In my last post, I discussed the common causes of issues with the primary shoulder shrugging muscle, the levator scapula. If you do suffer from upper back/shoulder/neck tension, try one of these muscle pain treatment techniques to address the tension and asymmetry that can manifest from daily stressors or your instrument of choice. Whether or not you’re a musician,  any one-sided activity, including carrying purses and bags, can create asymmetry in the levator scapula.

Observation and retraining: For upper string players, working with an Alexander Technique teacher, Feldenkrais teacher, body mapping instructor, or other somatic practitioner can help one find more freedom with one’s instrument, but also tweak the setup to better suit the individual’s body.  There are a myriad of ergonomic products being developed to improve instrumental setup and alignment for all musicians.

Roll it out!:   My favorite rolling sequence involves self massage of the levator scapula, one at a time, coupled with general upper back rolling, trapezius, and neck treatment. Here’s a great video of Jill Miller and Dr. Kelly Starret demonstrating the Neck Gnar, which is a guaranteed way to handle upper neck/shoulder tension.

Neck release: Make sure that you’re bringing your neck through a wide range of motions, especially if you play an asymmetrical instrument.  Neck circles can help, as well as neck flexion coupled with rotation at different angles.  Here, Jill demonstrates a sequence that is excellent for all musicians and people who carry bags and purses over one shoulder!

Shoulder shrugs: Bringing the shoulders up towards the ears, squeezing them together, and then drawing the shoulders back and down can be a great way to restore your natural scapular movement. Hold for 10-20 seconds before slowly releasing.

Self-examination: What are your habits?  Do you carry a one sided purse or case?  How can you change your setup?  Can you carry less music or bring a light bag with you?  Do you hold your phone with your shoulder?  Do you always sleep on one side of the body or flex the head and neck while sleeping?  If you’re a musician, consider videotaping yourself playing or practicing to get an idea of what your tendencies are.


Remember that when changing movement habits, your body may need time to adapt to a new setup, case strap situation, or chin rest!  Gradual change trumps extreme changes every time!


Enjoyed this article? Read Uplifting News for Depressed Shoulders Part 3: Feel the Beat of Your Shoulder Rhythm

Kayleigh Miller

Kayleigh Miller, a recent addition to the San Antonio Symphony viola section, enjoys a varied career of performance, teaching, and yoga instruction. As a yoga instructor, she initially trained with David Vendetti and Todd Skoglund in Boston, and has completed additional trainings in working with children and modifying a yoga practice for cancer. As a professional musician, she has a particular interest in musicians' issues, which include postural disorders, overuse syndrome, tendonitis, and pain. She believes that a musical career can be pain-free, and that the methodology of Yoga Tune Up® can help musicians to play without pain. Kayleigh additionally brings her 15 years of experience as a musical instructor to her classes, and believes that yoga can be fun, challenging, and reflective. She is a new member of the San Antonio Symphony and is excited to start teaching YTU® in Texas.

Leave a Reply

25 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
24 Comment authors
Sigrún Haraldsdóttir

Thank you for these great tips of rolling, streatching and mobilizing the neck. It has been hard to find such a good combination to keep this area healthy. Started this seaquence two weeks ago and oh boy do I feel better. This is something that I will add to my classes for sure. Thank you again!!


I too am guilty of many of the habits you mentioned at the end of your post. Working hard to change them. Thank you for the rolling techniques. I feel so much better.:)


Thank you for this-a nice reminder to check in with daily habits as well as great ideas to find relief for the levator. This is something I’m constantly challenged with, and any additional info such as this is so helpful!


For anyone who works at a desk all day, this is critical information. I’ve started to incorporate these techniques as a part of my daily “self care”, and it totally helps things from getting out of hand. The neck gnar is one of my most favorite rollouts.

M. Summer Zaffino

My shoulders and neck feel absolutely fantastic after rolling out the levator scapulae tendon, suprasinatus, pralines, subclavius up against the wall. I feel like my shoulder both dropped an inch. I over use my right arm and hold everything on my right shoulder. I am constantly shrugging while sitting at a computer for work all day. I will share this with everyone I know!


Whoah, I definitely felt that burn with the neck stretching excercises. This gives me hope. I used to spend much of my time drawing, hanging my heavy head over my chest. Arthritis also runs in my family, and the addition of poor posture created dizziness, nausea and of course pain and subluxation. I avoided my “creative” posture because of my neck… but now I feel like I can experiment with what I have been learning to get back to hobbies that were a part of my life. Thank you.


J’ai particulièrement aimé l’apport des contractions – décontractions dans ces mouvements du cou. Ramène beaucoup d’amplitude dans le mouvement.Merci


“Gradual change trumps extreme changes every time!”-love this quote and it will be a steal/share thanks to you! Also, thanks for posting the videos; very helpful techniques.


