February 25, 2021
by Jennifer Johnson
One injury that commonly appears in young students is pain and tension in the muscles of the shoulder and upper back region. Teachers often ask about it and though its cause is always related to a head that’s not balanced on the spine, or ribs that aren’t moving freely enough with every breath, the root cause is that the whole arm has not been mapped. For this reason, I am including in this article a brief (and slightly edited) excerpt from Teaching Body Mapping to Children which addresses this problem.
This excerpt outlines the process of remapping and includes the main steps of the mapping work:
When students have
pain, tension, and discomfort in the shoulder region, it is nearly always
because they have an inaccurate idea of what comprises a whole arm. When asked
where the top of their arm is, they will likely point to the shoulder joint
region. They will not perceive that the shoulder blade and collarbone are part
of their arm and will not sense that the socket for the ball is built right
into the side of the shoulder blade.
In listing the parts of the human arm in its entirety, we need to include a collarbone and a shoulder blade, in addition to the upper arm bone (humerus), forearm, wrist, and hand.
A human arm is not what we see on a Barbie doll- it is not a limb that sprouts off the side of the body. The collarbone and shoulder blade are the parts of the arm that are most frequently left off the list when we ask our students to name all the parts of the arm. It is the collarbone and shoulder blade unit, or the “upper arm structure,” that allows us all the large arm movements that Barbie cannot do. Barbie could not go swimming; in particular, she couldn’t do the front crawl stroke, because her makers did not equip her with a moveable collarbone and shoulder blade. Nor could Barbie play the violin, the cello or the flute for the same reason.
Students who have been taught to “keep the shoulders down” frequently have the misconception that the arm shoots off from the side of the body like Barbie’s. They will likely believe that the shoulder joint consists of a ball that fits inside of a huge socket which is completely separate from the shoulder blade. If you ask them to show you, they will likely gesture with a fist fitting into the “claw” shape of the other hand. They will believe the fantasy that there is a socket over at the side of the body, that the shoulder blade belongs on the back, and that there is absolutely no connection at all between the two!
Moving this way, especially practicing an instrument in this way, will lead to a lot of unnecessary muscular tension through the upper torso muscles and frequently cause pain in the shoulder joint itself.
You will need to show your students many accurate medical-grade images and anatomical models of this joint from different angles for them to really get it: the socket is built into the side of the shoulder blade. For this reason, the whole shoulder blade has to follow the movement of the ball (humerus) so that there is no strain between the ball and the socket. When the arm is at neutral at the side of the body, the shoulder blades will ideally be released away from the spine (not pulled together like the military “shoulders back”) They will be more towards the side of the body so that the socket is always fully connected to and available for the ball in whatever direction the ball needs to move.
Show your students what it looks like when you move with the Barbie-doll mis-mapping (there will be no visible movement of the collarbone/shoulder blade, even in the biggest arm movements.) Then contrast that with a demonstration of your shoulder blade following the humerus freely into movement. Ask them which looks more healthy to their eyes!
Barbie Goes Swimming!
Keep a Barbie doll in your studio to demonstrate how wrong it looks when you swivel her arm to make her do a front crawl swimming movement. Ask your students to explain why she looks so silly: “Why doesn’t this look right?“ “What bones do we have that move for us when we swim that Barbie doesn’t have?” (Answer: She is missing a collarbone and shoulder blade.)
Then have your students pretend that they are Barbie trying to swim. Ask them to place their right fingertips on the left collarbone and try to do the front crawl without allowing their collarbones to move. Get their feedback on how awkward that feels. Then ask them to do the front crawl stroke the way they really would in the pool and notice how much more movement they feel their collarbone making under their fingers and how much easier the movement is.
Caboose Follows Train!
Make sure your students understand that the movement of the shoulder blade we want them to find is passive, like the caboose of a train. The humerus, like the engine of a train initiates the movement and the shoulder blade follows in every direction that the engine goes in, like a caboose does. But the shoulder blade and collarbone unit never initiates the movement. We want freedom of movement without ever hunching or pulling from the muscles that actively lead movement from the shoulder blade.
Find a train model of a caboose and train car or engine to demonstrate to your students. They understand it immediately and will enjoy trying to emulate the train/caboose in their own arm movement.
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