Efficient Practicing and Orchestral Auditions: An Interview with Mark Lauer

I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my good friends and colleagues from the 2018 National Music Festival about efficient practicing and taking orchestral auditions! Mark Lauer currently serves as Principal Bassoon of the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra and Second Bassoon of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Georgia. Mark has also recently placed in the final round of the Arkansas Symphony and Chattanooga Symphony Second Bassoon auditions. This interview includes Mark’s tips on efficient practicing and preparing for orchestral auditions, as well as his experience with body awareness in his musical background and the importance of taking care of your ears!


FL: What does efficient practicing mean to you, and can you offer some tips on learning how to practice efficiently while preparing for an orchestral audition?

ML: “I guess for me, I’m trying to get the most out of my time as I can.  In a perfect world, it should take me the smallest amount of time to get something up to performance level.  What I typically do is when I get a list of excerpts, if it’s a long list, I’ll identify the ones that are going to take the most work.  I’ll put those into a category, and I’ll call that “category A”.  And then I’ll divide the other excerpts that I don’t feel like need to be worked on as much into another group, and maybe even create a third group depending on the excerpts, and I’ll divide the excerpts into smaller sub-lists.  From there, I practice two groups a day, so I’ll start with Group A excerpts and then I’ll go through Group B, and then the next day will be Group A and Group C. There are some excerpts I need to be on top of every day, like double tonguing excerpts or very technical ones.  (Especially if it is an excerpt I’ve never played before.) For the recent Columbus (GA) Symphony audition, the excerpts I practiced every day were Marriage of Figaro, the exposition of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, the Brahms Violin Concerto excerpt, and the Mendelssohn Third Symphony excerpt which I had not worked on before.  Those were all pretty technically challenging.  Every other day I alternated the remainder of the excerpts around.  The method of organizing everything into lists was shared with me by Miles Maner who is now the contra-bassoonist  in the Chicago Symphony in a masterclass when I was at UMKC.

As I got closer to the audition date, I started doing run-throughs of the excerpt list.  I would challenge myself by playing the excerpts in different orders.  One thing I have also noticed is that any time I try to guess what the committee is going to ask for in a round, they always do the opposite.  In my experience it’s pointless to try to read the mind of the committee, because you just never know what they’re thinking.  I just prepare all of the excerpts as best as I can and am prepared for anything. If they want to ask for Marriage of Figaro three times in a row or something crazy like that, I want to be prepared for that.  Not that they would, but I never want to make any assumptions of what the experience is going to be like.

When it comes to practicing/preparation, different people do different things.  It comes down to a matter of finding what you are willing to do, and finding what works best for you. For me this method of organization makes the preparation less stressful and I get the most out of every practice session. But maybe that will change in the future!”

FL: You have had great success in orchestral auditions recently. Do you have any tips on ways to counteract performance anxiety in an audition setting?

ML: “This summer I had the opportunity to work with Ben Kamins at the Texas Music Festival.  Ben Kamins  is the Professor of Bassoon at Rice University, and he has tons of amazing students who are playing in symphony orchestras all across the United States and beyond. 

He said that everyone gets performance anxiety, and that we get nervous or feel threatened, we do one of three things: fight, flight or freeze. The three F’s manifest themselves in our playing like this:

Flight happens when our heart is racing and we tend to rush when we play because of that.  

Fight is when you play overly aggressively or are holding in a lot of tension because you are ready to punch the tiger that’s trying to eat you.

Freeze is when you get cold and shaky when your body is re-directing blood flow so that you can leave the situation. 

He then said one of the most important things about performance anxiety I have ever heard:

“You are entitled to feel these things. It’s not a bad thing to be afraid but you can learn to control your fear.”

Wow! That is one hell of a permission slip to be kind to yourself from one of the most hardcore prolific bassoon pedagogues alive today. What a gift!

I did a lot of thinking over the summer, and I thought okay, these are the symptoms I need to be aware of them in my playing. 

