Mark is the leader and head deranger for the Bassoon Brothers and has played as Principal Bassoonist with the Oregon Symphony since 1978. Code name SDG played on a Fox Model 201 and more recently a Fox model 660 bassoon after years of Heckeling.
Click on the questions below to read Mark’s answers.
What was your first memory of hearing a bassoon?
Cartoons really stick out in my mind and Grandpapa from Peter and the Wolf, but it was the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV theme that got me going. For one season the TV theme music was played by an ensemble of six bassoons and two contras. (We’ve recorded that version on our second CD, CAPTURED.)
When was the first time you saw a picture of a bassoon?
Probably in elementary school music class on an instrument chart or was it the liner jacket for Peter and the Wolf?
When was the first time you saw a real bassoon?
I can’t remember which came first. I went to a Seattle Symphony Youth Concert and heard and saw Darlene Jussila play the second movement of the Mozart Concerto. I also remember that my family watched the Lawrence Welk show every week and I anxiously awaited the first shot of the band to see if the guy on the left of the front row had a bassoon in his collection of sax, clarinet and flute. Perhaps an oboe too, God forbid. Seeing the bassoon on the Welk show may have been first. Around the same time I was in summer band sitting last chair 3rd clarinet and sat next to a big red one.
Did that have any impact?
Yeah, I wanted to try it out, but was afraid to ask the guy, Tom Oldfield. I was the youngest kid in the band and still in elementary school and they were all junior high and high school. I was really scared and shy and wondering what I had gotten myself into.
What was the first musical instrument that you played?
I started playing the piano at home at an early age. Mom played piano and was a church organist and Dad sang in the church choir so there was music in my life even before I was born. I was drawn to the low end sounds and the rumble of tone clusters of the keyboard. My first composition was called the Little Green Slug. I basically thumped low notes and held the sustain pedal down. Later I took piano lessons.
What was your first woodwind instrument?
That was the clarinet or was it the flatulence of forcing air past my hand held tightly against my mouth? I guess you’d call those hand farts. I studied clarinet with George Art Doll who was a dental patient of my Dad’s. I started out taking one instrument to my lessons and ended up with three. Saxophone came next, then came bassoon. I later studied with Raymond L. Wheeler who taught me only bassoon lessons, even though he doubled on all woodwinds. I took up the oboe later so I could sit next to a cute girl in the summer band. That should give someone ideas!
How did you come to play the bassoon?
I was hooked in elementary school after having sat next to one, as I mentioned, but I had to wait. No instrument in the elementary school band. When I got into junior high I had to audition on clarinet. I told the band director Delwin Jones that I wanted to play bassoon. He laughed and thought it was a joke. I persisted and he produced a really old flat top long joint Kohlert with no whisper key. He gave me a reed he had made years before in a college woodwind pedagogy class.
Were you happy initially, or did you have problems with it?
I didn’t really have any problem. I took it home over a weekend and learned to play Grandfather’s Clock. I was in the Beginning Band, but quickly outpaced everyone, so I would switch to baritone sax for fun. Another kid, Willard Smith, got inspired by my playing and took it up in the beginning band too. Later, I was getting excused from English class to practice with the Advanced Band. Willard and I played a solo for bassoon and band together in the ninth grade. Two of us were playing the same part. I should post that recording on the website!
What was the first recording of a bassoon that you played at home?
Peter and the Wolf was always around, but the real first solo bassoon recording was the Mozart Bassoon Concerto played by Rudolf Klepac with Mozarteum Orchestra. He was my early role model. What attracted me to classical music initially was the theme and chase music for the Lone Ranger (Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Les Preludes by Liszt) and the movie serial Flash Gordon.
Did you have any favorite bassoonists on recordings?
In those days there weren’t that many solo bassoon recordings out there. Leonard Sharrow’s Mozart Concerto was an important model for all of us. Bernard Garfield’s Mozart and his Weber Andante and Hungarian Rondo were mind boggling to me. What a tone and great vibrato. I later became a fan of Milan Turkovic and collected many of his recordings. I think Fagotte Concertante is great. My favorite recording right now is Rick Ranti’s CD.
What was it like being a teenage bassoonist?
