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BPYO's Journey towards Mahler's 9th

Jan 2, 2018 2:42:21 PM / by Benjamin Zander

Benjamin Zander

Here is a letter I sent to the members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra with some of their remarkable observations about life and the task of preparing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony - a profoundly spiritual work that challenges even the world's great orchestras.  

The “white sheet” is the way the players can communicate with me each week. The assignments knock them out of their usual habits and take them beyond who they think they are, so that they can experience a fuller, more universal life, and be prepared to play a work like Mahler's 9th.

High school junior, bassoonist Nathan Muz, captures perfectly how the assignments are designed to work: 

19554074_105831776718575_6912013869342395511_n.jpg"I’m especially enjoying this weeks assignment: BREATHE LIFE IN WHATEVER IS ROUTINE TO YOU. It has helped me have the most enjoyable and memorable holiday in years. I've approached even its most mundane moments with spontaneity and a renewed sense of liveliness." 


David St. George (who wrote the final white sheet in this article) is our musical guru, who sits in on rehearsals and offers invaluable guidance.  

Working on this music is deeply affecting the members of the orchestra.  Perhaps some of you will be able to get to Symphony Hall in Boston on March 11th to hear them perform this shatteringly beautiful work.

Meanwhile I wish you a joyous and meaningful New Year

Warmest wishes,

Ben Zander

Dear BPYO,

There are two assignments for the holidays:


We casually say:  “Music brings us together”.  Does it? Really? Actually it often doesn’t at all.  To  bring us together and move us, music needs the energy of the human heart.

Have you noticed that around this time of year we hear a lot of routine music-making - bland performances of Christmas carols in the supermarket, on the TV or on the street. Far from bringing us together, that kind of music-making is irritating and makes me, at least, feel like Scrooge!

Holiday Pop Up.png

Carols and hymns can be played or sung exquisitely if we shape them, feel long phrases and infuse them with passion, energy  and enthusiasm. The same is true of everything we do in life. 

Hugs can be casual or deeply felt; greetings can be mundane or heartwarming, even thrilling. We need our whole being - our eyes, vibrant voices and our fully engaged focus.

Thank you to Arthur Abbate, Robyn Smith, Frank John, Reese Williams and Doug Amos who were the brilliant brass quintet that played at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. So far from routine! I saw tears in the eyes of several of those listening and singing in the lobby. Such joy! It even appeared in the Boston Globe.

The assignment for the next three weeks is to celebrate love and connection in every part of our lives.


Assignment #2 comes from Roz Zander’s therapy toolbox: LEAD LIFE!

LEAD when you see that your leadership will be a contribution

FOLLOW when you see that following will increase vitality in you and those around you

OPPOSE when you see opposing is necessary to keep life on track.

This menu of responses will help you to deal with different (and sometimes difficult) situations during your vacation, especially with familiar (and therefore often routine) family situations.

Here is a beautiful white sheet from 14 year-old Sophia Berry who found herself, to her surprise, in the front stand of the second violins on Saturday and got a chance to practice assignment #2 on the spot.


"Dear Mr. Zander, 
I have been postponing this white sheet for quite a while now, but today I finally decided I needed to express everything I'm feeling right now and what I've been containing for the past few weeks into words. 

It had been a mystery to me what made me so enthusiastic to go to orchestra every week. By Saturday afternoon I was so ready to return and rehearse the music I had been practicing during the week with the rest of the orchestra. Practicing the music by yourself is very different from the true orchestral experience that I am blessed to have every Saturday afternoon. I can genuinely say that I've never once felt like going to rehearsal was a drag. I didn't know what was pulling me back for more each time; what was making me so anxious not only to hear the harmonies and melodies that our orchestra is so capable of  mastering, but also to learn and discover each time something new and enthralling that would pull at my heartstrings and make me never want to move on from the notes that were under my fingers. 

Suddenly it all clicked, and I realized that this orchestra is a family.  To me coming back to orchestra every week means I'm coming home and home is a place where your family is. This family helps me grow, and learn, and laugh, and to be the best version of myself. Everyone I have met is so talented and kind and genuinely cares about one other. I have made friendships that I know will last and bring me happiness along with joy and laughter. They will follow me through different stages of my growth and contribute to my maturing as a musician, as well as my development as an individual. 

