The Alexander Technique and Oboists, Part I
What the Alexander Technique is and How it is Relevant to Oboists
(as first published in the Double Reed Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, p. 95 – 98)

               Due to an increase in popularity, its greater presence in college curriculums, and a rise in the number of certified teachers, most of today’s musicians have heard of the Alexander Technique. Many musicians, however, are not clear on either the underlying principles of the method, or how its application can positively affect oboe playing and performance.  I would like to address both of these questions, beginning with an analogy.

Imagine an oboe player learning how to play an oboe alone on a desert island with just a half dozen old reeds to keep her going. Since she’s never played a good, new, well-balanced reed, she has no idea that the quality of her reeds is limiting her. Though she really enjoys playing the oboe, she finds it overall very difficult: notes don’t always respond, intonation is all over the map, sound quality is laser-like, she finds it difficult to be expressive because she is using so much energy to control the reed, she’s tired and sore when she’s done, and so on. One day a FedEx box comes floating up to her beach and inside are several plastic tubes, each containing a brand new, fully intact oboe reed, hand-made by a professional oboe player. It is easy to imagine the joy of this lonely oboe player when she puts a new reed into her oboe and begins to play for the wildlife. Everything is easier!

An oboe player’s overall condition of coordination and use of her body affects all aspects of playing the oboe, much in the same way the oboe reed does. The oboe player herself is just as important part of her equipment as everything else on which she has spent so much time, money, and energy. Many oboists have the idea that it would be nice if it were easier to play the oboe and continually search out new oboes, new shaper tips, the best cane, another teacher, all of which we know are extremely important, but they haven’t yet explored the influence that their habits of misuse might have on their playing. The Alexander Technique is one way of learning about oneself, and more specifically, about one’s habits. The Technique is also a method for changing habits and developing a more balanced coordination. Awareness of one’s habits and a lasting method of changing unwanted ones that may interfere with an oboe player’s comfort level, performance, and career are examples of what one can learn in lessons in the Alexander Technique.

Musculoskeletal problems and the pressure of performance are probably two of the biggest challenges facing musicians. Surveys of professional orchestral musicians found that up to 64% reported experiencing musculoskeletal difficulty of some kind during their career.1 My own survey of oboists also indicated that about two-thirds of oboists suffer pain while playing.2 This is no small number of musicians. Considering the prevalence of playing-related pain and stress, it seems clear that something in the approach to music-making and managing the related challenges needs to be changed.

Awareness of the problem has been increasing. Two fairly recent developments are helping some musicians: performing arts medicine and ergonomics. Prior to the development of performing arts medicine a musician in pain often had to face not being taken seriously by a doctor who viewed music as a hobby, not a profession. Today musicians know their unique circumstances will be taken seriously by a performing arts medicine specialist who has at least some idea of what is involved in playing an instrument. Ergonomics has helped to make musicians’ work conditions and instruments more conducive to comfortable playing. However, even with these advances, musicians are still suffering from painful musculoskeletal conditions. This seems to demonstrate that there are significant limits to the ability of ergonomics and performing arts medicine to prevent these conditions in musicians in the first place.

Ergonomics has been defined as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.”3 Oboes have improved, but playing one still causes many people discomfort or pain. Chairs have improved in orchestras, but some musicians still find it difficult to sit through an entire rehearsal. Our bodies are so varied that the perfect chair or oboe for all people will not be found. Referring to the definition of ergonomics again, if the item being used cannot go any further toward making the interaction between people and the item more efficient and safe, it is time to look at what people themselves can contribute to the interaction. Perhaps the relationship between the musician and the chair or oboe can be improved from the musician’s end. Maybe the musician’s coordination, or way she organizes herself while playing, can be improved, therefore relieving some already existing pain, or preventing pain from occurring in the first place.

Undoubtedly, it would be preferable to prevent pain from occurring in the first place, but successful prevention requires knowing what causes pain. One way of classifying the conditions suffered by musicians in order to examine their causes is to group the conditions into three categories: those caused by non-musical injuries, those which are performance-related, and those described as painless coordination difficulties.4 The first category may affect a musician’s playing, but was not caused by the playing and can be treated as the injury would be for a non-musician. The third category, including such conditions such as focal dystonia, is mysterious even to doctors. The second category includes the more common repetitive-motion, muscle-strain type of injuries that plague most of the musicians experiencing pain while playing. The conditions in this category are also often referred to as ‘overuse syndromes’.

