With its origins among the aborigines of northern Australia, the didgeridoo is an exotic instrument made all the more striking when adorned with aboriginal designs and images of lizards or kangaroos. It is a roughly six-foot tube of hardwood, typically eucalyptus, that has been hollowed out by termites. More advanced players can mimic the calls of the kookaburra bird and a variety of animal sounds such as growling and croaking. It can bring to mind the raucous percussive symphony of cicadas on a humid summer night.
To Sonny Iravani of Sydney, the didgeridoo is all those things. It is also a way the 19-year-old, who has been playing the instrument since he was 6, trains his breathing and maintains his respiratory health. Iravani credits the circular breathing technique needed to play the instrument, which is no easy feat because it requires doing three things with your breath at once: pushing breath out to play the instrument, storing and holding some breath to be expelled next, and getting more breath in line by inhaling through the nose.
“You’re getting the perfect amount of air in so you’re not hyperventilating,” says Iravani, adding that the technique helps his breathing when he plays futsul, or indoor soccer. During such active sports, players can get bloated with gas from inhaling too much air too quickly.
The extra breathing and lung activity involved in playing a didgeridoo increases the oxygen supply to the body, while short, sharp breaths through the nostrils help clear nasal cavities of excess toxin-carrying mucous, among other health benefits, says Alastair Black, a didgeridoo player and author of Didgeridoo: A Beginner’s Guide. The use of the diaphragm in various rhythms has a similar effect on the intestines as some yoga exercises aimed at helping the body assimilate food and eliminate waste. The active use of the diaphragm, he adds, can even help tone the belly.
Despite their size difference, playing a didgeridoo is probably similar to playing a flute in that they both are more difficult than playing other wind instruments that require circular breathing and in which a reed is used, says Mia Olson, a Berklee College of Music professor and author of Musician’s Yoga: A Guide to Practice, Performance and Inspiration (Hal Leonard/Berklee). A reed can act as a stopper to help a clarinet or oboe player hold air in. “In a flute you don’t have anything in your mouth that provides that resistance,” she says. “With a reed in your mouth, it’s much easier.”
Iravani, the 19-year-old, says he practices his didgeridoo up to five times a week. But that doesn’t bother his parents. His father Sasan, owner of Gifts at the Quay in Sydney, has three didgeridoos he’s been playing for more than a decade. “It’s meditation,” Sasan Iravani says. Wife Nazee concurs. “I love it,” she says. “I relax.”
By Allan Richter