The Alexander Technique and Oboists, Part II
Applications of the Alexander Technique to Playing the Oboe
(as first published in the Double Reed Journal, Vo. 30, No. 2, p. 71-81)

            The article preceding this one (“The Alexander Technique and Oboists, Part I: What the Alexander Technique is and How it is Relevant to Oboists,” Double Reed, Vol. 29 No. 24 ) introduced the Alexander Technique and explained why the information that one learns in Alexander lessons is relevant to oboe players. An explanation of the main principles of the Technique, as well as some of the vocabulary associated with it, was included; a glossary is located at the end of this article as well.

            Every individual moves in a unique way and an Alexander teacher will work with each individual according to his or her needs, much in the same way a good oboe teacher will work with each oboe student to strengthen his or her particular weaknesses. Just as oboists’ ideal embouchures will differ from one another a little according to the structure of their mouths and reeds, each individual’s most balanced and free way of moving will differ from another’s because of his or her structure. What follows in this article are some ideas of ways in which oboists may use what is learned in Alexander Technique lessons in their oboe-playing, but oboists will need to discover for themselves exactly how the Technique may be applied specifically to their own playing by taking Alexander lessons. Because habits associated with playing are very strong, most Alexander teachers will first work with a musician for several lessons without the instrument, bringing in the instrument later after the musician has learned the basics. This method can be compared to being able to do scales well before attempting to play a difficult piece of music.

            When physicians discuss the misuse and overuse problems of musicians, they very often state that musicians need ‘good posture’ or ‘correct body mechanics.’ They have also researched the problem and written articles on their research that show time and time again how postural faults are a cause of musculoskeletal difficulties:

            “In the process of ‘leaning into the music’ the head is held ahead of the center of gravity. The upper back is ‘rounded,’ causing stress in that region. The shoulder blades rotate downward, placing stress upon the scapular muscles, which then cause myofascial pain. The head is held in ‘forward head posture,’ causing the neck muscles to sustain a painful muscular tension. The neck has to arch to compensate for the increased thoracic kyphosis, which may cause stress upon the cervical discs.”1

            “Increased suboccipital backward bending (posterior rotation) in FHP [Forward Head Posture] leads to suboccipital tightness and anterior cervical flexor weakness, or an imbalance in the agonist/antagonist relationship of muscular action. When the occipital condyles slide anteriorly and the occipital bones move closer to the atlas, as in a relaxed slump, compression of neurovascular structures results.”2

            “Excessive or improper physical use of our bodies certainly is not illegal (like recreational drugs) or otherwise restricted, but it too may cause problems such as strains of the joints, muscles and tendons, accompanied by pain and decreased function. Such difficulties may occur during our musical lives and at other times, including the activities of our ‘day jobs’ or our recreational pursuits.”3

            “Although the musician may note a problem of the hand or fingers, it is likely that the problem originates in a much higher center; the bad habits that have been incorporated at an unconscious cerebral level cause a modification of the normal movements of all the muscles of the upper extremity and possibly the entire body.”4

            “Muscle strain symptoms from playing can be precipitated or aggravated by the   improper use of muscles anywhere in the performer’s body. Playing ‘under tension,’ for whatever reason, involves using more muscles than are usually needed to get the job done or using the correct muscles in a state of greater tension than is necessary. Co-contractions (the simultaneous contraction of both agonist and antagonist muscle groups during a specific action) are usually counterproductive to the smooth performance of rapid, repetitive motions and must be minimized or eliminated.”5

All of these medical professionals are describing the problems that can arise in a musician from misuse. They describe various forms of misuse and talk about the role of habits and misuse in causing improper functioning and pain. There is no doubt about the link between misuse and the pain that many musicians experience. This link is an example of Alexander’s more broad statement that use of oneself affects functioning, or how one uses oneself affects everything one does.

            Because of this link between misuse and pain, people in the medical field always recommend ‘good posture’ and ‘correct body mechanics.’ Quarrier, a physical therapist, says musicians should “be instructed in proper postural alignment.”6 Another physical therapist, Novak, writes, “Postural connections must be understood and incorporated into the musician’s daily habits and performance technique.”7 Tubiana, an M.D., states that “it is important to have a clear understanding of the concepts behind the fundamental positions [for instrumental musicians], beginning with basic posture, before proceeding to a discussion of specific positions for a particular instrument.”8 Efforts have also been made to describe in writing what the optimum physical condition is for a musician. Dr. William Dawson, frequent author for the Double Reed, writes,

           “Optimum performance on musical instruments, like doing any other physical activity well, requires a precise and correct degree of tension (force) in the muscles performing the task. It is usually not possible to play well with insufficient muscle tension, whether manual or facial. Excessive tension, on the other hand, can be compatible with good performance, but the frequently deleterious effects of abnormally large forces ultimately may be noticed by the musician.”9