‘Overuse’ is a term that is often heard, but turns out to be difficult to define. William Dawson, a medical doctor that has written many articles about pain in double reed players for the Double Reed Journal, states that in the case of overuse syndromes, the pain is produced in the muscles, tendons (those sinews going from fleshy muscle to bone), ligaments (holding one bone close and stable to another) and fascia (the strong, thin separators of muscles and other tissues). It is caused by more physical stress on these structures than they can handle comfortably and is most often due to a combination of excessive time and force of practice. Other frequent causes are improper playing techniques and associated activities.5

The term ‘overuse’ has been the subject of discussion in many articles about overuse conditions in musicians, the conclusion being that ‘misuse’ might be a more correct term. Whatever term is used, misuse/overuse is caused, at least in part, by something the musician herself is doing improperly and is therefore at least “theoretically preventable, because prevention of overuse is the control of use.”6 This should be good news to a lot of musicians who feel they don’t have control over the pain or discomfort they feel while playing. If the pain or discomfort is at all the result of misuse, at least some control can be retaken by learning control over how one uses one’s body. For those who don’t hurt while playing and want to make sure they stay pain-free, they have a possible way to prevent the pain that will otherwise develop in two-thirds of them as the result of misuse, by stopping misuse. Learning how to use oneself well, and eliminating misuse, is a good place to start.

Changing how an oboist coordinates herself while playing sounds very challenging. First, how does one know what to change, exactly? Perhaps one’s teacher, if one is a student, would have some suggestions. Maybe a doctor or physical therapist has suggestions. But even after receiving suggestions, the oboist is faced with another challenge, as anyone who has tried to change a habit related to playing knows. The familiar habit feels right and everything else feels wrong. The reader can experience this by crossing her arms across her torso, then noticing which arm is on top, crossing her arms again with the other arm on top. For most people, this little exercise gives them a clear example of how the non-habitual feels wrong. On a larger scale, one’s habitual way of using the body feels right, and anything else feels initially wrong, or at the very least, weird. Addressing this challenge is how the Alexander Technique can be instructive.

One hears many misconceptions about what the Alexander Technique is. For example, the Technique is not about fixing oneself stiffly into the “right” position, or conversely, relaxing. It is about appropriate and balanced tone for the activity at hand, coordination and competence, efficient and directed strength, all resulting in greater ease of movement. It is not a “New Age miracle cure,”7 nor a therapy, nor a quick fix. Developing habits of misuse takes time, and this practical process of relearning how to do what one does in the best way possible also takes time. The Alexander Technique is not a series of exercises nor a ‘breathing technique’, though it can be used to make exercises more beneficial and breathing freer. It is also not something limited to the young. Anyone can change habits. Change is, in fact, inevitable; whether or not the change is beneficial is something over which each individual can have some control. The Alexander Technique is also not something one needs to continue taking lessons in for the rest of one’s life. Through this reeducation process the student becomes more aware and independent, able to help herself.

Pedro de Alcantara, a musician and Alexander Technique teacher, writes, “Alexander [F.M. Alexander,  1869 – 1955, the founder of the Alexander Technique] found the cause of our troubles not in what is done to us, but in what we do to ourselves. He saw that the problem was not in the stimulation of modern life, but in our response to it; not in the stress, but in the straining.”8 Jane Heirich, another Alexander Technique teacher who also teaches voice at the Residential College of the University of Michigan wrote simply, “It is the how that matters, not the what.”9 The Alexander Technique can be and has been described in many ways, but common to all is that the principles of the Technique teach us how to use ourselves better and more efficiently.

What follows are descriptions of the basic principles of the Alexander Technique and a little of the associated jargon. Familiarity with these principles and terms will be helpful to the reader of Part II of this article, which will appear in the next Double Reed Journal. Part II will discuss specific ways in which an oboist may be able to benefit from lessons in the Alexander Technique.


Basic principles of the Technique

            1) An individual functions as a whole, not as separate parts nor just a mind nor just a body. Everything that we do involves our whole system. Activities that seem primarily physical, like walking, and activities that seem primarily mental, like reading, still involve our entire selves. It is we who tend to focus on just the physical, or just the mental, or just the legs, or just the breathing, and so on. In Alexander Technique lessons, the teacher works with the individual within the framework of the whole, even when focusing on parts. The teacher addresses the student’s overall use of herself, her overall condition of coordination.

