Three Musicians Conclude their Discussion of the Alexander Technique

Bill Benham (violin), Melbon Mackie (bassoon) & Joseph Sanders (oboe)

JOE: Another little Zen activity one can adopt is making reeds without interfering with your neck. It's very difficult. It's a wonderful stress activity to think, "I've got this reed and everything depends on it". I teach a few oboists and I do talk about that, and how to sit. It is something away from playing but allied to it, and there's no reason why you should particularly misuse yourself whilst doing it. But one does possibly misuse oneself worse whilst making reeds than when playing the instrument itself.

MEL: The problem there is the eyes. You're doing very fine and important high precision work and you're trying to see clearly.

JOE: There's no reason why you shouldn't bring the reed to you to do it.

MEL: Yes, but usually you want to put it on the table and then bend down.

JOE: And then three hours later you've got a stiff back and you've wrecked all your reeds! For some reason it is a very stressful activity. I have talked to oboe players about this and they say, "Oh playing the oboe is easy once you've got a good reed." There's all this onus on reed-making.

MEL: Do you think it has anything to do with whether people actually like making reeds or not?

JOE: Definitely. Obviously if you are thinking, "I hate this" you are not going to be using yourself very well.

MEL: Precisely. I know oboe reeds last a lot shorter time than bassoon reeds and I often see oboe players scraping reeds to use virtually straight away. If I ever find myself doing that then I'm in a real panic. I find that if I don't actually feel like making a reed then there's no way I'm going to produce a good one. Whereas, other times I'll feel like making or scraping some reeds even if I don't actually need one, that's when I'll produce a good reed. Is it just the effort of concentration? People do tend to tense up when they concentrate.

JOE: Yes, on a simple level people are tensing their neck as they make reeds. But it's not that easy to stop. You don't even realise you're doing it.

Bill talked about the fear reflex. We've made this leap from the fear reflex to making reeds. It's not quite the same thing is it? You are sitting scraping a reed, you might have the radio going and it's a nice day outside and you've got a couple of hours, there's no real pressure on you. It's quite a different situation from someone firing off a gun behind your head, isn't it?

BILL: The boredom factor is something that I think you touched on earlier. F M Alexander talks about concentrating on what you're doing. There's so much we do nowadays, like listening to the radio at the same time, and if you do that your awareness has got to be reduced.

MEL: This is something one could say when they ask, "Why do I need the Technique?" It's because it would never occur to the vast majority of people that thinking about their neck is something they ought to do, and even if it's suggested to them it wouldn't make any sense.

JOE: Talking or reading about the Technique is definitely secondary to having experience of it with a teacher and taking that experience into your everyday life. Like you say, "So what, about the neck?". But you have some lessons and then you find out, and realise it opens up a whole new range of possibilities.

BILL: I think it's important to realise that if you relax the neck muscles completely the head will fall forward. The centre of gravity of the head is forward of the point of balance, so there has to be a certain amount of tension there, or more precisely, muscle tone. You also have to realise that if the head is misplaced on the top it is a rather heavy item.

JOE: A friend of mine got a football and filled it up with stones to represent the weight of the head: 12-13lbs.

BILL: In fact if it's misplaced the amount of damage it can do over time is tremendous. So people have to compensate lower down in the body - usually in the hips by putting their hips forward and leaning back from the hips and maybe forward again from the shoulder blades - so you've got an exaggerated "S"-shaped spine.

MEL: The business of being upright and walking really is amazing brinkmanship. We do it without even thinking about it, but you've only got to step on a sheet of ice and you've hit the floor before realising what's happening. It takes very little to send you down and it's quite a business to stay upright. It's not surprising that people end up doing all sorts of exaggerated things in order to stay upright.

BILL: When children learn to walk they do a lot of falling down usually in a very relaxed way and it's a bit of a game. Everyone laughs and they get up and do it again. And after many experiences the body seems to learn exactly how much tension is needed not to fall down. And that should be with you for the rest of your life, but then we add on to it.

There is a slight conflict between the Eastern Tai Chi and Alexander. In Tai Chi they're lowering their centre of gravity - and the whole object of that is not to be pushed over.

MEL: I've heard a Tai Chi instructor criticise Alexander students in that their centre of gravity is too high. And I suspect that is quite a valid criticism.

