Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: chin rest

The Levator Scapulae: Musicians' Frenemies

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, or other times it’s the 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 from other movement choices, can spell disaster for two muscles known as 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 at the transverse processes of C1-C4. 

The levator scapulae also co-create lateral neck/head flexion (along with many other small neck muscles), 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:

Many violinists and violists turn the head out to look at the fingers, but over time, this can create stress and strain on the Left levator scapula!

Many violinists and violists turn the head out to look at the fingers, but over time, this can create stress and strain on the Left levator scapula!

1. Neck Position: Ideally, the head is not constantly turned to look at the fingers or fingerboard while playing the violin or viola, nor jutting forward towards the music stand.  A head looking forward allows more freedom in the neck long term, 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!  For more on chin rest alignment, read here.

Although this image shows an elevated scapula to hold a phone, many violinists and violists elevate their shoulders to support their instrument!  Other times, the right shoulder elevates in an attempt to enhance sound or emotion.

Although this image shows an elevated scapula to hold a phone, many violinists and violists elevate their shoulders to support their instrument!  Other times, the right shoulder elevates in an attempt to enhance sound or emotion.

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.  It's always good to try different shoulder rest/chin rest setups to find one with the most ease and spaciousness in the neck and shoulders!  The same can be true for brass and woodwind players as well-especially if the instrument is asymmetrical like the flute or trombone.  Other instrumentalists may need to relearn 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 have the carry their instrument on their back, either as a one sided carrying case or backpack.  In order to prevent the object from falling, the levator scapulae have to lift the scapula up!  Carrying large backpacks, heavy instruments cases, or purses on one shoulder can lead to asymmetrical issues, including impingement and compression.  


In part 2, we’ll look at how to address this muscle in movement and setup!

The great thing about stock photos is that they're ridiculous.  Who walks down the street in heels carrying their case on one shoulder and violin in the other arm?  No one.  But her left levator scap is working to keep that case up there!

The great thing about stock photos is that they're ridiculous.  Who walks down the street in heels carrying their case on one shoulder and violin in the other arm?  No one.  But her left levator scap is working to keep that case up there!

Violinists and Violists: Your Chin Rest is Actually a Jaw Rest

I know, it's called a chin rest.  And the Kun thing is more of a collarbone rest, which is another misnomer for another day.  Today in my lesson with Alexander Technique teacher/bodymapper/violinist Jennifer Johnson, we talked about how the chin rest which should really be called a jaw rest.  When we hear chin rest, whether as an adult or child, we invariably think our chin goes on the rest, and we often turn our head extremely out to the left and press down with our head to "keep the violin up."

Using the chin rest as a point of contact with the "Chin" rather than allowing the back of the jawbone to make contact.

Using the chin rest as a point of contact with the "Chin" rather than allowing the back of the jawbone to make contact.

     When you look at Benedict Bones in the first image, you'll see that the portion of the body contacting the chin rest is the chin when the head turns out extremely to the left.  Few people have the violin or viola set up so that the head is in neutral and not turned out to the left, but notice how much you turn the head to the left.  Some students were told to look at their hands when first learning the instrument, but you can look without turning your head.  Others combine the head turn to the left with elevation of the scapula, which can lead to long term tension and discomfort.  Look at your setup or your student's: How much muscular work is happening in the back of the neck and the left side?  What's happening in your jaw?  Do you clench the jaw to hold the instrument up? Do you roll the head to the left or push the head down?

Image from Vital Gaitway, courtesy of Christine Altman

Image from Vital Gaitway, courtesy of Christine Altman

       I tend to agree with the image above, which shows the head in a pretty neutral position, bobbling from the AO joint rather than extremely turning the head to the left.  See the difference when the head is more neutral (image below)?  The jaw bone is in contact with the rest, rather than the chin.  Now you might say, "Oh, I'm going to drop it!"  First of all, the instrument is contacting many parts of your body besides your mandible.  Your hand is holding it, it's resting on the collarbone, it might contact your left neck, and your bow friction is helping matters too!  (Thanks to Jennifer Johnson's awesome book for listing those 5 places of contact).  We definitely don't want to push down or down and forward on the chin rest to hold the violin, so play around with positioning this week and start to notice where you contact your chin rest!

Notice that the back/side of your jawbone actually contacts the chin rest.  The chin is a layperson term which can also lead people to crazy head positions.

Notice that the back/side of your jawbone actually contacts the chin rest.  The chin is a layperson term which can also lead people to crazy head positions.

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