Another medical doctor, Dr. Lippmann, says, “Basically, playing skill at any instrument comprises relaxed coordination at needed speed, carried out with a minimum of energy and utilizing the helpful forces of gravity, inertia, and tissue elasticity to the hilt in order to save on muscle power.”10 The difficulty arises from the attempt to acquire such an optimum state. ‘Bad posture’ is the result of a general pattern of misuse present in an individual. This pattern of misuse is an influence on every activity the individual does, including, for example, exercises. It is generally accepted that exercises can ‘fix’ posture, but a person who habitually slouches, also tends to slouch during exercises, therefore strengthening the very imbalances causing him pain in the first place. Even if the sloucher is an unusually motivated person and decides not to slouch during exercises, two problems are setting him up to fail. First, he is only exercising for a small percentage of his day. For the rest of the day, he is slouching. His habit of slouching will not be overcome by just a few minutes per day of change. Second, when this person with a habitual misuse pattern that causes slouching decides to ‘straighten up’, he’s not eliminating his habitual tensions but adding to them. He’s using himself differently, but just a different kind of badly.

            What is missing from these direct ways of trying to acquire optimum use is an acknowledgment that because misuse is inseparable from one’s total pattern of coordination, the total pattern as a whole must be addressed. This may sound difficult, but only because it is unfamiliar. From the viewpoint of someone with experience of the Alexander Technique and musculoskeletal pain who has tried both ways (trying to change the parts involved in misuse versus trying to change the whole pattern), it is much easier to change the whole pattern, with the help of an Alexander teacher. Dealing with general habits of misuse is only difficult without a means to do so. The Alexander Technique is unique in that it provides a practical way to change one’s total pattern of use so that this use is a constant positive influence on functioning rather than a detrimental influence. Furthermore, movements performed with the resulting integrated coordination and balance of muscle tone are characterized by a “precise and correct degree of tension (force) in the muscles” and are “carried out with a minimum of energy and utilizing the helpful forces of gravity, inertia, and tissue elasticity to the hilt in order to save on muscle power”, as optimum use is described by Dr. Lippmann above.

            Lessons in the Alexander Technique often begin by addressing the student’s habits while sitting in a chair as well as standing and getting in and out of the chair. These actions are clearly relevant to oboe playing, even though the student is not at the time playing the oboe. These are basic, relatively simple movements that allow the Alexander teacher to work with the student’s overall habits of use, the same habits that influence any activities the student engages in, including playing the oboe. Besides, when someone plays the oboe, he’s either sitting or standing, so there is a direct application of this work with sitting and standing to playing the oboe as well.

            Most musicians consider the workings of their arms and hands to be separate from the workings of the rest of their bodies, but in fact the arms are supported through the musculoskeletal system by the back. A well-coordinated back that has an appropriate balance of tone is a strong back which provides support to the arms, a kind of buoyancy. A non-integrated back does not do its part in supporting the arms, causing the smaller muscles of the arms to do more work than they are intended to do. In addition, a collapse of the torso or the opposite, an excessive rigidity of the torso that occurs from an imbalance in muscle tone puts an additional burden on one’s structure, a burden that the arms must overcome in order to lift the oboe. The reader can get an idea of what this does to the arms by sitting normally and lifting his or her arms and extending them in front of him like a conductor, then collapsing and lifting his or her arms. The arms are noticeably more difficult to lift when one is collapsing. If the oboist’s normal way of sitting includes a lesser degree of collapse, that collapse is always making it harder for the oboist to lift the arms. The difference between this oboist’s norm and the demonstration above is simply one of degree. Neither is helpful to the oboist.

             When working with a student in a lesson, the Alexander teacher will begin by asking the student not to move in her normal way, but to allow the teacher to move her in a new way. Through this procedure the student learns what Alexander called ‘inhibition’ or ‘non-doing’, which is simply a pause during which the student decides not to continue the activity in her habitual way. This then allows something non-habitual and more coordinated to happen, assisted by the teacher’s both verbal and hands-on directions (suggestions for how to move in a more coordinated way). First the teacher and student may focus on the relationship between the head and neck and torso, later expanding the student’s awareness to include the extremities. The goal is awareness, a good balance of tone throughout the body which results in free, dynamic, and integrated use, and the ability to consciously control how one carries out an activity. Through lessons the student develops a new standard to which she can compare all other activity. For example, she learns how to use the arms with a minimal amount of tone, rather than too much, and can then explore what the minimum amount of tone would be for her to pick up and play the oboe.

