How to Play: Breathing

What has been conspicuously missing so far is discussion of how and when to breathe. Most non-Yolŋu didjeridu players learn “circular breathing,” the process of maintaining the drone with an alternation of normal blowing and stored air pressure in the mouth, by strongly using the cheeks as a bellows. In this way, you can play for a while, take a big breath, and then play for a while again, or with more development, these cheek squeezes can be smoothly integrated into rhythms. Yolŋu do not do this the same way. The aim of most Yolŋu players is to keep the cheeks in as much as possible, and avoid long cheek breaths. Instead the goal is lots of small breaths supported with and initiated by bursts of air from the belly. Pressure must be maintained in the cheeks to keep the drone going, but it is not a big, sudden cheek squeeze.

It is possible to breathe in quickly on the end of the “dhirrl” tongue motion with very little or no cheek motion. The technique is called “bounce breathing” by many western didjeridu players as the breath in is a quick response to a breath out supported by the belly. If you push out with your belly, again a “ha” motion, it is almost instinctive to breathe back in immediately – like a bounce. The trick while playing yidaki is to coordinate all the different parts. Push air out with the belly right as you begin to say “dhirrl,” and breathe back in through the nose as the tongue motion is completing. Click the play button on the image to the right to watch and listen to an animation which approximates the technique.

In the first written example of a simple yidaki rhythm (dith-dhu dhirrl dhirrl), try to pulse your belly at the beginning of each of the three fragments, and breathe in as a response on the dhirrlmotions and bursts of air.

It may be difficult at first, but it is possible. After all, Yolŋu have done it for thousands of years! Watch and listen to Djalu’ and Winiwini’s quick breaths.

Once a German visitor asked Milkayŋu Munuŋgurr how Yolŋu children learn circular breathing, and got the response, “learn what?” The concept is not from Yolŋu culture. You simply play yidaki with the right tongue techniques and learn the breathing naturally through practice.