For example In the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra excerpt, If I’m getting the fight reaction it is okay because being overly aggressive with articulations and hairpins is part of the style.  In that moment, I am able to let go of that feeling and use it to my advantage.  I also know when I need to actively oppose these symptoms, such as in Marriage of Figaro or the Brahms Violin Concerto where I know I don’t want to rush, so I need to focus on calming down the “flight” response as a result of nerves.  

I’m a very anxious person in general.  In the past, I’ve had panic attacks and generalized anxiety and have been to therapy and have taken medication for it. 

For awhile, my doctor prescribed me a tiny half milligram of Xanax for the panic attacks, but I didn’t like the way they made me feel and was also worried about the side effects and possibilities of addiction with this medication.  So I went to my family doctor many years ago and said “I’m a musician and I know a lot of musicians use beta blockers, could I use these instead?”  My doctor said that these were much safer for me, and that they’re not typically habit-forming.  If you are reading this, you should talk to your doctors if you are even considering looking into this as an option.  If you take medical advice from a bassoonist, you’re being ridiculous.  

So I tried beta blockers, and they really helped with the panic attacks.  I began trying them before auditions, and for me, they helped counteract the physical symptoms of nerves.  I typically get shaky and cold hands, my heart races and I get sweaty.  All of these physical side effects are minimized when I take the beta blockers.  I take one about an hour before I am expected to take the audition or perform.  Sometimes I haven’t if I feel like I don’t need to just having them next to my reeds just in case is a good feeling. 

I don’t eat much before auditions, at most I’ll eat a banana and drink water.  Even as much as I love coffee, I won’t drink coffee the morning of since I have enough nervous energy as it is.  For the recent Chattanooga Symphony audition I took, I drove six hours two and from (twelve hours total), so on the way there I would listen to my favorite recordings of the pieces. I would sit in my hotel room the night before and visualize in my head how my audition experience would go the next day, going through the motions in my brain and I find that that helps.  

I do my best to harness my nervous energy and control it, and then as soon as and I am done for the day I usually take a moment to sit in my car and let it all out, and then I go home.  Auditioning is such a mental game, more than I ever thought it was until I began to experience it myself.”

FL: You mentioned having experience with the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method. Was there any point in your career where you experienced a performance-related injury that motivated you to seek out these methods?

ML: “This is actually a happy story.  I did my undergraduate degree and a performer’s certificate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and my teacher was Marita Abner who just retired as second bassoon with the Kansas City Symphony after about 38 years! She was really into yoga, Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique and was also interested in folk dancing, so she was involved in a lot of physical activities. 

Any time we had a double reed day or anything of that sort, she would always try to get a certified professional in Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, or yoga to come as a guest artist and teach a class or workshop before an hour before the masterclass.  She would also use some of the analogies of body mapping in our lessons to talk about the importance of support and posture and using my air stream.  Elements of body awareness were always present in my lessons.  When I came to Florida State University I found out that Eva Amsler, one of the flute professors, taught an entire class each semester called “Dynamic Integration” which was based in the Feldenkrais method.  

We did a lot of floor exercises, movement, and discovering what parts of the body were connected to others.  It’s a great thing to do in addition to being in contact with your doctors, student health centers, etc.  If you get a performance-related injury in one small part of your body, a lot of physical therapy will help to specifically treat that injury.  But when you become more aware of how your full body is connected, that will help improve your entire sense of self while performing.  I’m not completely pain-free, I still get soreness after practicing a lot.  With the bassoon, a lot of the weight of the instrument is in our left hand.  If I start feeling pain or tension in my fingers and the tendons and especially if it starts spreading down my forearms, I tell myself to cut back on the practicing because that usually means I have overextended myself. 

In this highly saturated and competitive world we feel that they need to practice all the time, but if you ever get to a point where you feel like your body can’t handle more practice, that’s a good time to swab the bassoon put it in it’s case and do more homework. Spend that healing time listening, score study, reading about the composer’s life, translating terms in your music, and practicing visualizations of the audition or performance experience.  

These are all good things to do that get overlooked so it’s good to do this regardless but what better time than when your body needs a rest. I can accomplish all of this on my couch while eating hummus. 

