If you take a look at most musicians in the heat of performance, you’ll probably notice elevated shoulders, either asymmetrically or simultaneously. Sometimes, it appears in an expressive moment of passion, especially with pianists, guitarists, and wind players. Other times, it’s the inescapable result of setup or a one-sided instrument. In isolation, such a movement will have minor repercussions, but when coupled with shoulder and neck overuse and abuse, can spell disaster for the levator scapulae. As the name suggests, it elevates the scapula (on each side), but it also plays a significant role in neck movement, attaching to the tranverse processes of C1-C4. The levator scapula also initiates lateral neck/head flexion, and rotation, which is why it is often a huge trouble maker for violinists and violists!
Here are some of the culprits for pain and misalignment:
1. Neck position: Ideally, the head is not turning to look at the fingers or fingerboard while playing the violin or viola, nor turning to the music stand with other instruments. A head looking forward allows more freedom in the neck, as well as a reduction in tension along the left levator scapula. Many images of violinists and violists feature an extreme rotation in the neck, often coupled with neck flexion!
2. Shoulder elevation: Many violinists and violists find that they want to (or need to) elevate their shoulders in order to grip the instrument. Over time, this can create restriction in the upper back and neck, as well as tension patterning that is difficult to relearn. The same can be true for brass and woodwind players, especially if the instrument is asymmetrical like the flute or trombone. Other instrumentalists may need to unlearn their habits of expressive shoulders and see if there’s a way to create a musical response without constantly elevating the shoulders or distorting the spine and head.
3. Carrying things: Most musicians carry their instrument on their back, either as a one sided carrying case or backpack. In this scenario, the levator scapulae remains constantly contracted to prevent the object from falling. Carrying large backpacks, heavy instruments cases, or purses on one shoulder can lead to asymmetrical issues, including impingement and compression. This is not only an issue for musicians, as many people carry heavy bags or purses on the same shoulder day in and day out.
In part 2 on Friday, we’ll look at how to address tension and asymmetry in this muscle and a targeted therapy ball sequence to help release it.
Enjoyed this article? Read Trapezius Trigger Point Tamer
I’m so happy to have found this article! It is timely as I’m teaching a combo ball rolling and YTU class to a university music department this weekend. The muscles involved in the positions you describe are perfect compliments to the forearm/hand work, breathing muscles, and nervous system work I was going to do. I imagine that rolling the levator scapula is good for anyone with a cell phone too (or shoulders for that matter). Thanks!
Yes! So many musicians overlook this. I play electric bass, and have become more aware of my left Levator Scapula and left Trapezius being over-exerted with tension from the strap.
As a musician, I found this very interesting. It’s nice to bring a consciousness to the levator scapulae in neck lateral flexion.
Also, super important to try and wear two straps to promote balance on both sides of the body.
This article is so perfectly helpful! My son played the violin for 10 years. He doesn’t play anymore but his muscles and tissues tell him differently! I am currently working on his upper neck and shoulders and I am excited to incorporate the Yoga Tune Up Balls to help his body remodel itself so he can live a life free of pain in his upper body and hips!
This article hits hard. I’m not a musician, but I’m a bag lady living in NYC. I landed here last year and learned quickly that using a backpack, even when carrying the smallest amount of items is so beneficial to break the habit of one bag carrying. I have limited one bag carrying to once a week but usually regret it by the end of the day. Thanks for the facts!
Merci Kayleigh pour cet article! Les musiciens font effectivement face à plusieurs problèmes. La répétition d’une position peut être très dommageable et hypothéquer le corps à moyen-long terme. C’est merveilleux que vous puissiez les aider à maintenir un équilibre dans leur corps et ainsi augmenter leurs performances!
I’m not a musician but I used to carry a huge purse on one arm and also had my shoulders up by my ears most the time, similar to the way a violin player may look, because I was a very stressed person. Thank you for writing this post explaining what muscle was being most effected, and for breaking down the obvious misalignments happening that for many people are unconscious. I had shoulder pain for many years, but because of posts like this and Yoga Tune Up I am slowly but surely unwinding my tissues and discovering the ways I hold my body during the day without realizing.
I have students that are professional musicians in the SF Symphony and they come to my studio to “stretch it out” yet the aches and pain never quite go away. YTU is giving me the eye, ears and the “knows” of how to deal with people’s issues in their tissues. I’m going to pass this blog post along to them. Thanks YTU!
Some of my best friends are muscians and I love experimenting holistic practices on them. Being more embodied and creating ease in their body has allowed them to optimize jam sessions. Like the article and love had adaptable YTU is to groups
Excellent way of demonstrating the body in action. It’s funny how we don’t even consider how taxing playing a musical instrument can be on the body. It’s important for people (musicians and non-musicians alike) become aware of their patterns and learn how to treat the body so they can continue doing what they love.