JOE: The thing I realised is that gravity is taking your whole self down, easing you onto the earth, and then the lift of your life force or whatever you call it grows in the opposite direction. So they are both working on your whole self all of the time.

MEL: The tendency is downwards, but you have to counterbalance that with an up, and if you succeed in making your spine lengthen, then every bit, except maybe the very bottom bit, has to go up.

JOE: I think there is a reason why some musicians have some antagonism towards with the Technique. They instinctively think of playing a musical instrument as a down-to-earth activity - you're on the spot and you've got to do it now - and you can't be all airy-fairy and up in your mind.

MEL: It's interesting the different problems people have with conceptions. I was talking to a girl and she said she was half way through her training course before she realised where "up" was. And she said that when she did she burst into tears at the thought of all that waste of time! She'd been saying "forward and up" with no idea of where "up" was.

JOE: Well that's all Mr Macdonald used to say to us everyday for my whole training. He'd say, "Where's up?"

BILL: One thing we haven't talked about is chairs. I take lots of wood around because I can't cope with chairs that slope backwards.

MEL: This is what's so frustrating. Once you become aware of the dangers of things like bad chairs you are less prepared to compromise yourself. One doesn't like to make a fuss, and we have to put up with the chairs that are provided, but they are often appalling. It's another of those examples of where musicians in this country are under-considered. You go out to do a date somewhere and you're lucky to get a cup of coffee in the interval. And the plastic moulding of a chair with wobbly metal legs...!

JOE: Its very difficult to keep your back open and free.

MEL: A lot of chairs seem deliberately designed to cause you all the problems that we have spent an awful lot of money trying to overcome!

BILL: Well they've been designed by people who have bad use of themselves and have no idea. F M said that he thought you should be able to cope with any sort of chair. If there was a perfect chair invented you'd have to carry it around everywhere...

MEL: ...and put your back out in the process!

BILL: I think chair design has got worse since the days he was around. They didn't have moulded bucket chairs then.

MEL: When we say chairs aren't designed, surely they are designed but not to be sat in: to be stacked, transported, all these sort of things?

BILL: I'm tall so I always prefer a higher chair, and then there's the problem of music stands and having to share with the shortest person in the orchestra.

MEL: That's one thing a wind player doesn't have. I often look at string players in orchestra sitting having to face in one direction and the music stand is somewhere entirely different, so they have to turn their heads to read the music.

BILL: Well violinists have to have their head turned to the left most of the time. I have a job persuading some Alexander teachers that you can actually send your head "forward and up" whilst looking to the left.

MEL: So once again it's the human frame accommodating the instrument and not the other way around.

BILL: Of course, the teaching of the violin has changed in recent years. Anything goes now in the music colleges. If you go back to the great teachers of the early part of this century such as Leopold Auer (1845 - 1930, pupil of Joachim) they had definite views about how it should be held. You rest the violin on the collarbone, you look to the left, you rest your chin on the chin-rest and hopefully the two meet up alright. But it was the survival of the "short necks" with the ordinary chin rests, so I've been designing higher ones for people like me.

JOE: With the oboe the weight is in opposition to your own back. If the back is all collapsed and sagging there's really not much hope of holding the oboe up unless you grip your hand. It's only when the back is strong, more elastic and powerful, that your arm can give up some of its work and support the oboe a bit more lightly.

MEL: What about the idea of a nice long spike onto the floor?

JOE: Well you see then it would be like with the bassoon. It would be a bit stationary and then embouchure-wise you're stuck. If you want to move around, even on a moderate scale, it's very limiting. That's the nice thing about the oboe, you can move your head, or if you are leading a group you can conduct from the oboe while you play, without disturbing your playing.

MEL: What do you think from an Alexander point of view about this attitude in England to wind players, that anyone who moves whilst playing is an annoyance and a distraction? With a lot of Continental orchestras when you see them, they could almost be on a dance floor when they play.

JOE: That is relevant. It all depends on the quality of their movement. If it's good then it might enhance their playing, but if it isn't then it's very distracting because it's like someone whistling a different tune. They're waving around out of time...

MEL: One also sees players in this country who are virtually motionless.

BILL: I think that's unnatural, certainly with the fiddle it is. You're moving your whole arm with the bow and it would be quite unnatural not to have a shift of balance in the opposite direction.