Each assignment you give us is a new lesson; each wrong note is an incentive to do better, rather than a reason for discouragement. As a family, we pick each other up and help everyone move along. I look up to the leaders of our orchestra in hopes that someday I will become a leader myself. Being a leader, as you described today, doesn't only pertain to the principal players and concert master, but to everyone who needs to step up and guide others. I believe today, when I was moved up to assistant principal of the second violins I expected to feel this sense of leadership, but actually found myself being a follower and continuing to embrace the learning state. I soon realized that being in the front in no way meant that I was the best; that I was a leader. For me this was a wonderful experience and I felt so fortunate to have sat alongside Abby and be able to learn not only how to play Mahler 9 with the rest of the orchestra, but to feel a sense of direction in the music and how to use my body to express what the music was doing to me. I believe everyone needs an experience like this to learn from the more experienced people and adopt their habits and insights as their own to improve and put new meaning behind the notes they play. 

After today I was suddenly feeling emotions I had never had before during the "hate theme" and the second violin section beginning at measure 7. Even the difficult passage starting at measure 285 began to form a deeper feeling of chaos within me, but beyond the notes, I found a greater sense of grandeur. It was truly an amazing experience to be able to sit amongst the most talented and skilled musicians of the orchestra. It went even further and I found myself learning from the cello section sitting right beside me, and the violas across from me, and hearing the complementing parts of the first and second violins together. I still have a lot to learn from Mahler and the journey we are about to embark on, but only today I discovered how much this music actually means to me and what I can make of it. 

I found myself in the car on my way home explaining the importance and message of the symphony to my dad from the bits of history you told us during the rehearsal, but also from interpretations of my own from my personal experience today. I am looking forward to continuing this journey and learning in depth what it means to play Mahler 9 with an orchestra so dedicated and talented as the BPYO. I have entertained the thought that this orchestra is my family, so with every lesson they teach me and every emotion they evoke within me I will try to do the same in return."

Here is the description from 15 year-old Mathew Hill, that I read out in rehearsal on Saturday.  I always get excited when someone in BPYO comes down with the “Mahler virus", because I know it will give them access to a vast range of emotional responses and experiences.

Matthew Hill Violinist 1-507046-edited.jpeg

 "Dear Mr. Zander,

I cannot put my excitement into words regarding our Mahler experience. I had already listened to the Ninth multiple times before joining this orchestra and even during our previous program, I would sometimes listen to a movement at a time here or there. It was consistently one of my favorite symphonies by Mahler, but was never my absolute favorite. I always liked 5 and 6 a little bit more. (I have listened to all the Mahler symphonies after I heard the BPO do Mahler 2, and researched them and Mahler himself quite a bit.) The first movement however, is an exception. I must agree with you in that the Ninth’s first movement is the greatest movement Mahler ever wrote. Listening to the Ninth in preparation for this rehearsal though changed my opinion of the 2nd movement in particular. I used to think it was clumsy and awkward, and kind of a let down considering the movement preceding it. But especially getting to play part of it, and after to listening to it more, I have fallen in love with it too, and I now regard the Ninth as a whole as my favorite symphony of any composer, period.There is one section in the first movement that takes my breath away. After listening through with the score, I know the exact measure number: 285 is where it starts. I believe this is the section that Berg described as death being present. The buildup to our quintuplet into that variation of the hate theme (with the second cymbal crash) never fails to send shivers down my spine, and how after reaching the highest peak of emotional intensity imaginable, Mahler somehow manages to make it build even more and more as it dramatically speeds up, even more as it descends chromatically, and in the chaos, the syncopated rythym symbolizing Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, with the motif that the harps played in the beginning now in the drums, shines through. It is probably my favorite section of any piece of music I have ever listened to. Words truly cannot describe what I feel when I just listen to this section, let alone play it. I think once we get that part good then it will take everyone’s breath away. I could just go on and on about Mahler. I owe my utter obsession with him and his music to you, and your performance of his second symphony. If not for it, I am not sure I would be close to the same musician I am today. My excitement for the weeks to come is indescribable!"
BZ:  By the time we leave for tour, I suspect everyone will be feeling this way!

