Dirty-South Blues Harp forum: wail on! > circular breathing
circular breathing
Login  |  Register
Page: 1

3297 posts
Jan 10, 2019
10:44 AM
I went to a class on this @SPAH.....john lee Williamson held a draw note over 20 seconds on shotgun blues......I try and pull it off at blues jam......but my air tank runs dry.....I know you can get the air out and it will help but how many use this technique of circular breathing?
The Iceman
3745 posts
Jan 10, 2019
12:41 PM
circular breathing is for exhale sustain...holding an inhale note for 20 seconds is no big challenge at all, really.

You just need to understand efficiency and pacing yourself...
The Iceman
10031 posts
Jan 10, 2019
2:21 PM
Christelle has a video where she holds a note for 5 minutes just to demonstrate that it can be done.

I kind of do it by accident sometimes. I haven't found enough need for it to devote the time to getting proficient in it. There are some videos on YouTube that teach it, although you'll find a lot more for other instruments than for the harp. Maybe that's because we can manage our air easier since we are a blow draw instrument, or maybe it's because we don't need to blow as hard and are more likely to be miked than a classical trombone player.

20 seconds is long enough so you need to plan for it before you get to it probably. I'm asthmatic. I hadn't tried timing myself lately. First try I got 25 on a blow and 19 on a draw, but I'm sitting and not warmed up. I know it choir years ago I could go 45 seconds or so on a note (we'd do that as a warm up, I was usually one of the last one or two people holding the note in a choir of about 120 though).

Ice, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I've seen circular breathing done for both exhale and inhale notes. The principle is the same, you just isolate the air in your mouth (or lack of air in your mouth) from the rest of your breathing column and sneak a breath and then unisolate them.

There are a several other breath management techniques that can help... using the 2 draw/3 blow alternating add or subtract air when you need it, sneaking a little air over the top of the cover between the cover... one of Adam's first video has a bit on air management. Coming from baritone playing that was a big help for me when I was starting out.

I guess the way I'd gauge whether you need it or not is look at what songs you are playing and see if you are running out of air on any of them. (Look at any songs you think you might want to add too). If there are songs on either list that you can't hold the notes long enough for go down the short list of breath management suggestions and see if you can fix it by managing your air. If you still can't sustain a note in a song that you actually want to play, or you want to impress people by playing a really long sustain, then learn circular breathing. I mess around with it from time to time, but in practice I can hold notes long enough to cover any of the songs I do so I haven't worked on it much. My asthma is moderate. If it gets worse or I get more problems as I get older I may look into it more. It does make a really cool trick to show off, but if you are going to show off with it get good enough at it so it seems really super human. A lot of non-musicians don't know about it. Play a note for 20 seconds and they will say, 'wow, that was a long note.' Play it for 40 seconds and they will really be impressed. At the 2 minute mark most of them will start to realize that you've got some trick up your sleeve. After that I suspect people will get bored unless you really sell it by pretending to be dying to get a little more out of it.

There was an old Penn & Teller bit. They did it on the Daily Show once. Teller put his face down in a dishpan of water. Penn talked about how Teller was going to break the record. The whole time Penn was providing the audience with witty banter. Towards the end Teller started acting like he was in serious distress and Penn said, things like just a couple more seconds... and eventually even started holding his head down. Eventually Teller went limp and Penn just kept telling his amusing anecdotes.

They sold it really well. I think that's how I'd do a circular breathing bit... have the rest of the band doing something interesting either musically or with some stage banter and act more and more distressed as you held the note. Get the audience rooting for you!

The trick for Penn & Teller? They'd drilled a hole in the bottom of the dishpan and glued a straw in that ran above the waterline for Teller to breath through. Warning for anyone trying to replicate it... if you use too long a straw you don't actually get the air out of the end of the straw and you start rebreathing your air. Two narrow a straw and you can induce feelings of panic. They actually have a exercise for panic exposure where you use a stirring straw and hold your nose to simulate a panic attack. It works really well.

Thread Organizer (A list of all sorts of useful threads)

First Post- May 8, 2009
5742 posts
Jan 10, 2019
2:21 PM
I don’t do circular breathing and I don’t know how to train for that, but I can definitely hold that 4 draw on a C harp for as long as the note in shotgun blues without feeling stressed.
I got out the stopwatch.
I can hold that draw 4 on a C for just over 40 seconds.
With a good deep inhale preparation I can blow the 9 on my A harp for over 50 seconds.
I don’t ever do that in practice.
I would expect there are others here who can do much longer durations than I can
198 posts
Jan 10, 2019
2:53 PM
Rahassan Roland Kirk,I saw him blow a note with vibrato for at least 3 or 4 min. wile the band was going threw the changes.....a sax man mostly ,but i`ve seen him blow harp among other thangs.....

Last Edited by nowmon on Jan 10, 2019 2:55 PM
1336 posts
Jan 12, 2019
10:14 AM
Teach yourself using the bubble blowing exercise.