MEL: Playing a stringed instrument involves physical movement, but for an oboe or bassoon it's actually possible to play without any visible movement at all (except the fingers).

JOE: There's a danger of getting stiff [fixed]...

MEL: ...and I'm wondering if people aren't becoming inhibited in the Freudian sense.

JOE: I think it's good to move a little bit.

MEL: I would have thought movement was a natural reaction to music anyway.

JOE: Yes, exactly. Music moves you. In your ear there are the semicircular canals which are linked to muscular co-ordination. So music goes into your ear and straight into your moving muscles. Ideally there is a happy marriage there. I think you're right. If you've got a moving sound going in there and you are not moving you must be holding back in some way. I remember seeing Heifitz doing all sorts of things. He's incredible! He didn't move much but his hand was zipping up and down as just a blur. This was a documentary video made of him called "Preparing for a Recital". He used to take the summer off and he'd go to his farm. And toward the end of the summer months, if he had a recital at the start of the winter season, then half way through September he'd take his violin out and begin to prepare himself in a particular way. He did these very simple exercises and then gradually built himself up. He went through a kind of re-training every autumn.

BILL: I think that's how he kept his playing up to that standard.

MEL: You've got to sustain that freshness, haven't you? I've often wondered with professional players in this country - the kind of life they lead is ridiculous for a creative process. It can't help but become a routine to a large extent. It's very difficult to maintain your own sense of recreating things. I must say that one of the particular side-benefits of learning the Alexander Technique is that during particularly boring moments of a rehearsal it gives you something constructive to think about.

JOE: I find it's useful for not reacting to conductors if you've got some pranock on the podium wobbling about!

BILL: I think the sheer fact of sitting down for that length of time, nine hours a day, isn't natural.

MEL: It's not just that either. It's bloody hard work. And as far as playing a wind instrument is concerned, merely taking a breath and holding it is hard physical work.

BILL: You haven't talked much about breathing actually. I was thinking the other day that, if you have a free rib cage, the atmospheric pressure is sufficient to get air into your lungs without you actually doing it. So there should be no effort involved in breathing in.

MEL: But the effort is in holding the air and letting it out in a very slow controlled way. That's what is tiring. If you can just take the air in and then just release it there's no problem. Incidentally, Joe, I wonder if you've noticed with people: you see them playing and they need to take a quick breath in a phrase, and what do they do? They keep their lower jaw where it is and move the whole of the head back to open the mouth. It's so common and yet it seems illogical because the lower jaw is pivoted. It's much easier to just drop the jaw to take a breath. It must be indicative of tight jaw muscles or something.

MEL: If I've been playing and thinking about Alexander Technique and I feel things are working slightly better than normal, I've found that I end up taking breaths through the nose. In fact it's not, as you say, a matter of taking a breath, its simply allowing the air in, and I can take a breath without disturbing anything of the embouchure or whatever.

BILL: As he got older F M talked less and less about breathing . He never edited his earlier books because he thought it was interesting for people to see how his thinking changed over the years. Certainly when he was young he wrote a lot about breathing.

MEL: My experience is that breathing is a very tricky subject because as soon as you start talking about it or trying to interfere with it, you're in danger of doing damage. Am I right in thinking that good breathing has to be the result of other things? It's not something you can go at directly.

JOE: I teach a few oboists, and the situation is not quite like with the bassoon. (I've also got a bassoon pupil.) There are a lot of problems with the shoulders and getting around the bassoon. It does take a lot of working out: the seating position, the reed on the crook and the shape of the crook and all that sort of thing to worry about. There isn't all that with the oboe. So with the oboe people tend initially to be asking about breathing. The breathing with the bassoon is not quite as "dynamic" as with the oboe. You need quite a lot of force in the breathing with the oboe. It's a more gentle activity on the bassoon - the pressure on the reed is less.

MEL: I'm not sure I would necessarily agree with you. The oboe has a smaller aperture to get the air through. But with the bassoon it depends on what sort of set-up you play on. I've tried other players' instruments and reeds, and some play on very light set-ups: a reed that responds very easily and so on. I always felt that I tended to play on a fairly stiff set-up with a reed that takes quite a lot of effort to make vibrate and a perhaps slightly stuffier instrument, although I suspect that I've now gone for a system that is less resistant. My ideal is to get the maximum result for the minimum input. But one plays as one is. If you're a fairly physical sort of person then it influences the way you play. I think I put a lot of energy into playing the bassoon, though I'm not sure how much of it comes out like that. So one sees other players not apparently putting as much in as I think I do, but that also can be misleading.

