Didjeridu Tutorial

Circular Breathing

Lesson Objective

I this lesson you should learn the basic idea of circular breathing. This does not mean to say that you will be able to circular breathe, but you will be along the path to getting it.

Technique

First a word about what circular breathing is. As you listen to didjeridu recordings, you will no doubt notice that the performer never seems to stop for a breath! Either he or she has a phenomenal lung capacity or there is a trick somewhere. Being world-wise, I'm sure you'll all choose the latter explanation. The "trick" is known as circular breathing. Physiologically its not possible to breathe in and blow out simultaneously, but it is possible to maintain air pressure, without blowing, by using your mouth like the airbag of a bagpipe. With this (small) reservoir of air maintaining the drone, you can sniff a quick breath through your nose, thus topping up your lungs so that you can then continue blowing. This process of snatching short sniffs will, with lots of practice, allow you to play continuously. It's not easy though, and may well be the trickiest part of learning to play.

There are many ways for you to learn the basic technique. Each teacher appears to have his or her own method, so I will try to include all the techniques I encounter. If you have any ideas, don't keep them to yourself, they may be very helpful to others, and can be included in this tutorial.

Ed Drury has the following advice on learning to circular breathe:

(B) Timing. Puff out your cheeks and use your lips to make a small opening in the center of your mouth as if blowing into a straw. Try to make a small steady stream of air come out of this opening using only the air in your cheeks. By placing the palm of your hand in front of your lips you should be able to feel the air stream. Breath in through your nose while you are squeezing the air in your cheeks out.

(C) Transfer the previous step to the didjeridu. Try to allow your lips to vibrate loosely so a low short tone is produced. It should sound something like "harrumph". Now blow the air in your lungs through your lips letting them vibrate as in the basic drone. Allow your cheeks to puff out as you run out of air and then repeat the process from the beginning of this step.

(D) Continue working with step C increasing the speed such that the pause between the sound emitted by your cheek squeeze and the sound of your basic drone decreases. Don't worry about the transfer between the cheek powered sound and the lung powered drone being smooth for now. It will come with practice. Just try to keep shortening the pause until it disappears completely.

(E) To work on smoother transfers between air coming from your cheeks and air coming from your lungs, place a straw in a glass of water. The glass should be only about a third full. Alternating cheek squeezing and blowing, try to keep a steady stream of bubbles coming from the end of the straw - breathing in while you squeeze your cheeks. If you can keep the bubbles going smoothly with out pause, you are circular breathing. This is from the London Didgeridoo Society pamphlet:

  1. Breathing in through the nose at the same time as expelling air from the cheeks. Take a sudden swift sniff of air into the lungs, while you are blowing air out from the cheeks.
  2. Create a steady stream of air coming out of the mouth. Most of the time, the air comes directly from your lungs, but while you are inhaling, the air is pushed out from the cheeks.

    Practice this by placing a finger in front of your mouth and try to keep a constant stream of air hitting your hand.

    During playing :

  1. Blow and let lips vibrate, creating a basic drone for about 2 to 3 seconds.
  2. Continue to blow from the stomach, but inflate your cheeks, and draw back the tongue.
  3. Continue the vibration of your lips, but use the air in your mouth by pushing in the cheeks and bringing the tongue forward.
  4. Continue to blow, and take in a quick sniff of air through the nose while doing step 3.
  5. Go back to step one.

John Pemble (pemble@duke.iccc.cc.ia.us) had this to say in a digest posting:

Again Circular Breathing is a term that doesn't literally mean to inhale and exhale for real. Like a magician performs a trick (appearing to do one thing but actually doing another), the didjeridu player appears to be breathing in as he/she breathes out. Storing air in your cheeks and blowing it out while inhaling a breath through the nose is what circular breathing, is all about.

Go to a sink where there is a mirror you can see your face and be able to spit out water. Fill your mouth with as much water as you can till your cheeks are bulging out (like a Dizzy G. thing). Spit the water out in a smooth tiny leak like stream and breath in and out through your nose.

As you slowly (about ten to twenty seconds) empty your mouth of the water in this smooth little stream keep breathing in and out through your nose. You are more or less circular breathing, or at least illustrating the circular breathing technique as closely as possible without actually doing it.

Do this water exercise number of times, maybe for a few days. Try to do the same thing using air in your cheeks, instead of water. Slowly let air hiss out of your cheeks. Do this several times and gradually increase the amount of air you let of your cheeks.

After a while of doing that try it on your didjeridu. You may get it right immediately or perhaps in three weeks. While I could circular breathe on the didjeridu, it took me about a month to do it with any smoothness.

Also I recommend that on first trying to circular breathe to use a shorter higher pitched didjeridu. If your bamboo is too long (low) get yourself some PVC for practice.

Randy Raine-Reusch follows up with these pointers:

Have fun and remember to turn off the TV!

Lehwhang@aol.com has this fun idea :

I came up with a useful technique (for me anyway) while trying to get the circular breathing (which i'm still in the process of trying to get) that I thought might be useful to learning players :
I found that a good way to practice when you can't get a hold of anything else is to just make a circle with thumb and forefinger and put it against the lips. I discovered this on a 3 hour flight. As a bonus, my bizarre behavior kept anyone from disturbing me while i practiced. At present, i can keep the breathe going on my finger circle, but can't do so consistently on the didj itself. This trick is also useful in showing interested beginners how to make their first drones.

Robert Harper harper@lifesci.ucsb.edu makes the following interesting observations

I've been messing around with PVC didj's for several months now, and wanted to pass along a little of what I've learned. It's turned out that the biggest help to me was switching to really small pipes. All it took was a 2.5-3 foot length of 1" PVC to accelarate my learning dramatically! All of the instructions on PVC didj's that I'd seen specified at least 1.5" diameters... usually 2". However, I found that playing with the smaller version was much easier to learn new techniques on. It takes less volume of air, so learning to circular breath once I switched was MUCH easier than I expected. There's plenty of time to take a long slow breath while maintaining a drone. All sorts of new techniques were easier to learn how to do without losing the drone. Another advantage is the portability factor. I even took one on a multi-day desert backpacking trip... a VERY satisfying experience, I must say. Also, no mouthpiece modifications are needed... the smoothed off end works just fine. Of course the sound is higher pitched than the larger didj's, but I've come to like it quite a bit. One concern I had was whether what I learned on the small pipe would translate easily to the larger ones, but that has not turned out to be a problem. It's also been fun to insert the end of the 1" pipe into larger pipes (from 1 foot sections up to a few feet), which gives it a deeper, richer sound... and you can hear yourself play better that way.

Common Mistakes

Difficulty

Many experienced didj players will tell you that circular breathing is really quite easy. This is of course absolutely true as far as these experts are concerned, but don't be fooled, this is not going to be at all easy, and you will not master this technique for a long time. By a long time, I mean a long time, months of playing at least. Do not be disheartened though, as circular breathing is not an insurmountable obstacle. You will have a great sense of satisfaction when you discover that it really is possible, as you snatch your first sniffed breath! (A few days of frustration will get you to this point). From there on, its all practice, trying to refine and control the technique.

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