I walked home with the bassoon and books. It was a long way and heavy load. I guess that made my arms strong. I was a pitcher on the baseball teams, but gave it up in high school to focus on my music. I was a rock musician and a bassoonist. Besides lugging the thing home, reeds were the big issue. Whenever I had a good one it wouldn’nt last or I’d break it. I tried different types and would have the owner of Andy’s Band Shop in Tacoma make them for me out of cane he had on hand. Those reeds were so stiff I developed iron chops. I really didn’t know a good reed until I studied privately with Ray. He grew tired of giving up a gem of a reed because I had broken one after only a week, so I had to learn to make my own. I have to say that his reeds were beautifully crafted and this stuck with me. He learned reed making at Eastman and studied with Vincent Pezzi.
What were some of your best bassoon moments as a teenage bassoonist?
I didn’t have to march in the marching band in high school with the bassoon. That was a good thing. Can you imagine stopping fast and having the reed run through the back of your throat? I played the drums in my first year in high school. (That should make Captain Bob envious!) But like Bob and Juan I became the drum major of the band. Yeah. That was cool. And you know what, I’ve known a bunch of bassoonist who were the drum major. Cool! But back to playing, probably whenever I got to have a solo part I really tried to belt it out, like the solo in front of the band. I won the first chair as a tenth grader at the All State Band and later the All State Orchestra. When the Tacoma Youth Symphony started up, that was a new level of playing and exposure unlike doubling the bass line and saxes in a band. But the greatest moment was to be when I began playing second bassoon in the UPS/Tacoma Symphony at age fifteen. In the years leading up to this I went to the concerts with my parents and hoped to hear a bassoon solo or two. My teacher, Ray Wheeler was the first chair and brought me into the group for “on the job training”. I didn’t have a clue about the pieces I was playing, but my teacher coached me and gave me the lessons and approach that were invaluable later in life. I learned early on about how important it is to play in tune.
What were some of your worst moments as a teenage bassoonist?
I was asked to perform in a talent exchange assembly in a rival junior high school. I played a piece for bassoon and piano with a very cute girl. I was thinking more about hanging out with that girl than getting serious about my practicing of the piece. When it was time for the performance with an unfriendly audience I became extremely nervous because I wasn’t well prepared. I experienced performance anxiety and nervousness like I had never known. My mouth was dry, heart pounding and hands were cold. My legs were shaking so violently that I thought everyone would start laughing. I was miserable. Later in high school I won a solo contest to play with with the TYS and just before the performance cracked the only good reed I had. I played the solo on a badly cracked reed and sounded terrible.
What solo pieces did you play starting out?
Vivaldi concertos and Mozart Concerto.
What method books did you use?
The Weissenborn Method was on the stand for many, many years. I hated that book because I thought it moved too slowly. I still don’t like it that much. But I realized now in teaching from that book that if you slop though those exercises without perfection that your technique will eventually suffer. I got into the Rubanks some, and Milde Scale and Concert Studies much later. I wish we had Mike Curtis’sTwentieth Century method back then.
What were your solo competition pieces?
My first solo competition was a Vivaldi Concerto in A minor. I got really nervous for that one too and had a memory lapse and a resulting bad score. We were required to play by memory in those days. I went on to the Mozart Concerto for later competitions and the Burrill Phillips Concert Piece for Bassoon. I guess I’ve always gotten nervous easily, especially when I had to play by memory. That probably goes back to a bad experience at my first piano recital when I failed miserably. I also think being a perfectionist can make you more nervous than if you don’t care if you fluff a few notes here and there.
Where did you study bassoon in college?
My teacher Ray Wheeler taught at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. I got involved in the band and the UPS/Tacoma Symphony while still in public school. But I went to college to become a music educator at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Who were your teachers?
While there I studied with Russell Bedford, who was at the time the Principal in the Seattle Symphony, and when he left Gary Echols a Doctoral Student and very briefly with Arthur Grossman after I had started playing in the Seattle Symphony.
Did you expect to become a professional bassoonist upon college graduation?
