I’m still thinking about the reactions I got last week at a networking event when I asked for folks who wanted to join in on an impromptu musical jam (There was a stage with sundry instruments ready to go–how could I resist?). Simple questions (“Do you play any musical instrument? Sing a little? Want to join us?”) were met with such revulsion, such instant “No Way”s and “You don’t want me to”s that you would have thought I was inviting them to commit a heinous crime.

Despite our amazing expansion of personal freedom and choices, I often wonder if the permission we give ourselves to experiment creatively has changed much in the past 100 years. How much permission do you give yourself to experiment with something you may not be that good at?  Let me dip into the archive for a little 20th century inspiration still relevant today.

“A childlike man is not a man whose development has been arrested; on the contrary, he is a man who has given himself a chance of continuing to develop long after most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle age habit and convention.” ~Aldous Huxley

“This creative power should be kept alive in all people for all their lives. Why? Because it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.
      How can we keep it alive? By using it, by letting it out, by giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or two play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and burst into tears at the sunset.
      They do not know that this is a fearful sin against themselves. They would be much greater now, more full of light and power, if they had really written the sonnets and played the fiddle and wept over sunsets, as they wanted to.” ~Brenda Ueland, “If You Want to Write” (1938)

More from Adam? Check out his Innovation on my Mind blog.

Activating the Lower Traps

August 10, 2011

Muscles connecting the upper extremity to the ...

Image via Wikipedia

What are the lower traps and what do I mean by activate? This is by no means an exhaustive, comprehensive post, but this should give you a general idea.

There are three parts of the trapezius muscle: the upper fibers (used to bring your shoulders to your ears), the middle fibers that bring your shoulders up and also inward, just like the rhomboids, and the lower fibers (that pull your shoulder blades downward.) If you will, try a little exercise with me for a minute: pull your shoulder blades down. Kind of an odd feeling, isn’t it? When was the last time you remembered performing this kind of action? Probably not very recently, as we don’t spend a good deal of time with our shoulder blades back and down….unless we’re doing a good stretch because we’ve been sitting at the computer for too long.

Now, lift your shoulders towards your ears – fairly easy? This action is performed readily when the “fight or flight” syndrome is engaged; pulling our shoulders towards our ears is a protective mechanism. What else feels tight when you hold your shoulders there? Well, if you hold your shoulders there long enough, you might feel several things

  • tightness at the base of your neck
  • a pain or pulling in your rhomboids or that vague area somewhere “in between my shoulder blades”
  • your chest feels sore from contracting
  • you begin to feel a pulling soreness along your rib cage

and several other things. What happens all too often is that the “shrug mechanism” is seen in a lot of people’s posture today. Our more sedentary lifestyles coupled with movements that encourage a protruding head and neck and arms forward posture have led to an epidemic of sorts of “bad posture”. I say “bad” because really, what we get is altered posture due to muscle compensation.

This is one of the reasons I do not advocate anyone (except bodybuilders who are training for size and symmetry) include shrugging movements in their weight training regimens. Most of us, who train for function and stability (and even those of us training for size) need to be focused on the middle and lower fibers of the trapezius.

When the upper traps are chronically activated, this can lead to dysfunction in the form of the lower (and possibly middle) traps becoming weakened to the point of “sleeping”. This term is used not in a literal sense but to describe the problem of muscle imbalances caused by the upper traps being chronically activated, which causes the lower trapezius muscle fibers to not fire properly.

What to do: Activation Exercises

First off, as stated in several previous posts, you must first stretch what is tight. In this case, that can be several muscles: the pectoralis major and minor muscles (chest), levator scapulae and scalenes (muscles in the neck) are the ones I would stretch first. These can be accomplished with a doorway stretch (at 90 degrees to hit the pec major and with the arm extended to hit serratus and pec minor) and the specific stretches for levators as seen in the previous post: The Flutist’s Pain Points

Once the tight muscles have been stretched (also called autogenic inhibition – or static stretching) one can move into activation exercises: which could also be called active-isolated stretching. This is done by a process called Reciprocal Inhibition which uses agonistic and synergistic muscles to dynamically move the joint into a range of motion. These stretches are done for 1-2 sets of each exercise and hold each stretch for 1-2 seconds for 5-10 repetitions.

Activation Exercises

The lower and middle traps are vital for shoulder stability, so doing exercises to ensure they are doing their job is vitally important. The first rule of strength training form is to retract and depress the shoulder blades. This not only ensures that the middle and lower traps (as well as the rhomboids) are active and functional, it inhibits upper trap, levator and other compensatory muscles from taking over. Use this motion any time during the day as an exercise on its own, and then use it during strength training sessions to make sure your shoulder girdle is stable and lower traps are activated.