            When focusing on the arms, the Alexander teacher may begin by having the student just raise her arms in front of her. In just this one action various forms of misuse may become apparent and could be eliminated. For example, to raise the arms people often raise the shoulders, lean back a bit, and push the pelvis forward, which compresses the spine and puts extra tension throughout the body. They might do something similar when they bring up the oboe. Most people who do this are not aware of it, but it feels ‘right’ to them. The muscles involved are under one’s control, unlike the involuntary muscles, but use of these muscles is not always conscious. The late Carol McCullough, Alexander Technique teacher and violist, writes, “It is because this musculature is under the voluntary control by the human nervous system that difficulties arise in an individual’s use, and consequently, potential exists for improvements in an individual’s use. Voluntary control should not be confused with conscious control. It is the unconscious control of the voluntary musculature that gets one into trouble.”11 When the Alexander teacher and student eliminate misuse while the student lifts her arms, the student is already going to be using herself in a more coordinated way while playing the oboe.

            Another common misuse in oboists is the tendency to excessively contract the muscles of the arms, pulling the oboe in towards oneself by applying too much pressure with the fingers on the keys. This requires more work of oneself than necessary, and the arms, from the thumb to the back, then have to counteract that effort to keep the oboe away from the body. These simultaneous contractions of the muscles that bend and extend the arms result in excess tension. In Alexander Technique lessons, the student becomes aware of her habits of misuse and learns how to encourage length of the musculature of the arms and freedom of movement, rather than shortening and rigidity. This experience provides the student with a new standard and conscious control over her use. In this way, such habits are changed fairly easily.

            Much attention is given to the fingers by musicians and music teachers. We focus on the fingers when practicing technique, for example. Again, people don’t tend to be aware of the connection between problems with tense fingers or problems with technique, and the tension resulting from misuse somewhere else in the body that seems distant, such as the neck, back, or hips. A couple of oboists related in interviews with me their experiences of the connection between overall use of themselves and technique. Peter Cooper, Principal Oboist of the Colorado Symphony, described his experience related to technique: “I found that freeing my neck enabled me to perform cleanly under pressure certain technical passages that were within my ability, but not always ‘nailed’ under pressure. Freeing my neck actually allowed my fingers to work better.”12 He then elaborated using Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin as an example:

            “I was applying that throughout the audition. Pieces like Tombeau, or Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, La Mer and others were works that I knew I could play cleanly, but hadn’t always done so in auditions. This time I focused during the audition on keeping my neck free and my arms and fingers soft. I was oblivious to the audition pressure and just kept giving myself those ‘Alexandrian’ messages. All of those excerpts were sparkling clean at this audition. I attributed it to 10,000 times practicing Le Tombeau de Couperin slowly and keeping my neck free at the audition. Keeping your neck free doesn’t work if you haven’t put in the 10,000 times.”13

            Alecia Lawyer, oboist in Houston, Texas, said that she always had good technique, but that lessons in the Alexander Technique “really made it more fluid and effortless and it [Alexander work] just got rid of the unnecessary tension.”14 As her awareness improved, she said she “started really chipping away at it [technique] and literally trying to get rid of finger motions that I did not need.”15 It has already been mentioned that oboists often apply too much pressure to the keys. Fingers can look somewhat claw-like on the oboe, as everyone knows. Marcel Tabuteau, Principal Oboist in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1915 to 1954 and ‘father’ of American oboe playing, “strove for lightness of finger technique and supreme economy of movement.”16 This need is clearly nothing new, and the Alexander Technique is just another way of exploring how to use the fingers in a released, lengthening, easy way.

            In his book on the Alexander Technique and music, Indirect Procedures, Pedro de Alcantara includes a quote from a 1600-page work on the physiology of breathing:

            “Surely no organ or system of the human body is at present completely understood anatomically or physiologically. It would be difficult, however, to single out one vital organ concerning which more has been written, on which more lively differences of opinion are still expressed in print, and of which more remains to be learned, than the mammalian lung.”17

It is not necessary that we understand breathing to ensure that it functions, luckily, because we oboists, like others, have many conflicting beliefs regarding breathing. Some say the abdominal muscles should be raised in; some say they should be pushed out and held there. Some people advocate big breaths; some recommend exhaling then playing with what remains. Some suggest ‘learning’ how to breathe and doing exercises for this purpose, while others prefer a more ‘natural’ approach. Oboists also disagree as to whether there should be movement of the chest and shoulders while breathing. Regardless of what we believe, like other forms of functioning, breathing is influenced by an individual’s overall condition of coordination.