One more thing: TAKE CARE OF YOUR EARS. Once you start noticing that your aural health is being impacted, it is already too late.  Since bassoonists are always sitting in front of the brass section in an orchestra, it is important to wear hearing protection as much as possible. All orchestral musicians should be careful to protect their hearing for that matter, get your hearing tested every year or so and wear earplugs and encourage the strategic placement of sound shields if they are available!”

Interview by: Francesca Leo

Understanding and Relieving Muscle Knots from Overuse

Happy Monday everybody! I’ve received a few questions on what a muscle knot actually is and ways to relieve and treat knots outside of the usual massage therapy.

Muscle knots, or myofascial trigger points, are a common occurrence especially in areas where you experience muscle overuse from playing an instrument, etc. These knots can consist of muscle contractions within the fibers, and can result in a slight blockage of blood flow to the muscle tissue which can lead to tightness, pain and sensitivity in that area. Because muscle knots do not typically appear in medical scans, some professionals believe that the soreness experienced from these trigger points is likely caused by irritated nerve endings rather than the tight muscle area itself.

While massage therapy is an excellent way to relieve tightness in muscles, if you do not have access to a massage therapist you can try self-massage by rubbing firmly directly into and around the trigger point, or by placing a lacrosse ball between the wall and your upper back/shoulder area and gently rolling it back and forth and up and down around the affected area. Another alternative to pressing the lacrosse ball against the wall is to place it on the floor and lie on your back directly on it, placing the ball between the floor and your trigger point area. Lighten up your pressure and do not use the lacrosse ball if this is notably painful, and any moderate to severe pain should be examined by a medical professional immediately. Placing heating or cooling packs directly on the affected area is another method that can relieve tightness or soreness temporarily, but if the problem is consistent it is best to seek consultation from a professional. If you are planning to use a cold pack on the affected area, place it on the area for 10 minutes and then take it off for 15 minutes. Repeat until you feel relief in the muscles. A heating pack can be placed on the area for 10-15 minutes at a time as well to loosen muscles and relieve pain.

Medical professionals may recommend acupuncture, trigger point injections to relax the muscle, or physical and massage therapy depending on your medical history and the severity of your pain and discomfort. Below are some further articles with more information on muscle knots ✨ #playingwithoutpain

https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/what-are-muscle-knots-and-how-do-you-get-rid-of-them/

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/13/experts-divided-on-makeup-and-treatment-of-muscle-knots/

https://health.clevelandclinic.org/knot-in-your-neck-4-ways-to-relieve-trigger-point-pain/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321224.php

https://www.healthline.com/health/muscle-knots

Andover Educators 2019 Conference Reflection by Sarah DelBene!

Flutist Sarah DelBene is a long-time fan of body mapping, and has recently attended the 2019 Andover Educators Conference in Redlands, California where she was able to further study the art of body mapping and learn how to re-train musicians’ bodies to become freer and more efficient in movement while playing. Below is a reflection of her experience at the conference and the benefits of body mapping on all musicians.

I am now over a week removed from this year’s Andover Educators Conference held at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California, and I am still amazed by the quantity of information packed into a four-day conference. Andover Educators is an organization committed use the somatic technique Body Mapping to retrain musicians in order to have the most free and efficient movement while playing. In their words they are “a not for profit organization of music educators committed to saving, securing, and enhancing musical careers by providing accurate information about the body in movement.”

            The theme of this year’s biennial conference was “Building Bridges Through Collaboration.” The wide variety of seminars offered at this conference included Feldenkrais morning movements sessions, the integration of yoga into music-making, presentations on the concept of Core Movement Integration (CMI), and even neuroscience related to finding quantifiable evidence on the physical locations of body maps in the brain. This was in addition to the overall focus on the organization’s presentations related to Body Mapping, and even taking one day to present the core course to Andover Educators, “What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body.” While I will spare you the in-depth details of this plethora of topics, I did walk away with so much useful information that I am working to incorporate into my own music-making. This information can be divided into three broad ideas or categories.

 

Balance is Dynamic.