Not at all! I had no interest in becoming a professional bassoonist, otherwise I would have taken it more seriously in college. I joined the Musician’s Union at age 16 so I guess I was playing professional for the few gigs that I got on bassoon. But I was playing in a rock band called the Galaxies, writing songs and had hopes of being a rock star. I should like to the Northwest RocknRoll site so you can see that. Being a band director was my back up plan. I played on a senior recital for another bassoonist in Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo on the fourth part. I was discovered by then Seattle Symphony Principal Morgan Griffin and asked to audition. I had been playing as Principal in the now Tacoma Symphony (my teacher left) and had just performed as soloist with the University of Washington orchestra so I had solo chops, but must admit that my orchestra excerpts were not that familiar to me. Somehow I managed to impress the audition committee and got the job at age 22 even though I played the solo from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony at about half speed. Again, if I’d known where I was going to end up I would have taken my studies more seriously and learned my top ten orchestra solo excerpts.
What happened to you in the years that followed graduation?
I was already playing in the Seattle Symphony but was going to class to complete my music education degree. The Vietnam War was on and once I finished with college I had no college deferment and a high draft number. In desperation I joined the Washington National Guard band. After a year in the Symphony I went to basic training and active duty outside Boston at Fort Devens playing saxophone, the band wasn’t authorized to play bassoon, but I got hold of an old Heckel and played some of the concerts. i marche in many parades in New England with the band nicknamed the screaming chickens because the clarinet players took everything up and octave and trilled it whenever possible. I played tenor sax., but played bassoon in concerts including some in Boston’s Hatch Shell along ther river. I came back to the Symphony and spent the next five years performing with the Guard band where I played as a bassoon soloist and lead alto sax in the big band. I was also the band’s announcer. I was almost kicked out of the National Guard Band and sent back to active duty because I flaked out on some Guard Band concerts because of some of my other music summer commitments.
What orchestras have you performed with?
Tacoma Youth Symphony, UPS/Tacoma Symphony, University of Washington Symphony, and UW Festival Orchestra. I played ten years in the Seattle Symphony as second bassoonist, and am now at twenty five years as Principal of the Oregon Symphony. I played for the West Coast Chamber Orchestra and toured with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra also played for Seattle Opera ten years and one year for Portland Opera. I’ve played in pit for Pacific Northwest Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre. I have also done many, many shows in the pit over the years doubling on all woodwinds. For instance, A Chorus Line found me playing flute, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, baritone sax and bassoon.
What festivals have you played with?
Sunriver Festival in Oregon, Centrum Festival and Bumbershoot Festivals in Washington State, Grand Teton Festival in Wyoming, Chamber Music Northwest in Portland. Because of my affiliation with David Schifrin at CMNW, I have also performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. That was a big highpoint in my career. I worked with a bassoon hero and mentor Milan Turkovic.
What honors have you received as a bassoonist?
Playing at Lincoln Center and being broadcast live in New York was quite an honor. I never received scholarship honors because I was not thinking about being a performance major in college. But of the greatest honor was to be recommended to study with Marcel Moyse in Vermont by Bob Bonnevie the Principal horn in Seattle. Moyse was the founder of the Marlboro Music Festival along with Rudolf Serkin. I met Peter Serkin there and many great woodwind players who have gone on to careers. I studied woodwind chamber music with Moyse for a number of years in Vermont and attended the flute seminars as well. Mr. Moyse filled in the missing pieces and promoted great woodwind playing, classical phrasing and precise intonation. Another great honor (that will sound strange) was to play for my dinner in the Tetons. That was at the Jenny Lake Lodge for an amazing group of high rollers and politicians from around the world.
What is your worst nightmare as a bassoonist?