            Frederick M. Alexander (the man who developed the method that was later called the Alexander Technique) was himself an actor, and as he began to teach his Technique, he focused quite a bit on breathing for a while. This was probably because it was fashionable at that time for people to do ‘deep breathing’ exercises, and to take ‘breathing lessons’ to improve their breathing and therefore their health. Acting students also came to him with questions about breathing, since he was apparently relatively unique at the time in that he didn’t gasp between phrases while performing. Alexander was well-acquainted with doctors in Sydney, where he was living at the time; they referred patients to him sometimes if they believed his work might be able to help them. In his book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Alexander gives a rather lengthy description of what happens during breathing, but his mention of the diaphragm was rather brief, stating that “the floor of the [thoracic] cavity (diaphragm) plays its part, moving upwards and downwards in sympathy”18 with the contractions and expansions of the thorax. Reference to the diaphragm is often made by oboists and other people conscious of their breathing, and while it is better understood than previously, misinformation is still fairly common.

            The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. When the lungs are relatively empty, the diaphragm is relaxed and dome-shaped, the top of the dome resting almost as high in the torso as the lower point of the sternum. Evelyn Rothwell gives a clear description of how the diaphragm works in her book entitled Oboe Technique, first published in 1953: “When we breathe in, the abdominal muscles work on the diaphragm to contract and pull on its central tendon, flattening the dome and pushing down the abdominal organs…When we breath out the diaphragm relaxes and becomes dome-shaped again [italics hers].”19 The suggestion to “breathe from the diaphragm” is common, but does not really work for a couple of reasons. First, doing so would literally only involve the chest cavity, or approximately the upper half of the torso. Breathing involves the whole self, but most actively the whole torso. That is what most teachers are probably trying to communicate when they say to “breathe from the diaphragm,” to use the whole torso rather than just the upper half. Secondly, because the diaphragm contains no proprioceptive nerve endings, it is without sensation. Being impossible to feel, it is also therefore impossible to “exercise any control over diaphragmatic movement except through the reflexive act of breathing,”20 writes Cornelius Reid, singing teacher. If the goal of the suggestion to “breathe from the diaphragm” is to involve the entire torso in breathing, and not just the chest, then perhaps the suggestion to “breathe from the pelvic floor” would be a better one, since the pelvic floor is located at the base of the torso.

            Alexander Technique teachers will frequently work with a student’s breathing during lessons, whether the student is a professional breath user or not. As habits of misuse influence breathing, habits of misuse in breathing can have a negative affect on a student’s overall use as well. In the quote of Cornelius Reid, above, breathing is referred to as “reflexive.” Wind players have the potential to improve their functioning while playing simply by allowing their inhalations to be reflexive, rather than ‘trying’ to inhale ‘correctly’, or worse, gasping. What one needs to do is to not interfere; ‘correct’ breathing then occurs. By trying to control the inhale, oboists often misuse themselves, and this misuse actually gets in the way of free breathing. Tensions from this form of misuse, and other forms as well, often result in restricted movement of the ribs, which, in unhampered breathing, expand and contract freely and with a great deal of flexibility. For example, everyone knows that if an individual slumps, he is restricting his breathing, but if he is habitually even just somewhat collapsed during ‘normal’ breathing, he will still always be preventing his ribs from expanding and contracting freely. Nicholas Quarrier, a physical therapist, writes, “Poor posture affects the breathing mechanism, thus creating abnormal muscle tension and undue expenditure of energy.”21 One would expect this to have some detrimental affect on the average person’s health, but the detrimental affects on an oboist’s ability to play are especially clear. Put simply, the oboist would have to work harder and would be more tense. It also seems clear that breathing exercises are not going to change the influence of misuse on someone’s breathing. The influence of misuse on someone’s breathing is tricky, because an individual is completely accustomed to how he uses himself and how he breathes, so without having the experience of breathing freely with his misuse eliminated, he is probably unable to even imagine what the difference could be.

            In Alexander Technique lessons, the student becomes aware of his habits related to breathing and learns to get out of the way of the process so that the breathing mechanism functions freely and reflexively. For example, if one’s habit is to collapse while exhaling, then one learns not to collapse. If one’s habit is to overarch the back, as pulling oneself into a well-intentioned attempt at ‘good posture’ often does, then that habit is eliminated. Through being guided by an Alexander teacher, one can learn to remain free instead of collapsed, and instead to be easily lengthened. One learns that after exhaling, by simply remaining free and allowing the ribs to be free, the ribs will spring open automatically which results in a free and reflexive inhalation. Joseph Robinson, former Principal Oboist of the New York Philharmonic, makes a wonderful analogy between exhalation and wringing water out of a sponge in his article entitled, “Oboists, Exhale before Playing.” He writes, “To replenish the supply of water, one need only return the sponge to the tub of water…We need only to relax the muscles that have been wringing out air to replenish our supply of wind for the next phrase. In this way, blowing is an active process, and inhaling is completely passive.”22 Rather than focusing on how to inhale properly, if the oboist takes care of exhaling and then allows the ribs to be free, the inhale will simply happen, easily.

