Going In Circles
Sniffing out the secrets to an unusual--and unusually difficult--breathing technique.
Thursday, June 15, 2000
Like perfect pitch, circular breathing is almost a gift from God, and musicians blessed with it have some difficulty being humble. For them, it''s as easy as...well...breathing. But despite the many others who would benefit greatly from the technique, few can ever quite put it together.
Exactly what is circular breathing? For the answer to this and related questions, we approached Jane Orzel. The principal bassoonist of the Monterey and Santa Cruz Symphonies is widely regarded as the region''s premiere circular breather.
Since there is almost no external evidence of circular breathing, we wanted to know how it is done.
In hushed tones, as if she were confiding professional secrets, Orzel explains, "You have to fill the oral cavity with air and seal it off from the throat with the back of the tongue. Then, you slide the front of the tongue along the roof of the mouth, and bear down with the cheeks. This way, you assure steady air pressure inside the oral cavity and, therefore, a steady tone on the instrument. While you do this, you inhale air through the nose into the lungs in fast, short "sniffs."
Who needs this discipline, we wondered. "It''s one more technique in your arsenal and gives you distinct advantages," Orzel says. "There isn''t a single concert situation where it doesn''t come in handy. For example, during the current run of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Forest Theater, there is a point--when they are crucifying Jesus--where four woodwinds hold a very spooky chord for a long time, at pianissimo. What is usually done in that kind of situation is staggered breathing, where everyone takes a breath at a different time. But where other players have to stagger their breaths, I can supply an uninterrupted tone."
Orzel taught herself this technique as a child. "I started the bassoon just when I turned 10. If I stopped playing for even 30 seconds, my mother would always barge in and very sternly accuse me of fooling around. So to get relief from that, I developed the ability to keep playing continually." As for teaching circular breathing, "I have never had anybody learn it, out of say 20 or 30 people I''ve tried to teach through the years. Here''s why: you can''t learn it overnight. A person would have to work at it for three months, six months, even a year. Most people will give up after only a week or two."
Of those who learn it, what percentage get good at it? "Nobody," sighs Orzel. "I saw [Indiana University bassoonist] Kim Walker use it in a recital at one International Double Reed Society convention. But for her, it was an extreme labor, and came out sounding that way. It distracted from her performance because it was physically so difficult for her, and not very graceful. It was noisy too. I don''t mean to brag, but I''ve never seen anybody do it as effortlessly as I do."
While no one knows who invented circular breathing, the technique was essential to glass-blowers from the earliest days of that craft, explains Orzel. "You can''t make a sizable piece without it." She also cites the legendary trumpeter Raphael Mendez, as well as some singers. "Johnny Mathis could vibrate his vocal cords while inhaling."
We wanted to know how Orzel''s technique is regarded by her fellow wind players. "They are often awestruck at someone who can do it, because secretly they all have tried and given up. Sometimes they seem annoyed. Once in the orchestra, at a woodwind tutti during the slow movement of a Brahms symphony, [oboist[ Bennie Cottone turned around to me and said, ''Could you please breathe here with the rest of us?'' In reality, I can''t use it all the time. I must breathe with others for phrasing and musical expression. The last thing I want is to sound like a machine, or something artificial."
Can a concert patron expect to know when Orzel is using circular breathing? "If you''re sitting in the hall, acoustics being what they are, you won''t hear me do it. But if you listen to the broadcasts on the radio, every once in a while you might hear me sniff, especially in a long, exposed solo."
Pops for Pops Sunday, 2pm. John Larry Granger conducts Santa Cruz County Symphony in annual Father''s Day Pops concert, with guest appearance by the Watsonville Band. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Felton. Picnics welcome. Free. State Park parking, $6/vehicle. Free shuttle from Felton. Train ticket info, 420-5260.