My recurring nightmare is that I’ve lost my bassoon somewhere and can’t find it. I actually did accidentally leave my bassoon in a bar once, but it was still there when I realized I’d left it behind. One of my teachers set his bassoon down before getting into his car and backed over it. At least I’ve not done anything really bad like that. I once was going to the bathroom backstage when I heard my name being announced over the loud speaker in the Seattle Opera House. I was playing in a experimental jazz group called Matrix and was having one of my compositions performed. They were announcing each musician as they walked onto the stage. I had to pull up my pants and start running. But probably the worst and most important nightmare is the issue of the bad reed. Going back to the cracked reed and the solo. I’ve had many bad reed days. One of the worst was when my reed suddenly died in a morning rehearsal. I used to only have one good reed playing at a time. I didn’t learn my lesson in high school. I went home to make a reed for the evening performance of the Seattle Symphony. I had a solo in one of the pieces and slurred down to a low D and nothing came out. The conductor, Milton Katims, eyes burned into me with such disgust and shaking of the head that shamed me into rethinking my approach to reed making. (FYI a reed made and scraped in one sitting will change greatly.) Reeds need time to settle. I started my reed manufacturing company shortly after that because I didn’t want to be without well broken in good reeds at all times.
What are your favorite solos?
I might start with Michael Daugherty’s Hells Angels which was much fun to perform. But I’ll l have to go with the Russian composers. But before I get into that, my truly favorite solos are the ones that don’t bring out the weaknesses of my playing or that particular bassoon, reed and bocal so that I can play whatever the solo is with absolute confidence. It has taken many years of experience to get to the point where I don’t worry and get panicky and nervous when a big solo comes up. (Remember my history? ) But the reason we see certain solos on auditions is that they are difficult on many levels. I’ve played many bassoons over the years switching trying to find one that will do it all with ease. Forget about it! But I gave up on Heckel bassoons because the new Fox bassoons do it better and easier. Because I’ve been a Fox dealer I’ve been able to pick some good bassoons. My customers also benefit because I tune and voice every bassoon. That makes a huge difference. There is no such thing as ‘tuned at the factory”. Every instrument needs to be tweaked. We call this tuning and voicing. I’m supposed to be talking about my favorites, but Bolero is still a solo that bothers me because I have bad experiences with it in the past for some of the reasons mentioned above. But I often play the sax solo too and always enjoy that. Those bad experiences leave you with garbage in your head about messing up and lingering memories of past failure. But some solos are more satisfying for me. The Rite of Spring solos are wonderful. I am very proud of the Oregon Symphony recording of the Rite. I think I measure up to the best of the best on that one. I love the Tchaikovsky Symphonies. The solos in the 4th are the best, the 6th are my next favorite and I sometime sweat the 5th. The Russian composers are in general my favorites with Shostakovich a personal favorite. I’ve only done the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony once, but that’s a great one, and Garfield’s version is superb. The Ninth comes up often and I really enjoy that too. But playing Mozart symphonies and piano concertos are probably the best overall playing experience that is both technically and musically challenging. In sonatas and recital pieces and such I do’n’t really care for pieces that show off technique exclusively and never give a chance to sing on a nice melody. All the Symphonies of Beethoven are great to play as is Berlioz, but I’d rather listen to Brahms than play it. Because of my varied experience my taste is eclectic. I listen and enjoy all kinds of music. The jazz bassoonist Ray Pizzi has written some pieces that I love to play. Ode to a Toad, Song for Grandpa and Prayer for Simon are some that I always performed when I was doing the jazz bassoon thing. Ray has been a great inspiration to me and friend of bassoonists everywhere with his latest efforts in jazz play along tunes that he’s writing. Who cannot smile after having heard his special approach to the instrument. The wailing bassoon in the Cantina band in Star Wars is Ray. Jazz bassoonists Michael Rabinowitz and Paul Hanson blow my mind. What chops!
What are the most important points to relate to a young player?
Start with the best bassoon you can afford or seek out the best one that the school has. Renard bassoons are the best starter horns. It must be leak free and tuned and voiced to allow quick response and an even scale. Don’t buy a fixer upper on e-Bay and don’t take it to your local band repair shop to have it fixed up. Seek out a bassoon repairman. They say the most difficult things about playing are reeds and fingerings. It’s not that hard to produce a decent tone on bassoon, but many young players form bad habits early because of bad bassoons and bad reeds and no private teacher to correct the problems before they become habits that are too hard to break. Many young players fail to ever really enjoy the bassoon. The technical problems and fingerings on bassoon are not understood by non-bassoonists no matter how talented they might be as woodwind teachers. It takes an experienced bassoonist to teach the instrument and many years of experience to make a decent reed. Like single reed mouthpieces, there are many shapes and styles of reeds. Finding the right one for you unfortunately, may not be the same as your teacher or some big name bassoonist. Take heed.