            Alexander Murray, Alexander Technique teacher and former Principal Flutist of the London Philharmonic, describes how he first began to work with allowing the inhale to be reflexive:

            “My earliest recollection of applying what I learned from the Alexander Technique to playing was (and continues to be) to rid the mind of ‘taking a breath’ to play. This is an important aspect of all my practicing. If I wish to play a long phrase, I first exhale, then allow the breath to return (through the nostrils silently) and then play when the breath is ready to move out. When playing continuously, I always take time to breathe, even if it means stopping the flow of music. Naturally this is applied to practice. When performing, one does what the music requires with whatever means one has at the time.”23

Of course inhalation can be controlled, by interrupting the breathing process at any point and inhaling, but done in this way, the inhalation becomes tension-producing and uncomfortable instead of free. It is also similar to what one does when frightened by something, like an unexpected loud noise. One gasps. Gasping is part of the startle reflex, a pattern in which a person gasps, raises the shoulders, draws the head down into the shoulders, collapses the chest, locks the knees, and generally stiffens the entire body when startled. This pattern is present to a lesser degree when an oboist gasps for a breath instead of allowing the ribs to expand freely to inhale at the end of a phrase. Gasping is inefficient, and as contradictory as it sounds since one gasps in an effort to bring in air quickly, one does not have time to breathe like that.

            Oboists ‘take’ breaths of all different sizes while playing and in life outside of playing. The size of the breath is determined by the body’s need for oxygen. After exercising for a while, the breaths are bigger and more frequent, but not bigger or more frequent than necessary. While sitting and watching a movie, the breath will be slower and smaller because of a lesser need. After playing a short phrase on the oboe, the following inhale is likely to be fairly small, but at the end of a long phrase, the breath will be bigger and quicker, because it is needed. If one needs a great deal of air quickly because there is a long phrase coming up, by simply knowing this one can allow the ribs to expand quicker as the air comes in quicker, if the ribs are not restricted by excess tension. This is far more efficient and effective than gasping. Gasping produces unwanted tension that must then be overcome. Free ribs do not. The requirements of the music determine the speed and size of the breath with minimal tension as long as one’s use is coordinated and free. “No rigidity anywhere: that’s the objective,”24 states Robinson.

            The late Arnold Jacobs, former tubist in the Chicago Symphony who was sought after by musicians of all types for lessons in breathing, advocated “letting the music be the guide.”25 This is similar to what happens in conversation. Joseph Robinson writes, “I challenge anyone to discover a friend who, during casual conversation, prepares for a remark by taking a breath. The fact is that we go along, communicating very comfortably with one another without intentionally doing anything at all.”26 This idea also came up during my interview with Julie Ann Giacobassi. She said, “When I have a young student, I say to them, ‘When you answer the phone, you don’t take a deep breath and say “HELLO!”’ So much of playing can be very much like what your air is doing when you’re conversational. You don’t take a deep breath before you start to talk. The air just comes in and out naturally.”27 In a master class at the Banff Center for the Arts in 2001, Richard Killmer, Professor of Oboe at the Eastman School of Music, remarked, “you breathe as often as you need to, and as naturally as you can.” In order to “breathe naturally,” one needs to stay out of the way of the breathing process by stopping misuse and using oneself well.

            The idea of breath ‘support’ is another confusing concept for many wind musicians. One is told to “use more air support” or “support the air,” and everyone agrees it is necessary, but identifying what is means exactly is difficult. Some people maintain that it is the inward and upward push of the abdominal muscles that results in support, but one is able to do this push and produce an unsupported sound. Focusing on the abdominal muscles can be tricky as well because it may cause a rigid tightening that gets in the way of playing freely. This is a subject also discussed in my interview with Julie Ann Giacobassi. She said,

            “John Baron [her Alexander Technique teacher] kept trying to get me to relax my abdominal muscles, which was another thing which is just so anti-everything you’ve been brought up [to do], particularly with holding your stomach in and all of that stuff. And I found that very hard to do. It’s not support but tension that he was trying to get rid of – that sort of gripping the abdominal muscles which you don’t need to do. You need to have a strong support but there can’t be any tension in it at all.”28

Other oboists describe support as having to do with air pressure, speed, focus, or air direction. It seems that support has something to do with all of these ideas together, and that the lack of a sufficient amount of any of them can result in an unsupported sound. When all of these are in balance, a feeling of support results. An interesting definition of support is proposed by Michael McCallion in The Voice Book: “To put it simply, it is the refusal to collapse.”29 Refusing to collapse is a natural result of using oneself well.