            2) Everything an individual does is affected by how she uses herself. Much in the same way that the quality of the oboist’s reed affects every aspect of her playing, the quality of an individual’s use of herself affects how she does what she does. If she has excess tension in her neck, that tension is an influence on the rest of her system and on everything she does. Her neck tension can cause restricted elasticity of the ribs, stiffness through the legs, extra tension in the arms, a tight jaw, and so on. Her neck is tense when she eats breakfast, when she drives, when she picks up bottle of laundry soap, when she makes reeds, when she plays the oboe, etc. Conversely, if she has a nice balance between her head and neck and torso, legs and arms, she has greater freedom in her neck, ribs, abdomen, hip joints, limbs, and so on. She continues this free use of herself while she rides her bike, sits at the desk making reeds, plays the oboe, makes dinner, and does everything else that she does.

            3) An individual’s habitual, familiar way of doing something feels right. On the other hand, a non-habitual way of doing something initially feels wrong, and furthermore, we don’t tend to do what feels wrong to us. Very few readers would ever have crossed their arms across their torso in their non-habitual way if they hadn’t been prompted to do so in the little exercise above, for example. Even though crossing one’s arms in that way feels wrong, everyone would probably agree that it isn’t wrong to do so, but just feels that way. Almost everyone could improve the way they use themselves, but wouldn’t spontaneously do so because that unfamiliar use would initially feel wrong. The Alexander Technique teacher is trained (certified after attending a three-year, 1600-hour training course approved by the American Society for the Alexander Technique, AmSAT) to show a student how to move with better balance and coordination and to give her the experience of moving in a better way, a way which the student would probably never have tried herself. After some repetition in lessons and then on the student’s own outside of lessons, the more coordinated way of using herself feels ‘right’, and in fact, better.

            4) The Alexander Technique instructor teaches a process of re-education. When someone carries out an activity without paying attention to how the activity is being accomplished, she is doing what F. M. Alexander called “endgaining”. Alexander was an actor who began to lose his voice while performing, and found through self-observation that his habits of misuse were causing the loss of his voice. After much experimentation Alexander worked out a method of eliminating these habits, returned to a successful acting career, and consequently became much sought-after as a teacher. When addressing the problems of habitual misuse and what he called ‘endgaining,’ Alexander found that he and his students were able to carry out an activity more efficiently if they began by first becoming aware of their habitual way of doing something, then deciding not to do the activity in that habitual way. This moment of “non-doing” or “inhibition” then gives the student the choice to complete the activity, guided by both verbal and hands-on “directions” from the teacher, in a non-habitual and more efficient way. Alexander called this attention to the steps taken during an activity the “means-whereby” the activity could be accomplished in the best way possible. After the student has been guided through this process several times by a teacher, the student is consciously aware of her habits, is able to have some control over the way in which she does something, and can change habits when desired.



endgaining  carrying out an activity without paying attention to how the activity is being accomplished.

directions  one’s own thoughts, or verbal or hands-on suggestions from the Alexander teacher, that encourage a free and balanced use of the musculature.

inhibition (also called ‘non-doing’)  pausing and consciously deciding not to do an activity in a habitual way. By stopping the habitual misuse from happening, the person can then choose to do something in a better way.

means-whereby  a term Alexander coined to refer to the steps taken to reach a goal or to do whatever we are doing.

use  a person’s overall condition of coordination. Often heard in the Alexander Technique in the phrase ‘the use of the self’, meaning how one organizes oneself in an activity.



1)         Hunter J. H. Fry, “Incidence of Overuse Syndrome in the Symphony Orchestra,” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 1 (June 1986): 51; Paul H. Caldron and others, “A Survey of Musculoskeletal Problems Encountered in High-Level Musicians,” MPPA 1 (December 1986): 136.

2)         Andrea L. Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 59-66.

3)         Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., Merriam-Webster, Inc. (1996), 393.

4)         Helen Wallace, “Performance-related Injuries – A Dark Continent?” The Strad 102 (May 1991): 396-398.

5)         William J. Dawson, M.D., “Playing with Pain – Help for Muscular and Skeletal Problems in the Double Reed Musician,” Double Reed 11 (Winter 1988): 35. 

6)         Fry, 55.

7)         Solomon R. Baer, “The Alexander Technique and Performance: A Clarinetist’s Journey” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002), 5.

8)         Pedro De Alcantara, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 10.

9)         Jane R. Heirich, “The Alexander Technique and Voice Pedagogy,” National Association of Teachers of Singing Journal 49:5 (May/June 1993): 16.