 

            A large part of my music education I heard the term “posture,” and was in a search for the perfect one for flute-playing. I eventually ended up tying myself up in knots with tension and misuse that I eventually developed hand and back pain my sophomore year of my undergraduate degree. Over Christmas Break of that year I had to take over a week off from playing because I had pulled all the muscles in my back. I knew something had to change or else I may risk severely injuring myself and put my musical career at risk. This is when I coincidentally found the technique of Body Mapping and took my first course on it with Lea Pearson at the Wildacres Flute Retreat in June 2016. My concept of “posture” was shattered, and the concept of proper body balance took its place.

            After being equipped with knowledge and skills to save my future playing career and improve my playing, I continued to self-study body mapping in order to improve my awareness of balance and better movement while playing.

            The biggest revelation of all came at the conference last week. With all my time spent relearning human skeletal and muscle structures, I forgot one big concept: balance is not the same of posture, and I was making them the same thing. Posture has the connotation of one position being the best position for playing. In my understanding it was rigid and static, like the posture one assumes on the marching band field. However, music making requires a variety of different small muscle movements, so staying in one static position or posture is counter to the need for movement to make music. After this week, I am starting to view balance as dynamic rather than static, almost like a home base I can always come back to as I move in and out of it while playing.

 

Somatic Education is a Collaboration.

 

             Somatic education can be defined as “the use of sensory-motor learning to gain greater voluntary control of one’s physiological process.” While this conference is a meeting of Licensed Andover Educators, affiliates, and other guests with a strong passion for the Body Mapping technique, other somatic practices were acknowledged and explored. As part of the conference, there was a Morning Movement Session in which a Feldenkrais instructor led us through an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) session, which encouraged fluid movement and inclusive awareness of such. There was a seminar discussing Core Movement Integration (CMI) which likens back to aspects of the Alexander Technique and provides systematic, structured building blocks to quality movement called “pathways.”

            By expanding my awareness of different somatic practices, I realized they all work towards the same goal, but take different paths to get there. Taking a Feldenkrais ATM session, I was able to work on my inclusive awareness (a major principle of Body Mapping) of my whole body and the kinesthetic feeling of quality, fluid movement. Participating in the CMI seminar allowed me to explore different types of movement in relation to picking up, holding, and playing the flute. While I have more experience with Body Mapping and it is my preferred practice, my willingness to be open to and learn from multiple somatic practices has expanded my knowledge bank and has given me more tools to better equip myself with more ways to improve my overall balance and quality of movement. This is true not just in relation to music making but in my everyday life as well.

 

Embodiment is a Lifelong Journey.

 

            As with music, the journey to embody (or fully express) the tenants of Body Mapping is a lifelong practice, there is always something to be learn. There is always another stone turnover. As previously stated, I spent awhile relearning my own body maps (or understanding of my own anatomical structures in relation to size, shape, location, and function). Furthermore, I used these retrained body maps to teach myself how to properly stand and sit balanced to avoid pain and injury. However, after going to the seminar on CMI, I was blown away by experimenting with types of full body movements I could use while playing. The realization that balance is dynamic and not static blew my mind. I also learned a great deal when I played for Amy Likar, the current president of Andover Educators, in a masterclass. She told me that learning a passage of music is not just about notes, fingerings, rhythm, and sound, but it is also about using your whole-body awareness to live in or embody the quality and type of movement required to achieve the desired musical effect. The masterclass was video recorded, and I had the biggest “lightbulb moment” when I played an ornamented passage from Telemann’s Fantasia for Solo Flute in B minor perfectly. I surprised myself with my ability to move freely however I chose while playing. True to the supportive and generous nature of the Andover Educators, my success was met with overwhelming kindness and applause.

 

Conclusion

 

            While I have made significant strides since my first encounter with Body Mapping in June 2016, my journey is far from over, and is a process I will continue to explore for the rest of my life. The Andover Educators is an organization committed to their work, and they are driven by a belief in their practice and the relentless desire to help other musicians succeed and find freedom in music-making. Attending this conference broadened my circle of friends in the music community and solidified my desire to be more deeply involved in an organization whose technique altered the course of my music career. I would not be where I am today had it not been for the Body Mapping technique and the loving and patient guidance of my mentors in the organization.