            The feeling of ease that accompanies good use and coordinated breathing mechanisms has a positive affect on every aspect of oboe playing. For example when one isn’t constantly fighting tension resulting from misuse, one has more endurance. If the oboist is familiar with what a neutral level of muscle tone is, he can take advantage of that during even brief rests in the music, releasing the higher level of muscle tone required to play the oboe and returning to a minimal level of muscle tone for a moment. Jim Mitchell, an oboist in the Chicago area, said in our interview that he appreciates having that ‘neutral’ to return to, and takes every possible chance to “back up, let go.”30 If the oboist is constantly in a state of excessive tension, even during rests, he will not be able to use the rests to his best advantage and will have less endurance than he otherwise could have. He will also feel more tired when he is done.

            Any number of other problems that oboists encounter while playing can be related to excessive tension and the oboists’ habits of misuse, including problems with sound, vibrato, intonation, the throat, jaw, and embouchure. Every oboist has experienced playing with a bad reed that requires too much work to control, resulting in a response, sound, vibrato, intonation, and so on that is not as free and easy as one would like it to be, and making one feel very tired or even in pain by the end of a rehearsal. Then the oboist makes that last adjustment to the reed and everything falls into place: the response is easy, the sound and vibrato are free and pleasing, intonation is accurate. Everything is easier. A similar improvement in how one feels while playing, though spread out over a longer period of time, is possible with integrated use of oneself, free of excessive tension. Like no longer having to fight a bad reed, one no longer has to fight excessive tension. Good use doesn’t exempt anyone from needing to have talent, to practice, or to find a great teacher, but like a good reed, it certainly helps.

            Though the relationship between an individual’s overall condition of coordination and the embouchure, jaw, and articulation can be difficult to imagine for some people, studies do show the connection. One of the studies cited at the beginning of this article states that forward head posture (allowing the head to fall forward of one’s center of gravity) “may lead to multiple sources of pain,” including “temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain from faulty head, neck, and mandibular alignment.”31 Misuse such as forward head posture changes the relationship between the head and neck and the rest of oneself, disrupting the balance of the jaw. This changes the demands placed on the musculature and therefore impedes the functioning of the jaw. Even if the imbalance is not exaggerated enough to cause the oboist pain in the temporomandibular joint, the compromised functioning of the jaw and unbalanced tensions could have implications for the embouchure and tongue as well because of proximity alone.

            Several oboists who I interviewed had noted a change in embouchure and tonguing as a result of a change in the way they were using themselves. Andrea Ridilla, Professor of Oboe at Miami University, was able to tongue faster after an adjustment made to the relationship between the head and neck initially made by an Alexander teacher. Both Julie Ann Giacobassi and Daniel Stolper, former Professor of Oboe at Michigan State University, oboe instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy, and editor of the Double Reed, stated that a slow tongue was the result of tension. Giacobassi stated that “the more tense and rigid one is the slower the tongue is.”32 Stolper observed the relationship between tension and rigidity in his chest and the functioning of his embouchure and tongue: “And if I did that [a use of himself that resulted in a tightening of the chest] I found that my embouchure was getting tired, my tongue was getting tired, lots of things.”33

            Alexander Technique principles may also be applied to personal practice time. Every musician has probably been taught to practice a new or technical piece of music slowly. Slow practice works. Frank Wilson, M.D., a neurologist, describes why it works:

            “Slow practice is the key to rapid technical progress. The cerebellum is a non-judgmental part of the brain; it assumes that any repetitive activity in the muscular system is being repeated because the conscious mind is trying to make it automatic. The cerebellum will be just as efficient an automatizer of incorrect sequences of timing as of those that are correct. When practicing takes place at a pace too fast for accurate playing, there is very little chance for the material to be mastered, and reliable, confident performance simply will not occur. On the other hand, it is probably true that practice for speed is seldom necessary. The cerebellum can supply all the speed wanted if patterning is correct during practice.”34

This statement probably also explains how habits of misuse become automatic as well. In Alexander lessons, the student learns that the first step toward changing a habit is to become aware of it. An oboist can become aware of those habits of misuse that may be interfering with her playing and her practice. The second step toward changing a habit is to stop oneself from doing something that one knows is misuse. In personal practice, this skill can help the oboist to just stop and consider what she is doing and how she can do it better, rather than blindly pressing ahead and practicing mistakes and probably misusing herself. On the other hand, when something goes well in playing, an oboist with good awareness and coordination will be more likely to notice and repeat the process that had the desired result in order to achieve that result again.

            The ability to stop and consider how one is doing what one is doing will also help an oboist to avoid fatigue and therefore harmful levels of tension. An oboist who is accustomed to and is in the positive habit of being comfortable while playing will be more likely to be comfortable while performing under pressure as well. From the audience’s point of view, this makes her more pleasant to watch than someone who appears to be suffering.