JOE: In the course of lessons one notices that some people just don't breathe, full stop! Its not that they need to learn how to breathe better, they just need to leave things alone and breathe without holding their breath all the time. If you want to develop your breathing, whether you have lessons or not, check yourself all day and just see if you are actually breathing. You can't improve something that you're not even doing.

BILL: But again anxiety will interfere with it.

JOE: But you can "interfere" with the anxiety by thinking about your breathing.

BILL: Sure, but I'm thinking in the orchestral situation when you get these magical moments when the whole orchestra and audience have to be quiet and when I know, as a string player, that you tend to hold your breath. You feel you don't want to break the spell by making any noise. And of course you may have to come in pianissimo on an "up" bow and very often it's that sort of moment when string players get the purlies - when they don't need to hold their breath.

MEL: There's the opposite of that as well, and that's over-breathing. You see it happening time and time again. I do it myself and every time I do it, it annoys me: a single staccato note and you take a big breath to play it. So many people do it and just for a single note!

JOE: A good point, and so simple. Yes, the beginning of Beethoven Seven. The poor first oboe has to take a big breath, with a long solo to play, but the rest have a single short chord. Once I was playing second oboe and I found myself doing exactly the same thing in the rehearsal.

MEL: But everyone does it. When I think about it, quite often, I maybe spend half an evening in a performance or a rehearsal saying to myself, "I'm not going to breathe". And I consciously refuse to take a breath before I play something. And it's amazing because my ability to play a phrase is almost entirely unaltered. We've got a lot of residual air in the lungs, and so if you don't take a big breath the ability to play a phrase is still there. It seems to me there's an awful lot of wasted effort in breathing and a lot of preconceptions about how much air is needed when one sees a big phrase coming up. One thinks, "I've got to fill my lungs as full as I possibly can" and I personally think that the effort actually stops you from filling them.

JOE: What you tend to do is just lift your chest up and then hold it there.

MEL: And also, I see it with other players as well as myself, the action of taking a big breath means you are then somehow locked in place, and that is very much a disadvantage, particularly if you have a very long quiet phrase to play. It's very hard to come in on a very quiet entry when you're struggling to hold a lung full of air and still be sufficiently relaxed to have control.

BILL: Is it ever the case, in an orchestral situation, that you need every ounce of air?

MEL: Sometimes, but not nearly as often as people imagine.

JOE: I've just been to Germany doing Hans Werner Henze's "Requiem". There was a lot of brass in the group and occasionally you really had to sing out a whole phrase over the top of all this sound. Håkan Hardenberger was playing the trumpet and there was this bit where I was playing a phrase with him. I had to play really quite loud, and it was quite high and sustained, and you did use up quite a lot of air doing that. What I used to do is just breathe anywhere. Henze didn't mind. I've been experimenting with the same thing as you: not breathing at all, to see what happens. And all you do is you get to the end of a natural breath and your body then just fills up with air. In a way you can make it more exciting, taking a passionate (reflex) breath. It holds the attention of the phrase and carries it on anyway instead of this holding-on-for-grim-death type of breathing.

MEL: It was an enormous surprise to me to find that not taking a breath didn't mean I could only play short phrases. But the biggest discovery of all is one that I now use sometimes quite deliberately. By not taking a breath at that vital moment as I go to play my mind is clear. Because as I said before, you take a breath and you lock and you're also locked mentally. If I've got some little phrase I've got to crawl in on and I want to be "there", often I don't take a breath simply to have that mental clarity.

BILL: I think there is another aspect to this in that generally we don't get enough exercise. Even in Alexander's day they were walking much further, they didn't go everywhere by car. A lot of musicians sit in their car and in the studio and they never get out of breath. In Victorian times they use to say you should get out of breath every day - send the kids out to run about. Kids nowadays are lucky to walk for half an hour a week sometimes, they're dropped off outside their school gates. So if no demand is made on the mechanism then maybe it atrophies.