 

To learn more about Andover Educators, Body Mapping, and to find the educator nearest you, log on to their website bodymap.org.

Seeking Treatment - It Is Not Worth the Wait!

This year marked a lot of changes in both my personal and musical lives. It is the first year of my master’s degree in flute performance, which began with a far move away from home and the adjustment to a busier schedule and an increase in the hours of practice, rehearsal, and work I had been used to. While I have always suffered from performance-related injuries, I was sure to seek a new physical therapist immediately upon the start of my semester as a preventative measure to ensure that I was managing my injuries properly with my new lifestyle. Although I still do not live a completely pain-free life, seeking regular treatment has been extremely beneficial in ensuring that my injuries do not worsen. I have also recently been seeing a body tuning physical therapist specific to musicians, which has shed light on a new perspective of possibilities in healing and - for the first time in my life - moving forward from my injuries and having the privilege to perform in anything I want without the lingering fear that my body may physically prevent it.

It is so important to find which treatment method works best for you, because every body is different and has different needs. It has taken me years of trial and error to figure out the things that work best for my individual healing process, and starting now is essential to maintain the longevity of your career as a musician. If you are experiencing pain on a regular basis when you play your instrument and are worried about it, book an appointment with a musculoskeletal doctor in your area as soon as possible. Think of this as a step forward in self care, and do not be afraid of hearing your doctor’s diagnosis. The vast majority of performance-related injuries are 100% treatable, and if you consult with your physician and catch the warning signs early, in most cases the treatment process can be worked around maintaining a consistent practice schedule as long as you follow the instructions of your doctor and seek consistent treatment. Most insurances either mostly or completely cover the costs of therapy prescribed by your doctor depending on the company you are working with.

If you are currently seeking treatment for a performance-related injury, what types of treatment methods work best for you? What are some options you could recommend for your fellow peers or colleagues who may be struggling and are not sure where to begin in their healing process?

No matter what you are dealing with, you are not alone. Know that this website is always a resource to consult if you are feeling worried about the pain you are experiencing, as well as consulting with a trained professional, your private teacher, or a doctor.

-Francesca Leo, Founder

Reducing Pain During Music Festivals

Hi everybody!  I hope you're all having a great summer break so far.  This month's post will be focused around ways to relieve and prevent pain and injury during intensive summer festivals.  My most recent instagram post (@playingwithoutpain) featured some TSA-friendly items you can pack in your suitcase on your way to summer festivals that are good tools to help reduce and relieve pain before and after long rehearsals, but I wanted to ask you all a bit about your experiences with pain during summer festivals as well.

Let me know in the comments below what types of summer festivals you typically attend or plan to attend (orchestral, instrument-specific workshops, masterclasses, instrument-specific intensives, etc.), whether your pain (if you experience any) tends to worsen or improve during these summer festivals, and any tips or tricks you would like to share to prevent and relieve pain that are manageable and simple enough to incorporate into your daily festival routine.  Summer festivals are a great way to maintain your "chops" in between periods of rest and meet/play with new people, but they can sometimes take a great toll on your body.  If you are currently treating an injury or hoping to prevent a future injury this summer, check out my latest posts on social media for some quick tips and tricks that have helped me a great deal.

I'm looking forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments!

 

Sincerely,

Francesca Leo

Types of Pain Experienced in Music Students

Hi everybody, welcome to our first discussion post!  These discussions will be initiated by me once a month.  I will ask a question about your experiences with pain, treatment and prevention methods that have worked for you in the past, and ask to tell us a little bit about yourself (what instrument you play, which school you attend, etc.). I look forward to meeting everybody, and I hope to cultivate a safe and comfortable environment where you can share your experience with injury and connect with others experiencing similar situations.  

To begin, my first question is: what type of pain do you most commonly experience in your practice sessions, and where is it primarily located?  While I know these answers will be dependent on instrument and voice types, do you mind sharing what you play and how long you have been playing? Please type your answers in the comments below.

Thank you, and please let me know if you have any questions/concerns.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Sincerely,

Francesca Leo, Founder of Playing Without Pain