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  • Laura Deming, cello

Interview With Deborah Darr, Physical Therapist

If you look into the orchestra pit and take note of the strange contortions into which we twist to play our various instruments, you will not find it surprising that many professional musicians suffer from chronic pain. Flutists pull back the left wrist; trombonists, the right arm; bassoonists’ left hands hold up the weight of the instrument; and just holding a trumpet up to your face for three to six hours a day and blowing causes neck, shoulder and lower back issues!

Laura Deming recently spoke with Deborah Darr, a physical therapist who worked with Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, treating injuries and chronic pain of performing artists. She came to the practice with personal experience and much empathy. Deborah had been a professional dancer, performing in Lyric Opera’s 1994-95 production of Candide. A serious motorcycle accident with knee injury ended her career and fired her interest in physical therapy. Deborah not only understood the artist’s obsessive desire to perfect technique but also what it takes to recover from an injury. She now works independently as a physical therapist and Feldenkrais Practitioner.

Most of her clientele are people in chronic pain. “Eighty-percent of my practice deals with overuse — people required to rehearse an inordinate amount of time in addition to being a part of an ensemble, as well as all the other things required of them.” She said if people have a tendency toward injury, it gets worse and worse. “Tendinitis is the inflammation of tendons, usually of the hand or arms,” Deborah explained, adding that it develops from overuse. She said it is vital to have periods of rest.

About half of those she sees are students who rely on their youth to push through pain and deal with busy schedules. She said they aren’t educated in how to pace themselves.

Deborah says it is true that all performers don’t want people to know of any kind of pain or injury, “and it becomes a sticky wicket thing: if you don’t come forward, you can’t take time to recover.” For string players and pianists, rapid movement of fingers can cause a cycle of pain. Sitting for long periods of time is hard on the body. “If you can’t take time to get out of it, it develops into chronic problems.” Deborah added, “No one wants their boss to know.”

In treatment, Deborah asks what a typical day is like. She watches her client perform, not with a critical eye but to observe how they sit, stand, and move. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she said. Anatomy illustrations demonstrate how the neck, shoulders, arms, and fingers work and how pain in one area can be related to another area. She talks about breathing and uses Feldenkrais movement “a lot,” often recording “Awareness through Movement” sessions so performing artists can continue on their own.

Watching how people normally play or move helps her add playful movements such as swaying, moving the rib cage, pushing the feet into the floor, and relaxing. She said she doesn’t expect this in performance, but it gets incorporated in the brain and helps free one up in performance.

We are all indebted to Deborah Darr and all of the medical professionals who bring their care and expertise to those of us who have dedicated our lives to performing. She practices in Chicago and can be reached at, 312 266-1014, 900 N. Lakeshore Drive #803, Chicago, IL, 60611.

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