Is there anything else about the bassoon that needs to be mentioned?
Practice does not make perfect. Proper practicing is a good start to becoming a reliable bassoonist. Can you play a difficult passage three to five times in a row without a single tiny mistake? If not, slow down the tempo and work on smooth even technique until you can bring the tempo up to beyond your target tempo without mistakes. Do you croak on some notes? Have you developed a good technique for tuning and adjusting reeds? Remember that the audience doesn’t care if the music is difficult. Make it sound easy. Let it sing out to draw the listener in. Let them beg for more. You are in control if you are properly prepared and schooled in reed adjustment. It’s more important to learn how to adjust a reed than make one. There are many fine reed makers out there to get reeds from. Why do so many struggle making inferior reeds which cannot be properly adjusted.
Has the bassoon ever caused a problem with a personal relationship or your marriage?
Bassoons and bassoon tools are very expensive and can make a big dent in the family budget. Practice time and reed time can be resented by the spouse. My parents promised me a Heckel bassoon if I learned to play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. When I had accomplished that they realized that they couldn’t afford it as I was starting college and got me a Polisi bassoon instead. I was angry and had to put up with comments about Polisi brutality. During my first marriage I was catching up to learn my craft as a bassoonist and that put a strain on our marriage which later failed. I was not prepared for a career as a professional bassoonist. The sheer number of great reeds required did hit home and the technical development that I didn’t get in college and knowledge of alternate fingerings found me practicing and developing my technique often late into the night. I could stay up until 3am trying to find the right reed, scrape or fingering pattern for an important solo. In those days I didn’t know how to scrape a reed. That took over twenty five years to figure that out.
How did the bassoon change your life?
I’m on a mission to improve the bassoon and bassoon playing. That’s one very important thing for me and the Bassoon Brothers. I’ve learned that one cannot procrastinate about reeds. I”ve had to change and plan way ahead. They need to be made well in advance and broken in prior to rehearsals and performance. Many bassoonists make several reeds a week expecting that of those made, they would be happy to find one good out of every ten to twenty. That’s the reason why I started a reed manufacturing company. I wanted to pick out reeds that would play the solos without a lot of panicky scraping or practicing. Prior to that I had to practice to the extent that I could bulldoze through the tricky technical passage no matter how bad the reed. But good musicianship requires a more subtle approach than blasting through passages. Sometimes it’s just finding the right alternate fingering and a tiny sliver of a scrape on the reed at the correct spot. Later I would learn and share in my publications methods to tune and adjust reeds with total objectivity. No panic or 3 am reed freak outs. I’m still surprised that more people don’t know about my reed publications.
Have you had therapy because of being a bassoonist, or performer?
I have always had performance anxiety. It all started with that memory lapse at my first piano recital. I ran from the room in tears. I guess being a perfectionist has caused me grief too. Bad reeds have always caused me have a lack of confidence and outright fear of an exposed part. At one point a group of us in the Seattle Symphony were practicing Transcendental Meditation before every performance. I got to a point where I was so relaxed I couldn’t get any adrenaline rush for the performance. A certain amount of anxiety/adrenaline can be a good thing. An overload of anxiety can be devastating. Although I don’t think there ever is a perfect performance in every aspect of music making, there can be a comfortable and assured technical performance. I have taken classes in the Psycho Dynamics of Performance, the Alexander Technique and group therapy with other musicians. I encourage young musicians to study performance techniques as it relates to the mental part of playing as much as the instrument. Musicians should learn to feel comfortable playing for each other and leave the ego out of it. They should learn to trust the tape recorder. Remember it is impossible to be the performer and the observer/listener at the same time. Observe yourself by recording practice sessions and concerts. One very strange thing that changed my life was to take a modern dance class. (Picture a grown man in tights.) I had to coordinate legs and arms and head movement which was a great challenge. Some things about my playing and consciousness were permanently changed for the better by this. As it turned out, I never crawled as a child. Part of my neural development was never hooked up until I did this dance later in life. My wife will tell you that I’m a space case, so I guess I still have some work to do. But I’ll get to that later.