Dr. Don Lehmann (r.) enjoys a pop-up concert during the 2019 Cellobration in Sitka. Though retired, Lehmann has a Certificate in Performing Arts Medicine and consults with the many student and professional performers who come to Sitka. (Sitka Music Festival/Xtinepix)

A doctor in Sitka is taking his former sports medicine practice in a new direction: music. Although retired, Don Lehmann still consults with the many professional musicians who come through Sitka every year. He believes performers are subject to much the same physical demands as athletes, as well as the pressure to play when injured.

Yo-Yo Ma: Bach Cello Suite No. 1

Don Lehmann has had a long relationship with music – and how could he not? While the rest of us were in college doing keg stands, he was in an alternate reality.

“One of my dorm mates was a cellist you might have heard of by the name of Ma,” said Lehmann. “Yo-Yo Ma. He used to play in our common room every Sunday, and I’d read The New York Times while he was playing the cello.”

By this time, Lehmann himself was a lapsed cello player from childhood, and he had also retired his trumpet from the school band. Nevertheless, music – and musicians – were never far off, as his family would drive on the weekends to Tanglewood to see players like Nathaniel Rosen, the first American cellist to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition. 

Lehmann instead chose to study medicine, become a doctor,  and move to far off Sitka, Alaska to join a family practice.

“And one of my first days at the clinic, who walks in but Nathaniel Rosen with his son who had an earache that I took care of,” said Lehmann. “It was just…you know…I was amazed to meet him and it was such an honor.”

During his long career as a physician in Sitka, Lehmann became a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, and made treating athletic injuries something of a specialty. But lately he’s turned his attention to musicians. Nathaniel Rosen was just the beginning: Sitka has many of the world’s best in town every year. And Lehmann realized that medically speaking, there was significant crossover.

“So many of the performers, like the athletes, have a tendency to hide their injuries, to play when they’re injured,” said Lehmann. “Because there’s so much stress involved, that if they don’t do everything just right, they’re so easily replaced. And as a result, it’s estimated that well over 50% of orchestral players will have injury and be playing with injury over their lifetime.”

Lehmann says the American College of Sports Medicine organized a subchapter in performing arts medicine about eight years ago. Why did it take so long? Like everything else, it had to do with economics.

“The big difference though is when it comes to salaries,” he said. “Most athletes are getting nosebleed salaries there at the professional level. And most professional musicians are lucky if they can earn a living wage, doing what they love to do. And in terms of health care, it’s even a little more bizarre. Sports teams have doctors, physicians, trainers, dieticians, counselors, you name it, and they’ve got them there. Orchestras generally have nada (nothing), and so they are on their own.”

Being “on their own” means going to the musician’s family doctor, who might be inclined to suggest that if something hurts, stop doing it, which really isn’t practical. Lehmann says performing arts medicine is also intended to educate providers about treating musicians who can’t afford to remain sidelined for long, and who are putting their bodies under physical duress that doesn’t meet conventional expectations of athleticism.

“The goal in music is artistic perfection,” he said. “You know, if you’re playing baseball, and you hit the ball three times out of 10, man, you’re a hero. And if you’re in the orchestra and miss three notes out of 10, your career is done. I mean, you can’t do that. And instead of the big power muscles, it’s the fine, smaller muscles: repetitive perfection. I think they’ve estimated that in some of the Rachmaninoff concertos, there are 32,000 notes. And is that athletic? Yeah, I think it is.”

Lehmann informally consults with the Sitka Music Festival and International Cello Seminar, and has dealt with everything from colds, to neck and shoulder pain, to a broken foot bone. But a lot of his work is like any other medical practice: offering advice on exercise and diet, and how to avoid the things that even non-musicians fall victim to, like diabetes and heart disease. It’s a way to stay engaged, support what he loves, and, he says, “I can vicariously appreciate all the cello music that I never played.”