I had discovered the neck gnar gnar in The Roll Model book and have been doing it regularly for about a month. Sometimes I find myself craving the technique! And it’s so great to know I have a self care method to help alleviate the tension that builds up in the neck. I have been rolling the upper shoulders / mid traps for a while and experienced some relief but when I found this release for the upper traps and elevator scapula it was pretty magical! Thanks for the informative post

Wendy Rancourt

I am a regular practitioner of the Neck Gnar techniques. I have a long history of neck problems, with an underlying congenital problem exacerbated by 1) car accident; 2)multiple falls while dancing; 3)multiple falls while downhill skiing; 3)SIngle-sided bag carrying (which I now work to minimize/eliminate as much as possible; 4) A hard blow to the jaw while playing basketball; 5)A lifetime of emotional baggage stored in the neck, particularly in the scalenes.

Heidi Schaul-Yoder

Thanks Kayleigh, this is a very helpful post! As someone with a very tight left side levator scapula, I’m definitely going to be incorporating these exercises. I especially loved the isometric stretches at various angles in the second video.

Christine Phillips

Thanks for the great video! Levator is a big pain for me as a cyclist and appreciate the deep work into it along with supraspinatus and the upper traps.

Jaime G

I found this post so helpful to me- thank you! When I was younger I was in a car accident and got whiplash. After being taken to the emergency room, I was cleared for a concussion and released, and didn’t think anything of it. Until– one day, a couple years later, I woke up and could not move my neck and shoulders. I went to a chiropractor who did X-rays and asked me if I had ever been in a car accident! I apparently had severe whiplash and it caused some damage. I have to be very careful with movement… Read more »


Thank you! This post hits home for me. Not only do I feel the stiffness in my shoulders, but whenever I go for a massage, which is rarely, I am reminded how stiff and hard my shoulder muscles are. I sit at a desk all day long and am hunched forward at a keyboard and have also carried a purse on my right shoulder. Since starting my yoga TT classes I have been more focused during the day to sit up at my desk and alternate between shoulders to carry my purse. This has helped in some capacity but I… Read more »

joanna yates

Great information! I’m off to practice the neck tissue release on a door frame right now!


Thanks so much for this great sequence! Since I’ve had a neck injury from a car accident neck rolls are no longer in my practice (even half rolls) but the therapy balls have been an excellent way to get the muscles around to relax, create space in and around the vertebrae at my neck where the nerve comes out which had been causing pain due to impairment. Instead of neck rolls I like to stretch one arm out straight towards the floor with flexed finger and depress the shoulder while gently encouraging the neck in an opposite horizontal line from… Read more »

Bonnie Chiong

LOVE the Neck Gnar! I’ve had asymmetry in the levator scapulae and upper trapezius due to compensation from recurrent shoulder dislocations, so much so that my ‘good’ side started to become the more problematic one! Rolling it out via neck gnar style has helped me relieve the tension and become more aware of my daily movements that encourage asymmetry and hypertonicity. Thank you for the video 🙂

Pia G

My right side levator scapula has bothered me from years of using a computer mouse. Everyone always said it was the trapezius, but i now know that the levator scapula is part of the issue. In addition to doing the ballwork, I’ve also been using a cervical pillow to try to help both sides equally and after tension accumulates over several days to offset my (probably) poor pillow habits.Thanks for posting the video of Jill showing ballwork against the wall. I am going to incorporate that in my routine as well as well as the sitting/head side to side stretches… Read more »

Alisa Fairbanks

My left side levator scapula plagued me for a long time until recently. No matter how much self-care I did (even help from others — massage, etc.), I couldn’t get rid of the discomfort and constant ache and strained feeling. After digging further and looking at my patterns, I realized it was my sleeping position that was making it so angry. I was sleeping on my back with my head slightly turned/kinked to the side. I decided one night to try NOT to do that (it was hard) and the next day it felt significantly better. I’ve continued to stay… Read more »

Sonya Perry

These short videos really helped when I woke up with extreme neck and shoulder tension. I felt an immediate Stretch and release.


Wanna set yourself for a great night sleep and start purring like a kitten asleep (aw!)? Try combining those fantastic exercises with the one lying supine with the 2 balls at the base of the skull. BODY BLISS!! Works for me to relax and find sleep faster. Hope it works for you too 🙂


Hi!! Carrying heavy purses and bags is a daily habit for me and I know that it affected my musculature overtime. I often experience levator scapula tension as you can imagine and the ball work helps a great deal in restoring balance in neck and shoulders although the problem keeps coming back. I should get myself a small suitcase on wheels to alleviate the tension but here again, overusing the shoulder in extension(to pull the suitcase) and slight rotation of the spine would eventually result in another problem! Therefore, I guess one option would be to simply alternate the ways… Read more »


You rock my face off with this!

Jean Eng

I am guilty of so many of those habits, including the one-sided purse, and sleeping with my body and neck flexed. I do find that I get a lot of relief with the rolling techniques, especially the neck gnar. But I really love these neck stretches you included because as simple as they are, they take you through more ranges of motion. Great tips! Thank you.


I used to carry my purse on one side all the time and that shoulder was always so sore! I have since switched to a clutch for that reason and have noticed improvements. I love rolling out this area now. I just tried it with the double shoulder extension and I could feel it much more than with just the shoulder internally rotated.