MEL: Well that's certainly true of me!

BILL: I know if I cycle and I'm late for work then I really have to give it one and the breathing really gets going. You don't have to think about how to breathe! If you look at Olympic athletes when they've run 100 meters and finish a race, they prop themselves up with their arms. Everything will be going - pectoralis, latissimus, serratus, everything. The arms will be fixed and then using the arms as a fixture the other muscles that normally move the arms are used to assist the breathing. Likewise the neck muscles.

BILL: Now the other thing we've not talked about is embouchure...

JOE: Well, your embouchure is affected by your general use, isn't it. If you want to fiddle around with your embouchure what you do first is remind yourself to leave your neck alone. And then after that you can do all sorts of things.

MEL: This may not be something that crops up in the oboe world, but it crops up from time to time with the bassoon. Someone has an embouchure problem: "I can't stop leaking around the reed. The air escapes from around the sides of the embouchure." I've puzzled over this at various times and I've come to the conclusion that this is a breathing problem and not an embouchure problem. Probably largely because the reed is too closed and too soft and they're trying to put more air through than there's room for.

JOE: There's no secret. The musculature of the lips and all that is governed by the relationship between your head and neck and back. But I tend not to talk about the embouchure too much. I think technique for the tongue is more elementary because people have different sorts of embouchures, don't they? And also, with the embouchure, you can see what's happening. You can look at someone's lips and say, "Have the lower jaw a bit further out." "Use the sides a bit more..." and so on and work with it in a visual way. Whereas with the tongue you can't see. The tongue is a more subtle and interesting domain.

MEL: I would have thought with brass players too problems could originate psychologically. With a brass player the embouchure is everything. At least he hasn't got the disadvantage/advantage of a reed in between. Sometimes I envy, say, a horn player who is playing on the same instrument every night. But then I think, "Yes, but if things are not going right on the night at least I can go away and scrape a new reed and come back tomorrow thinking it will be better."

JOE: And flute players. They take it out of the case and blow down it.

MEL: On the other hand from the Alexander point of view I think, of all the instruments, the flute is probably one of the worst because of the position of the neck. They should re-invent the recorder, I think!

MEL: Just getting back to embouchure for a minute, do you think as far as the position of the lower jaw goes, there is a particular advantage in one thing or the other with it? Like say exaggerate an over-bite or...

JOE: I wouldn't have thought so, would you? The point is the jaw should be free without tension at its joints. For my money when I teach the oboe I normally end up talking about the sides of the embouchure, because I try to get people thinking of the embouchure vertically to develop the sides and develop more roundness.

MEL: Yes. We talk about breathing and embouchure and all that and I wonder just how much you can take it in isolation. Some people do teach breathing as such, don't they? You can do it with visualisation.

JOE: I'm sure that helps. The thing about the Technique is it gives you a constructive framework into which to put all these things. That's why it's so useful. But even then it's only part of the picture. It's not the whole of life, the answer to everything. As Bill was saying you learn the Technique getting in and out of a chair and then you apply it anything you like.

BILL: A lot of people breathe too quickly and too shallowly most of the day. I think that once you get the idea of slowing down the breathing and letting out more air, once you let a bit more out, a bit more will come in. The Technique will do this with the whispered "ah". Did you do a lot of whispered "ahs"? I find that in the end it's the most fascinating thing to teach.

MEL: Why is it important to smile when you do a whispered "ah"?

BILL: The idea is to widen the face [and to lighten the thoughts].

JOE: I always think of singers. All singers smile. It's impossible to sing with a scowl! It also lifts your soft palate and you need to for resonance.

BILL: Do you need it for playing the oboe as well?

JOE: Yes you do. I've started experimenting with that myself. It's not a grin with the face, it's sort of a smile up in here, behind the eyes. It makes an enormous difference.

BILL: But maybe it happens automatically when you are happy and it's all going well.

JOE: Yes, it's all to do with the same thing. I mean, the stretch up the spine is all to do with exhilaration and a joyful experience. The smile is not just smiling for the sake of it. [Surely the point about having a "technique" is that you can perform to an acceptable standard, even in adverse conditions and when you don't feel like it. Anyone can play or go up when they are feeling good.]

Double Reed News No.26, February 1994, pp.16-21

JW, 30-Dec-1999