Here is oboist Jeongwook Yi, writing about the previous week’s rehearsal and the previous two assignments. He provides a rather ingenious and useful insight into how, in Possibility, anticipating news can be a rich experience.

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"Dear Mr. Zander:
The rehearsal this Saturday was a lot of fun! I'm thoroughly enjoying both playing the Mahler and listening to the other sections' parts maturing musically under your guidance.In the first rehearsal, I noticed that instead of running through the movements first before breaking down the piece, you jumped right into imparting knowledge to the brass section about the context behind the opening horn solo. This indicated to me that there is just so much to be explored in Mahler's work that simply cannot be skimmed over in a read-through. I'm excited to hear and explore these layers even more in the near future.I know that this week’s assignment is to NOTICE THE CIRCLE YOU LIVE WITHIN AND EXTEND THE BOUNDARIES WITH LOVE. As I do that, however, I also intend to exercise last week’s assignment: “TO EXPERIENCE THE RICHNESS OF LIFE.  I submitted early application to college in November, and will be getting the results sometime this week (I applied early to Tufts University). No matter what the outcome is, I hope that I will be able to appreciate the emotions I feel in the grand scheme and understand that the disappointment I'll feel from getting rejected, the joy I'll feel from getting accepted, and the restlessness I'll feel from anticipating the results are all parts of the spectrum of emotion that make life so rich."

First stand violist, NEC Junior,  Aria Cheregosha, was unable to play on Saturday, because of a painful wrist, but she came to rehearsal anyway.  She has a request and some rather profound observations about the life of a musician:


"I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to play in rehearsal today, but I’m glad that you had the idea of me following along with the score. It’s so interesting! The rehearsal process is so different from the outside, especially in a piece like Mahler 9, which is so dense. It’s  amazing to hear how all the instruments interact and pass phrases back and forth. So much is lost when you are sitting in a section, as far as the big picture goes. It’s also hard to know what to fix to make it sound better, but sitting outside the orchestra makes it much more clear. An interesting idea just occurred to me: what if we were to upload the audio from the rehearsals and give us a link. We could make comments among ourselves and converse about what we hear. In my private solo practice, I have been recording myself almost every day, even when my repertoire is in its beginning stages. It has helped the learning process SO much. Because sometimes what you believe must be coming across clearly is actually not coming across at all! The ear does not lie! I think we could all learn a lot by hearing how our parts sound in the big picture, especially for the winds, brass, harps, and percussion. But for the strings as well!

I’m very frustrated with the pain in my left hand and I pray that it is nothing serious. I have been incredibly inspired with viola and music in general this entire semester. I crave to play my instrument all the time and having pain that prevents it is so crushing. I’m sure you have felt this way with your arm pain, which I hope is doing better. I have been reflecting a lot and thinking about my life in music and what I want to do that will both bring me happiness as well as others. I feel as though a lot of people in the music industry are in it for very selfish reasons. And it’s a fine line and very complex because if you want to become well known in order to reach and inspire a larger audience, you have to be selfish in a way and do competitions and make connections. I have never been great at marketing myself because it feels very un-genuine to me for all parties involved. My experiences in BPYO have helped me see a more genuine side to the music world, however. Our tour to Spain, playing for those who may have never heard an orchestra before, having free concerts in Symphony Hall, teaching meaningful life lessons with weekly assignments, sharing white sheets and thoughts via email… For me, doing outreach concerts through BPYO with my quartet, playing for Jane Goodall, all of this has had a huge impact on my heart. I truly do think about the love for myself, my ability to play an instrument, for all the people I play with, for my teachers, music I’m playing, etc. I believe 100% in the value of “Walk with spirit and love.” So much negativity in life comes from within. It’s all perception. You can feel completely satisfied with your life even if, to other people, you don’t appear to have a “conventionally successful” life. I feel so blessed to have been exposed to classical music. It makes me feel so much love in life, even in pain. It’s truly an exquisitely, beautifully heartbreaking art form. It’s incredible how transformative, therapeutic, and healing music is, and how perfectly it depicts life’s imperfections, especially in music such as Mahler 9."

BZ:  Aria, Your wish is my command: Click Here for the tape of Saturday’s rehearsal.