            The oboist who practices comfortable playing will also be more able to avoid or manage the symptoms of stage fright. The startle pattern reflex was described earlier in this article with reference to gasping. When a person is startled, besides gasping, he instantly shortens his neck, raises his shoulders, collapses his chest, grips his abdominal muscles, locks his knees, and generally stiffens his entire body. John Henes, an Alexander teacher in Chicago and former Lyric Opera trumpet player, points out that the physical manifestations of stage fright are like the startle reflex, only to a lesser degree and slowed to span hours, days, or even weeks. Using oneself well as taught in Alexander Technique lessons, however, is the opposite of this reaction. Therefore, as Henes concluded, “even though you are still nervous you don’t have to allow those physical manifestations to take over; you can be doing the opposite.”35

            Several oboists I interviewed described ways in which lessons in the Alexander Technique helped them to deal with the symptoms of performing under pressure. Julie Ann Giacobassi said, “part of it is just trying to bring myself back to the really comfortable sitting position that he’s [her Alexander teacher] worked on [with] me in a session, trying to remember that…and getting the air flowing calmly instead of hyperventilating.”36 Alecia Lawyer has found that the Technique helps her deal with her thinking during a performance:

            “I do feel like it [the Technique] also helps me to integrate myself when I am performing. I mean, I have done a lot of studying of what goes on in your brain, too, when you play and audition and stuff. It really, I think, makes you help your thoughts skim by, you know, I’m talking about when you have negative thoughts. I think that Alexander helps you deal with the really bad physical stuff that happens when you are nervous, but also lets you calm your brain down, too.”37

The discussion of technique above included Peter Cooper’s experience of being able to perform Tombeau de Couperin to the best of his ability by keeping his neck free. He said, “what it [the Alexander Technique] helps is being able to pull off under pressure things that you can play.”38 Cooper gave another example of this experience as well:

            “I find that when I have to play soft low notes in the orchestra, there is an instinctive tendency to crunch up your torso and make your body look like the way you want the note to sound – small and un-noticeable. I find the Alexander Technique is actually the complete opposite of that physically. If I think about using Alexander Technique, I’m thinking about my neck, thinking about my back, thinking about my shoulders, thinking about my head, and the lower notes are much more likely to come out softly and without cracking. I remember thinking, why is it so easy to play soft low notes when you’re alone and so difficult to play them in the orchestra? Years ago I remember thinking [that]. I realize it’s because of the tension I create in myself when I’m in the orchestra. If I don’t manufacture that tension, then I’m more likely to play how I can play.”39

The pressure of performance upsets one’s equilibrium. What happens to a musician when he or she is nervous is not a reaction of just the mind or body, but the whole person. The Alexander Technique, by addressing the habits of the whole individual, can help a musician to deal with the manifestations of stage fright.

            Oboists are probably as well known by the general public for being hunched over whittling a piece of wood as for giving the tuning ‘A’ in an orchestra concert. Oboists have so much invested in their ability to make a comfortable reed that they tie themselves into knots in the effort to make the ideal reed. Oboists’ use of themselves is notoriously bad during reed-making, and their habits associated with making reeds are probably even stronger than those related to playing the oboe. Daniel Stolper said, “I have tried to expose my students [to principles of the Alexander Technique] partly through some of my own little ideas of stance at the oboe and posture and stance at the reed desk even.”40 Julie Ann Giacobassi shared the following story in our interview when asked about her approach to personal practice time:

            “I know one big thing about it is reed-making. Because at some point during the Alexander sessions he [her Alexander teacher] said he has seen a lot of oboists, and he said, ‘What about reed-making? You never talk about that. Why don’t you bring your stuff in and show me how you’re making reeds?’ So here I am, we were halfway through the session and I’m all relaxed and ready to go. I pick up my reed knife and my shoulder goes up, I hunch over, all this tension in my hand and he just fell apart laughing. I would say that it was a definite help for him to help me to line up and approach the reed-making the same way. You know, I had this nice posture and the whole bit and then just destroyed it all in a fell swoop, every time I’d pick up that damn knife! It was so funny, because it was one of those ‘DUH’ things that I’d never considered at all. Reed-making – that necessary evil.”41

As one can imagine, tensions resulting from time spent collapsing over a reed have an influence on one’s use of oneself in general, and while playing the oboe. At the very least, it would be nice to have a way to be more comfortable while making reeds rather than feeling tight, strained and sore afterwards. This is particularly important for those oboists who sell reeds and therefore spend even more time than most making reeds.

