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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000832.txt from 1998/04

From: Jonathan Cohler <>
Subj: Circular breathing and circus tricks
Date: Thu, 16 Apr 1998 09:51:45 -0400

This certainly has been an amusing outburst of late!

To address a few of the commonly made statements:

1. "It makes too much noise. I don't like all the grunting
and snorting."

Done properly (with clear sinuses), circular breathing makes
very little noise. I have on occasion asked my students
(all of whom circular breathe and know what to look for) to
watch me in concert and see if they could tell where I was
circular breathing. Almost always they cannot. This is a
result of quiet circular breathing done in appropriate places
in the music.

Certainly, there are people whose circular breathing is
somewhat noisy (and obtrusive). This can be annoying. It,
however, does not mean that the technique is bad. It means
that that particular performer's execution of the technique
is less than ideal.

My philosophy is to use it only where needed, and to choose
ahead of time the ideal points in the music where it will work
best. That way you know how it will feel before you get there
and can exert the greatest possible control over it.

2. "It's just a circus trick."

The technique is just a technique. It can be used to perform
circus tricks (as one KLARINETer pointed out) such as "Moto
Perpetuo". The PIECE is the circus trick, NOT the technique.
Of course, even a circus trick like Moto can be done with
beauty, finesse and musicality. I chose it to end my "Clarinet
Alone" CD precisely because it added a nice bit of levity and
variety to an otherwise all-20th century CD. Needless to say,
Moto has proved very popular with radio stations, and has
resulted in a lot more people taking a listen to the 20th century
stuff on the disc. So I think it served its purpose. Also,
make no mistake, Paganini wrote it for the violin as a circus
trick also. That's what he did for his entire performing career.

3. "It's natural to breathe and therefore circular breathing is

The musical line that the composer writes is what dictates the
phrasing. If the composer doesn't write a break, there shouldn't
be one. There are many lines where the composer clearly did not
want a break (for example in the middle of a slur).

The music should always reign supreme. My philosophy is to
figure out a way to allow the music to speak the way the composer
wanted it, and not to allow instrumental or personal limitations
dictate the final product.

` In other words, circular breathing is what makes those long lines
sound natural. Here a few examples of pieces where I have found
circular breathing to be essential.

To the person who mentioned the Schubert...I have played the
Unfinished Symphony many times and had the oboist turn around to
ask me how I did the solo in one breath (not realizing that I
was circular breathing). The long line always draws kudos from
the audience.

In the Messiaen Abime solo, I do the opening phrase in one breath
(no circular), however when the theme returns an octave lower
half way through the movement, I do one circular breath (because
I'm a bit tired at that point!). Invariably, in performance noone
can tell the difference. In this piece, by the way, Messiaen
marks a breath at the end of the first line, NOT in the middle
where everyone takes one (and there is no rest).

Brahms didn't put big breath marks or rests in the middle of the
opening of the second movement of the Trio.

If one breathes, in any of these places (and there are hundreds
of other examples), then one is subjugating the musical phrase
to one's own technical inability. The extra and unnecessary
breaths that I hear in performance of wind instruments are the
most annoying and disruptive things that I hear in wind
performance. They often chop up lines that the composer did not
want broken and often add extra time to lines that specifically
indicate no extra time.

4. "Listening to the long lines that result from circular breathing
makes me feel uneasy."

I would submit that this is a result of the fact that you are a
clarinetist and are listening to the music in a technical way and
not a musical way. I have never heard this comment made by any
non-clarinetist in my many years of performing and circular

5. "I don't need circular breathing, because I have large lung

I will be happy to show you dozens of passages that no human
being can play as written (i.e. without breaks and delays) without
circular breathing.

I think that covers the major issues.

Jonathan Cohler

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