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Right-Hand Thumb Problems Afflicting the Oboist

By Sherry Sylar



I was inspired to write this after reading some of the comments on the FB group "Oboes".  This is not an attempt to diagnose other folks' ailments, but a diary of my own hand problems and some of the solutions I came up that may help you.


Playing the oboe can be hazardous to your body!  I think playing any instrument is fraught with the possibility of injury due to repetition, stress, incorrect posture...the list is endless.  Methods of body alignment such as Alexander Technique and the Feldenkreis Method are certainly more permanent life choices to help you cope, but when you have pain now and you have to perform, what are you to do?


I began having hand problems several years ago. The symptoms included pain in the base of my right thumb, making it difficult to button a shirt, uncomfortable to hold a large glass and impossible to hold a half gallon of milk.  I was in pain after holding an oboe for several hours and reed-making (I am right-handed) was uncomfortable. I sought help at the Starr Hand Clinic, Lincoln Roosevelt Hospital, New York, NY.


The first course of action was to take an anti-inflammatory, ice the joint and try to minimize playing.  I also saw an occupational therapist for stretches and strengthening exercises.  The diagnosis was that I had arthritis in the basel thumb joint and that the ligament attaching my thumb was losing it's elasticity.


During the next three years my condition worsened until I felt that the condition was threatening my career.  I made the decision to undergo an arthroplasty procedure. This basically rebuilt the base of my thumb joint.  I was in a cast for several weeks.  I began slowly to rebuild muscle and was performing again in exactly 3 months. I have had no further problems.


The long and short of it is this: holding the oboe puts your thumb in a hyper- extended, stressed position due to the diameter of the instrument.  Women are especially prone to repetitive stress injuries as the connective tissue in our bodies is more elastic.  My feeling is that anyone who has chronic pain in the base of their thumb should investigate the following devices, finding the best fit for your body and needs. The sooner you address the problem, the sooner you can stop the damage.


  1. Install the "Maestro" thumb rest, made by Ton Kooiman.  It basically transfers the weight of the instrument to the 'crotch' of your thumb. This devise is so elegant in it's design! (adjustable in all planes)  It requires 3 small holes to be drilled in the back of the oboe. (Please have this done by a good repairman. Read the instructions on how to set it up for you!) This only makes a minor cosmetic flaw on your oboe but does not affect tone.  Available through Forrest's.   Downside: for a thumb rest, it is quite expensive.  But, it saved my career!





















  1. Have a Physical Therapist craft a splint for your hand.  Held on with Velcro, you will never know it’s on. See picture insert.  This cost me about $150.  It lasts a very long time. 

  2. Buy a WRIST from Chicago Double Reed company.  It is another very elegantly designed ‘gizmo’ that attaches to a music stand and allows you to rest the bell of your instrument on it while you practice and even while you perform.  It is TERRIFIC for English horn. I use it for oboe when I practice for extended periods. Downside: it is quite expensive.
















  1. Fashion a 'pogo' stick out of a spring-loaded drapery rod.  (The spring will give the device flex when you are playing.) Use Velcro on the top of the rod and the back of your instrument to 'dock'. Makes practicing low impact.  See picture insert. Upside: It is Homemade!














  1. Use a "Fhred" device. Downside: no flex

  2. Have Eb, Db, and C# keys bent to fit your hand better.

  3. If you play EH, have the bocal sloped so that it is not so straight.  (Please go to someone who knows what they are doing!  You can ruin a bocal very easily by doing this on your own!)

  4. If you play EH, glue a dime to the F# key.

  5. DON'T give up.  I will be the poster child for hand problems!  We should 'come out of the closet' as this is NOT an unusual issue.


Good luck to anyone who is reading this and is in pain.  I hope my ideas have helped you.








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