspberry sound, you will need to discover how to top up the air behind your cheeks.
Do this topping up during the slow out-breath by using the back of your tongue like a pump. This pumping action transfers pockets air from the throat into the cheek cavity. There are two phases to the pumping action:
- A horse-shoe shaped seal is formed by the tip of your tongue, touching all around the hard palette immediately behind your teeth. The toungue is cup shaped, with the root of the tongue holding the position for “ng” against the soft palette while the tip is sealed all around the hard palette.
- As you raise the cup of your tongue towards the roof of your mouth, as if to make the sound “ee”, you break the seal at the tip of the tongue allowing air to pass towards your teeth, topping up the cheek cavity.
Think of pressure arrows pushing out your cheeks: those arrows need to stay equally strong throughout the breathing cycle. Don’t be disheartened if it takes you a few days to discover how to do the topping up. It may help to say “tongue yee tongue yee tongue yee” without breaking the sound to identify the muscles involved.
STEP 3. “Dummy Reeds”
Take a reed that consumes no air (when your finger seals its base) or a dummy object of similar shape and size. This is to train your lip muscles to form an airtight seal around an object with the same feel as the real thing. However, it should not allow any air to escape.
Put this silent dummy reed between your lips and repeat steps 1 and 2. Don’t allow the presence of the reed to change anything. It should neither sound nor consume any air.
When you are comfortable repeating steps 1 and 2 with a single dummy reed between your lips, introduce a second one.
Steps 1-3 may take several days. New muscles are being trained and new neural pathways established. It is best to practise a little every day as the deep learning happens while you are asleep.
STEP 4. “Blowing Bubbles”
Now for the fun bit! Find a straw that you can squeeze shut and fill a glass not more than a third full. The straw can be plastic or organic, but you must be able to adjust the flow rate by squeezing it between your fingers. You should be able to shut off the bubbles completely: practise blowing through the straw into the water but with no bubbles!
When you can do that, repeat steps 1 and 2 with the straw squeezed tight, no bubbles.
Next, very gradually allow a tiny stream of bubbles to appear. Keep steps 1 and 2 going. Your job is to make that tiny stream of bubbles perfectly steady.
If you can do that, then you are over the crest of the hill. There’s a long journey ahead, but it is downhill from here. It took me a couple of years before I could circular breathe on autopilot, seamlessly, without it disrupting my concentration while playing.
The video was filmed by Peter Holmes in Olga Sutkowska’s office, Berlin, 26 March 2015. Please leave a comment sharing your experience learning to circular breathe. What helped you most?
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