The Vault

Musicians Under Stress

The Relevance of The Alexander Technique 

Deborah De Graaff


I have been asked to discuss the stresses on musicians and the relevance of the Alexander Technique.

Perhaps for the sake of any person here who may not be a musician, let me outline what is involved from a wind player's point of view in making music. This is of course also relevant to voice, piano and string instruments, but the areas of muscle use vary.


The first challenge and area of discipline on any instrument is tone. This has a great number of variables:

1) Variables from the model and brand of clarinet: the size and brand of reed; how it is scraped; will it be hard to blow or easy; the ligature and we can go on...;

2) Variables in the Skeleton: jaw size—large cavernous and resonant or small pointy and restricted; rib cage—large or tiny; lungs and diaphragm—are also variable—and therefore potential capacity for air; hand shape and finger size;

3) Variations in muscle use: this is responsible for more tonal variation than all the other paraphernalia combined!

[A volunteer who has never played the clarinet comes up on stage]

Now let us presume that we all play on the same set up exactly. Then we are only left to consider the basic skeletal differences and muscle use mentioned previously. So let us begin to play a note:

The lips should provide a seal between the inside pipe and the outside pipe (or Clarinet).

So place the teeth on the mouthpiece and form a seal—so—like a baby sucking on a bottle.

Now to breathe in—allow your body to fill with air.

Now expel the air.

A sound is created.

We can see how strange all this is for a beginner and how tense one could become concentrating on doing so many things. So let us free the neck and see what happens.

Now we need to be able to read the notes, understand where they are on the clarinet, understand the rhythm that we must reproduce, blow with the correct pressure for each note and use the tongue muscle to articulate and give the music character—Oh, and of course the wind must be varying all the time to make the sounds louder and softer and to cope with higher and lower notes.

[The volunteer returns to their seat]

Years of training go into producing one simple phrase with beauty.

My point is not to put you all off ever taking up the clarinet, nor is it to impress you with any degree of skill. I wish to illustrate all the countless little processes that need to happen consciously and otherwise as one plays this instrument.

Needless to say this familiarising and juggling of many various skills is what the human mind and body is very good at learning on any manner of skills—driving a car, skiing, holding babies while carrying on a conversation on the phone and cooking dinner, juggling. These are activities where many areas of training are developed and used all at once—becoming almost automatic processes.

These learned processes can be very hard to unlearn when someone like Vivien Mackie says to me at my very first Alexander workshop about ten years ago—don't do that—just free your neck lengthen and widen.

Like a juggler I managed to drop all the balls.

I had some beaut habits and they did nothing for my hypermobile body.

And what would some cellist know about all my 'breathing training' anyway... Years of 'diaphragmatic support', abdominal tension, expression and musicality—my shoulders get tense just thinking about it all now.

My mother was the opera singer, not her.

I went home and played a while. The next day I completely reversed fourteen years of study on the clarinet and I really began to play. I went to four workshops with Marjorie Barstow—and learnt to drink tea, knit scarves, chop carrots, drive the car and play the clarinet. I had to change everything that I did.

Rather than having to undo all this ineffective learning in students I attempt to include an Alexander approach in all my lessons. The result for me is a greatly reduced time scale to get top results with my students—that is the selfish part; and for them hopefully steering well clear of the trauma that I went through.

I have spent the last ten years studying the Alexander Technique, which initially for me was a way of overcoming overuse injury and has become the lifelong study of my instrument. As a performer the study has become an art in delicacy. That incredible sensitivity to my own body that Alexander Technique has helped me attain has given new freedoms and possibilities to my expression as a musician and enjoyment as a performer.

Greater tone variety gives me more expression.

[Ms de Graaff takes up clarinet to practically demonstrate her points.]

Let me illustrate this point:

Tense = tense muscles produce a bright and chirpy tone, sometimes necessary [demonstration].

Free = free muscles produce a dark and warm tone [demonstration].

Now let me play a phrase that can have both elements [demonstration] Physically what a joy it is to play—no longer a challenge.

I hope that what I have had to say is of some interest and that there may be some new information for you in what goes on when a musician practises and then performs. These two operations are quite different. When we practise, care and thought are delicate and internalised. When we perform, all that preparation must go onto automatic and we play for you the audience and yet we remain in control.

Tension is always a variable when adrenalin is pumping around your body, so how could this wonderful method not be my main stay when I have to play to thousands in a large hall.

Recently I produced my first CD—easy to say. I stood for three hours at a time playing to a very close microphone that sat snarling at me from 12 inches away waiting for that wrong note in a recording session costing thousands of dollars that began 2 hours late and had to be completed in 5 more minutes.

What can I say but: "Hey—free the neck and smile."


Deborah de Graaff was the national winner of the ABC's Instrumental and Vocal Competition, performing the Francaix Clarinet Concerto with the Sydney Symphony and West Australian Symphony Orchestras in 1983.

Studying initially with Donald Westlake, and then with John St. George, Deborah graduated with High Distinction at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She played with the Australian Youth Orchestra under Ronald Zollman and participated in international congresses overseas, representing Australia in competitions in Munich and London. In 1987 Deborah was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Scholarship.

Deborah has given performances of both Weber concerti, the Weber concertino, Cruselle concerto, the Finzi concerto, Francaix concerto and has recorded the Francaix Clarinet Quintet for the ABC, for whom she often broadcasts.

Deborah performed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto at the inaugural Port Fairy Spring Music Festival in 1990 and subsequently has performed a wide range of traditional and contemporary works, some of which were composed for her.

The commissioned work "Rose of the Bay" by Derek Strahan, has been released on CD, and features Deborah with her mother, contralto Lauris Elms, and David Miller at the piano.

Her solo recital work has involved performances with Lauris Elms, Rita Hunter, John Pringle, Amanda Thane, Nigel Butterly, Len Vorster, Michael Brimer, David Miller, the Hazelwood Quartet, Carl Pini and Paul Dyer.

Deborah is a Artistic Director and founding member of the Ku-ring-gai Virtuosi.

Deborah has studied the Alexander Technique since the end of 1984. Privately with Rosemary Chance, Judy Champ, William Brenner, Penelope Carr and she has participated in all but one of the Marjorie Barstow summer workshops. She now continues her studies on the clarinet and incorporates much information into her clarinet playing and teaching.

Her first solo album "A Clarinet Collection" with pianist Len Vorster on the Walsingham Label is now available from leading stores or "Pitchfork and Reed" at 92 Ryde Rd, Pymble 2073 (02- 9498.1915)

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