Playing the oboe requires more air pressure (air support) than most other wind instruments to keep the reed vibrating and the tone stable and focused. A great volume of air cannot get through the small size of the reed opening, so oboists rarely run out of air, and can play very long passages without breathing. Oboe players often have too much stale air and feel like exploding when there has not been much time to breathe, so they have to exhale stale air at the ends of phrases before inhaling anew. To manage this when there are only very short rests, some oboists exhale without inhaling and then inhale without exhaling at the next breath mark. Part of learning how to play the oboe successfully is being able to judge the amount of air and air pressure needed for each phrase, as well as figuring out when to breathe in and out.
The amount of air and air pressure needed varies with the hardness and responsiveness of the reed, the dynamic requirements, and the length and register of the passage. For some repertoire (Baroque era in particular), figuring out where to breathe is the biggest challenge. Occasionally it may be necessary to leave out notes in orchestral pieces and solos to facilitate getting through a piece without running out of air, or more likely, being unable to exhale properly.
Inhalation takes place through the mouth and/or nose. Using the nose allows for smaller, quicker, more effortless breaths, but does not allow the embouchure to rest between phrases. Inhaling takes place most effortlessly when leading with the movement of the ribs and being aware of the full capacity of the lungs. Air pressure on exhalation is created by pushing the air out, most efficiently and with the most diffuse tension by using all the muscles surrounding the trunk of the body, including the abdominals, the pelvic floor, and muscles in the back.
With careful air management, oboists can play very long phrases without needing new air, but not necessarily many of these phrases in a row. Everyone may have trouble at some point playing long phrases, particularly in the high register, without becoming dizzy or lightheaded. Having a head cold, lack of sleep, or an empty stomach can make this problem worse.
Circular breathing has been part of the tradition of the oboe family for hundreds of years, and is now becoming more standard in classical oboe education in North America. It can be helpful in many situations in the standard repertoire, though it can’t be used all the time as it doesn’t allow for the embouchure to rest.
Circular breathing involves using the cheeks and tongue to push the air out while inhaling through the nose. It is easier to accomplish on the oboe than many other wind instruments, even if it seems awkward at first.
One way this technique can be learned without the oboe is to push air with the cheeks and tongue through a straw into a cup of water to create bubbles, while inhaling through the nose. Other methods to learn this technique are linked to below.
It can be awkward to accomplish the air transfer between inhaling and exhaling without some slight tonal unevenness, so best to do the transfer in a technical, rather than slow, passage.
While an extremely useful technique when needing to play continuously for long passages, it is possible to perform all standard orchestral repertoire without circular breathing.
“The Breathing Book is a ‘must-read’ for oboists of all levels, from students to professional performers. Stephen Caplan has clearly defined and clarified the complexities of proper breathing and posture, with all the exercises having been carefully crafted and sequenced to achieve the optimal performance results.” – Carolyn Hove, Solo English Horn, Los Angeles Philharmonic