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Shoulder Blades and Ribs . . . Friends or Enemies?

Flutists are typically really interested in anything that can help improve breathing mechanics. We want more air, faster breaths, more control over the air as we exhale, and we want to be able to sustain long phrases with beautiful, resonant tone. Making sure that your shoulder blades and ribs are working together optimally can help with all of these things.

Let’s start with the ribs.
We have 24 ribs, 12 on the right and 12 on the left, which all attach to the spine in the back. Ribs 1 to 7 are attached directly to the sternum through costal cartilage. Ribs 8 to 10 attach to the cartilage of rib 7, which then connect to the sternum. Ribs 11 and 12, the floating ribs, do not attach in the front. Most of us are aware of the movement of our lower ribs, but we often aren’t familiar with the upper most ribs. Rib 1 is way up high, behind your collarbone. The first rib that you can feel easily at its connection to the sternum is rib 2. 

Rib Movement
When we inhale, the ribs move up and out, like the handles of a bucket. When we exhale, the ribs move back down and in. Place your thumbs in your arm pits and let your fingers rest of the top of your sternum. As you breathe in, notice that your fingers are moving slightly apart. This is because your ribs are moving underneath, up and out, during inhalation. As you exhale, they come down and in, while your finger move slightly closer together. Keep in mind that the actual ribs themselves are not changing shape—they can’t because they are made of bone. The position of the ribs can change, though.

Ribs as part of the breathing system
Breathing is a system made up of many moving parts. Anything that prevents any part from moving in the right direction at the right time with the appropriate amount of effort impacts your breathing in a negative way. In addition to ribs, other structures that are part of the breathing system are the diaphragm, the lungs, the abdominal muscles, and the pelvic floor.

So why do we care about the shoulder blades?
Let’s take a detour into arm function and consider “What pieces make up a whole arm?”. The answer is a hand, wrist, two bones in the forearm, upper arm, collarbone and shoulder blade. Many people do not have their collarbones and shoulder blades mapped as part of their arm structure! The only bone-to-bone attachment between your arm structure and your axial skeleton is at the sternoclavicular (SC) joint, where your collarbone meets your sternum. You have two SC joints, one on the right and one on the left. The collarbone and the shoulder blade move together because there is a joint there, the acromioclavicular (AC) joint. The shoulder blade’s job is to get the hand into position to do its hand stuff. There are 17 different muscles that attach to each shoulder blade, allowing it to move in all sorts of directions, including elevation, depression, protraction, retractions, tilting, upwards rotation, downwards rotation. In contrast, the collarbone only has 6 muscular attachments. What your shoulder blade is doing (or not doing) is absolutely influencing what’s happening with your hands. 

But what’s happening between shoulder blade and ribs? 
The inside surface of the shoulder blade is curved, so that it can glide over the ribs underneath. Ribs are curved, so shoulder blade needs to be curved. This makes sense. My friend and colleague Amy Likar says “Your shoulder blades should be surfing your rib movements.” 

How we mess this relationship up – 2 ways!
#1 The shoulder blades keep the ribs from moving appropriately.

Press your arms down towards the floor and keep them there…. Take a breath and you will find that this breathing strategy is not good (NG is what we call it in my class). The reason is because the shoulder blades and collarbones are restricting the movement of the upper ribs in particular. Can you still breathe? Yes, you’re not going to die, but you also don’t have the air you need as a flutist. The shoulder blades ride over top of the ribs, they are not supposed to be holding ribs down.

#2 The position of the ribs keep the shoulder blades from moving appropriately.

Many people find themselves in position that my class has started calling “kidney bean.” The head is forward, the torso is rounded forwards and the pelvis is both tucked under and shoved forward in space. The thoracic spine, which lives in the torso, is also in a curved position which we call flexion. This pattern results in shoulder blades being chronically pulled forward and around the sides of the body. If you take a breath in this position, you’ll notice that your breathing is also compromised. It’s very likely that you’re working much too hard with your arm structure. Sometimes people notice this and try to just pull their shoulder blades back, but it doesn’t work long term. The reason is that the shoulder blades being pulled forward is not the problem, it’s the symptom! The underlying cause is due to the position of the thoracic spine, which is part of the whole spine. The solution is getting the pelvis back to where it should be and allowing the thoracic spine to come out of the constant flexion. The result is shoulder blades that are starting from a more neutral place.

As always, music making is a whole body activity. Honoring the relationship between shoulder blade and ribs will help improve breathing and arm use. Too often, we’ve got shoulder blades and ribs that are fighting each other. It doesn’t need to be this way. Again, as always, the choice is yours.

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