            There exist as many specific applications of the Alexander Technique to playing the oboe as there are oboists, and probably even more. This article demonstrates many ways in which an oboist’s habits of use can affect her oboe playing, but each oboist’s distinct habits and relationship to the oboe will make manifestations of Alexander Technique work and the resulting more-integrated, coordinated use differ. A couple of constants do seem to present themselves among those oboists who have learned and applied the principles of the Alexander Technique to their playing, however. One is that playing the oboe or English horn gets easier. The other is that these oboists appreciate the additional skills acquired in their Alexander lessons and frequently and effectively use them to deal with challenges that they encounter in their playing. How the Alexander Technique could benefit the individual reader will only be discovered if that reader takes some lessons.



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)         Rene Cailliet, M.D., “Abnormalities of the Sitting Postures of Musicians,” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 5 (December 1990): 134. 

2)         Glenna Batson, P.T., M.A., “Conscious Use of the Human Body in Movement: The Peripheral Neuroanatomic Basis of the Alexander Technique,” MPPA 11 (March 1996): 5.

3)         William J. Dawson, M.D., “Caring for your ‘Equipment’ – Arts Medicine for the Double Reed Player,” Double Reed 17 (1994): 56.

4)         Raoul Tubiana, M.D., and others, “Fundamental Positions for Instrumental Musicians,” MPPA 4 (June 1989): 73.

5)         William J. Dawson, M.D., “Common Problems of Wind Instrumentalists,” MPPA 12 (December 1997): 110.

6)         Nicholas F. Quarrier, M.H.S., P.T., “Forward Head Posture in Vocal Performance,” MPPA 8 (March 1993): 31. 

7)         Christine B. Novak, P.T., M.Sc., “Conservative Management of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in the Musician,” MPPA 8 (March 1993): 20.

8)         Tubiana and others, 73. 

9)         Dawson, “Common Problems of Wind Instrumentalists,” 110. 

10)       Heinz I. Lippmann, M.D., “A Fresh Look at the Overuse Syndrome in Musical Performers: Is ‘Overuse’ Overused?,” MPPA 6 (June 1991): 58.

11)       Carol McCullough, “The Alexander Technique and the Pedagogy of Paul Rolland” (Research paper for D.M.A., Arizona State University, 1996), 55. 

12)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 224-228. 

13)       Ibid. 

14)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 247-250. 

15)       Ibid. 

16)       Lana C. Neal, “The American Oboe School: Its History and Hallmarks,” Double Reed 22 (1999): 53. 

17)       Vernon E. Krahl, “Anatomy of the Mammalian lung,” in Wallace O. Fenn and Hermann Rahn, eds., Handbook of Physiology: A Critical, Comprehensive Presentation of  Physiological Knowledge and Concepts, iii: Respiration (Washington, DC: American Physiological Society, 1964), 213; quoted in Pedro De Alcantara, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 90. 

18)       F. Matthias Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (USA: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1923), 1997 ed. from collection entitled The Books of F. Matthias Alexander (New York: IRDEAT, 1997), 334. 

19)       Evelyn Rothwell, Oboe Technique, 3rd ed., (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), 72-73.

20)       Cornelius Reid, A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology: An Analysis (New York: Joseph Patelson Music House, 1983), 88; quoted in De Alcantara, 93.

21)       Quarrier, “Forward Head Posture in Vocal Performance,” 29. 

22)       Joseph Robinson, “Oboists, Exhale Before Playing,” Double Reed 19 (1996): 95. 

23)       Alexander Murray, “The Alexander Technique,” Hands On, Achieving a Healthier Relation With Your Flute 8 (Spring 1996): n.p.; quoted in Solomon R. Baer, “The Alexander Technique and Performance: A Clarinetist’s Journey” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002), 48.

24)       Robinson, 96. 

25)       Solomon R. Baer, “The Alexander Technique and Performance: A Clarinetist’s Journey” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2002), 50. 

26)       Robinson, 95.

27)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 239-246.

28)       Ibid.

29)       Michael McCallion, The Voice Book (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 37; quoted in De Alcantara, 94. 

30)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 251-254. 

31)       Quarrier, “Forward Head Posture in Vocal Performance,” 31. 

32)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 239-246. 

33)       Interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 257-263. 

34)       Frank R. Wilson, M.D., “Mind, Muscle, and Music: Physiological Clues to Better Teaching,” (Walnut Creek, CA: published privately by Frank Wilson, 1981): 14.

35)       Baer, 82-83.

36)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 239-246. 

37)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 247-250. 

38)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 224-228. 

39)       Ibid. 

40)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 257-263. 

41)       Phone interview with the author, 2002. Printed in Andrea Lynn Fedele, “The Alexander Technique: A Basis for Oboe Performance and Teaching” (D.M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003), 239-246.