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:
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.
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!