Some excellent exercises for activating the lower traps (and rhomboids – as by now you can see they can be synergists) are wall slides, soup can pours, Face Pulls, Prone lower trap raises and LYTP’s. The primary movements, as discussed before, are Adduction (retraction) and depression. This website lists some excellent exercises, shows their movements and gives more anatomical descriptions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a few suggestions on some exercises you can do to “wake up” those lower traps. For a warm-up, I might do something like this:

  • Active Pectoral Chest Stretch (major and minor – 90 degrees and extended) 1-2 setsx5-10 reps each. Hold 1-2 sec.
  • Wall slides 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Arm circles 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • Scapular pushups or dip shrugs 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps
  • LYTP’s on stability ball or bench
  • Prone lower trap raises on incline bench

By now, your lower traps should feel a pleasant “burning” or tingling sensation, letting you know that the muscles are beginning to fire. After this, I would probably follow up with a few rotator cuff exercises to help with shoulder stability. In fact, Diesel Crew has put out an excellent circuit for “shoulder rehab” that you might want to check out. You can sub it in for the circuit above. (Always check with your doctor or a qualified medical professional if you have any shoulder injuries, issues or concerns before attempting any of these exercises.)

(By the way, I LOVE the pull up retractions!) And flutists (and other musicians) you should pay special attention to this video! These are great exercises to perform before practicing, or any other time of day you want to counter balance the effects of playing your instrument.

From there, with whatever workout I was doing, I would make sure to include exercises that engage the lower traps and throw in one or two exercises to help strengthen the shoulder girdles, my favorite exercise being face pulls. These are very easy to do incorrectly if the shoulder blades are not depressed and retracted.

The list goes on…

There are lots and lots of exercises to increase shoulder stability and when you make a regular habit of incorporating these activation exercises into your programs, you will not only see increased stability, but an increased range of motion, a possible decrease in pain and a possible improvement in upper thoracic posture.

Make sure to include lower trap activation exercises in every warm-up if not each workout! Please let me know how these exercises worked for you and your own experiences!

I remember years ago when I completed certification in music education at the UW-Madison that I was asked to write a musical autobiography.

Have you ever done this?  It’s exhilarating and a reminder of what may have sparked us to begin to love music, and it can also tell us a lot about our musical identities.

Here is a little autobiography I wrote a few minutes ago:

I am Baby from Dirty Dancing, hanging out in the now mostly closed-down resort hotels of the Catskills of New York State, watching senior citizens dancing on the stage to the sounds of my dad’s lounge band where he played piano, mostly latin jazz but also the standards too. I was way cool because I could go “backstage” even, and I have photos of me and Joan Rivers and Dom Deluise and autographs of the likes of Taxi star and wrestling dude Andy Kaufman and also Nipsy Russell.   Nightly I would soak up the jokes of these comedians, and also take in the crooning of jazz singers and Broadway singers like Benedette Peters.   This all had a huge impact on me, along with playing blues at home with my dad and improvising on various tunes with him.  He wrote a tune for our jazz high school ensemble, with me on alto saxophone and doubling on flute. I was a samba star, improvising above the band, feeling like a queen. Since then, I went down the path of classical training, and finished the Masters in Flute Performance and have also dabbled doing some post-graduate studies with some really fine mentors.  However my heart is always somewhere else, not 100% in the classical realm.  It’s not that I don’t feel I fit in, it’s just it’s not my musical voice, at least not the majority of the classical rep for flute. I’ve been the happiest when I am playing tangos or irish music, duetting with an accordionist, or playing flute and electronics stuff.  I just signed up to be a part of a Gamelan ensemble, and I can’t wait to get started. 

What fun! After writing it I realize again how much those Dirty Dancing days molded me into who I am, and how it affects the rep I choose today.  I’m happier as a flutist when I’m doing stuff that’s either folky or international, or stepping outside the typical boundaries of classical music, and it is thanks to my jazzy dad and his job at Kutsher’s Country Club and all the sounds there that were buzzing in my ears.

What does your musical autobiography tell you about you?

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I’m keeping up the fight to overcome what Stephen Pressfield calls “resistance.” How do I keep moving forward? How can you move forward on the urge to create, build something, change something?

*Don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to the those rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind. THOSE ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS. THEY ARE CHATTER. THEY ARE RESISTANCE.

*Chatter is your mother and father’s well-intentioned expressions of caution, seeking to shield you from hurting yourself. Chatter is your teachers’ equally well-meaning attempts at socialization, training you to follow the rules. Chatter is your friends’ regular-Joe buddy-talk, trying to make you like them and follow the rules of the pack.

Okay, I’m getting better about the chatter. I’m letting it come and go like wind. Sometimes my hair gets in my eyes. Sometimes I have to sit down. But I’m moving forward. Now what?

*COVER THE CANVAS. ONE RULE FOR FIRST FULL WORKING DRAFTS: GET THEM DONE ASAP. Don’t worry about quality. Act, don’t reflect. Momentum is everything. Get to THE END as if the devil himself were breathing down your neck and poking you in the butt with his pitchfork.


*from Pressfield’s new book, Do the Work.

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