Drinking straw and a glass of water. Put the straw in your mouth and begin slowly blowing bubbles. Just keep the exhale enough to maintain a release of bubbles out the end of the submerged straw. Keep it going as you learn to switch from the lungs to the cheeks while you take in a supply breath for your lungs through your nose. Never let the bubbles stop.

It won't take long to get it.

You can just as easily purse your lips and puff out your cheeks and squirt a stream of exhale in a "focused" small diameter stream of air. Keep it going as if you're trying to make a candle flame lean over without going out. Intake through your nose and keep it going without letting the flame return to vertical.

Underwater Janitor, Patriot
MBH poseur since 11Nov2008
231 posts
Jan 13, 2019
10:30 PM
Circular breathing was something that I was taught as part of trumpet training. It was one of the things that I found pretty easy to translate to the harmonica.

I honestly don’t use the technique much because it’s rare that I want to sustain a note longer than what is normally practical, or that I can’t wait for a draw note. It’s a bit different on a blow only instrument like the trumpet, especially when a passage must be strictly counted and there is no written opportunity for a quick breath.

I’m no expert but I’ll take a shot at a description. While sustaining a blow note pick a moment to close off the air coming from your windpipe and instead utilize the air captured in your mouth chamber. As you are squeezing the air out of your mouth, inhale through your nose; then “smoothly” reopen your windpipe to continue exhaling. The hard part is making the circular transition smooth and undetectable.

You can use a glass of water as a training aide for getting the basic idea. Fill your mouth with water. As you squirt the water out between your lips inhale through you nose; finish squirting out all of the water by blowing air from your lungs. Do this with a glass of water then apply the same technique with your harmonica, without the water ;) While practicing try to take occasional short breaths and not wait until you really need air.

I find it most difficult to reopen my airway without a very brief yet noticeable “kaa”. It’s like the reopening must be done slowly and gently to keep it silent. I can hide it with some vibrato but then it’s not easy to maintain an even vibrato during the mouth air.

Curtis Salgado is really good at undetectable circular breathing while keeping his super clear and even tone. Next chance I get I will ask him about his technique.

It's about time I got around to this.
5752 posts
Jan 14, 2019
1:32 AM
I hold a note for 4 measures in bright lights, big city. It’s no big deal and certainly doesn’t require any special technique but it’s kinda fun. I just start looking around to try and get people engaged with the idea..it’s unusual, when will it end?
Anyway, now I’m thinking what if I extended that out to 8 measures? I think that would really get the attention. Maybe not in a good way.. it’s a 9 blow
232 posts
Jan 14, 2019
7:48 AM
I've seen Curtis hold a note for 2 or 3 minutes just for laughs. It started out with the dramatically held high note that gets the audience cheering. Then he just held it and started fiddling around with his other harps, looks at his watch, fakes like he's about to pass out... while Alan Hager kept the groove going on guitar.

When he finally stopped he calmly said something like, "huh that was weird, it's like I was stuck there..."

The audience loved it, a lot of folks acted like they were watching a magic act.

The record for longest sustained note is 47 minutes 6 seconds, held by sax player Vann Burchfield.

It's about time I got around to this.
235 posts
Jan 28, 2019
10:10 PM
Hey I actually remembered to ask Curtis about this on Friday night. He used his ice water and a straw to demonstrate the technique by blowing a continuous stream of bubbles. So if you are interested in learning, you may want to start with that.

Then he demonstrated it on an A harp #7. I tried to zero in on how he manages to keep a note so smooth during the transition from a mouthful of air to his airway. There is only a slight variation in his tone.

Here's what I learned: Curtis picks a comfortable reed and uses a very minimal amount of air to keep it moving. He doesn't wait long before he starts working his circular breathing. He doesn't use any specific pattern or timing.

He does use a quick series of short circular breaths to kind of load up with air then goes back to a longer duration using his normal airway.

As far as his ability to be so darn smooth with the transition, his top secret tip is_ drum roll please... "practice".

I thought it was really cool of Curtis to share the details of his circular breathing technique. Later that night he used it in front of a sold out crowd at Mac's Night Club. It was part of the Rainy Day Blues Society’s Fundraiser and Membership Appreciation. The concert was held in Curtis Salgado's home town of Eugene, Oregon.

Curtis considers the endless note as something of a "parlor trick". But he is a fantastic showman and the crowd loves it when his personality comes out during stuff like this, and his comic rendition of "Little Red Rooster"...

He's doing really well by the way. It's scary to think how many times we damn near lost him.

It's about time I got around to this.

Post a Message
Guest Name


(8192 Characters Left)

Please enter the code shown above and click the 'Post Message' button. This additional step is required to help protect against message spam.




blues harmonica riffs - harmonica tabs - learn harmonica - play harmonica

play harmonica easily - harp tabs for beginners - blues harmonica lessons


ADAM GUSSOW is an official endorser for HOHNER HARMONICAS