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