Some more notes from last rehearsal's white sheets:



In my six years playing in orchestras, I have never played a piece like Mahler 9. I have never had to work so much to play a piece.
Bar 110 the bass drum adds a truly dark, disturbing color.


Clara.Levrero - Clara Levrero-926833-edited.jpg


Oh my goodness. This rehearsal was such a journey for me. I feel like this movement is just one big secret, and as we rehearse and play through it, it gets revealed little by little. There were so many places in the movement where I could not stop smiling – the “etwas frischer,” measure 27, or the flute and horn duet at the end. It was all so beautiful and I cannot believe the feelings and emotions this music evokes in me. This is a big challenge for me to play, but one I am so overjoyed to overcome. I am so happy!
Thank you so much for this wonderful semester. I am learning so much and having the most amazing time. Thank you! 


The Mahler today was really something else. There are tender loving parts and harsh exciting ones as well. I can never quite figure out where the music is going, even though I’m playing it. I hope to be able to master this piece by the concert, so that the audience can truly enjoy Mahler.



BZ: This is such a beautiful observation, Nathan. You say you want to to master the music so that the audience can truly enjoy Mahler’s Ninth. Relating back to what Aria said, you have realized, at 13 years of age, something that many professional musicians never discover.  You have discovered the reason we practice!  To create shining eyes.

matthew zhou-390003-edited.png

MATTHEW ZHOU (viola) sets himself a monumental task:

At the end of the Mahler 6 last year, my dad told me he found Mahler symphonies boring. My goal by March 11 of next year is to have him think otherwise.
BZ: Matthew, I will join you in that task
JiSeok.Kim - Ji Seok Kim-662837-edited.jpg

JI SEOK, our MIT violinist makes a request:

I think it could be very helpful if we sent out via email a list of all German instructions by Mahler and their translations. If I could help you make such a list, I’d be happy to help!

BZ:  Click Here for a dictionary of all Mahler terms.

Since quite a bit of our tour this June will be spent in Austria and Germany, you might as well put some effort into mastering these phrases - they can come in really handy in  day-to-day conversations. When I went to study cello in Italy at the age of 15, I knew hardly a word of  Italian, but I was able to hand my cello to a porter with full confidence, because I remembered the Italian marking in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6 quartet: Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla piu gran delicatezza - which translates as “this piece must be treated with the greatest delicacy.”

JEHAN DIAZ (viola) reflects on the transformation caused by our first concert:

IMG_2769 - Jehan Diaz-923262-edited.jpg
"It’s been a few weeks since the first concert of the season, but I still can’t get this thought out of my mind. Three years ago and as a new member to the orchestra, I didn’t think that our mission and our weekly assignments would so drastically increase how much positivity I can radiate, even in the most mundane or melancholy of situations. Coming to rehearsal every Saturday is more than just a routine to me: it’s a weekly reminder that our passion for music has the power to move an audience to tears, a chance to reconnect with some of the most dynamic, enthusiastic people I could ever hope to meet. What makes me even happier is when I can share this experience with other musicians who wouldn’t otherwise have known about the BPYO. I encourage my friends to audition because I believe that their talent will shine at their audition, and because there is nothing to regret from becoming a member. After the concert, I could tell something had changed in everyone’s demeanor. Perhaps it’s the effect of playing in Symphony Hall, or performing alongside George Li, but whatever the reason may be, their eyes were truly shining. The Boston Philharmonic community is like no other orchestra, in that it has an energy buzzing from within that radiates throughout all parts of our lives. Now that I was able to introduce even just a few friends to this ensemble, I hope that the power of our music reaches communities beyond our own, building friendships and connections all around the globe."

BZ: I think we will use Jehan’s phrase “an energy buzzing from within that radiates throughout all parts of our lives” for our publicity material!

Did you notice how many white sheets are from violists?  Is there something about violists that makes them especially thoughtful, communicative, generous, articulate and profound - or is that just my imagination?

 I would urge you all to keep writing white sheets regularly, however short. Your observations don’t have to be profound. It is valuable to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), on a regular basis, so that you get more and more practice using words to describe your experiences.  With a lot of practice and a bit of luck you might end up writing like David St George:

"Hi Ben,
You know, Saturday’s remarkable rehearsal reminded me of a story Eugene Lehner told me years ago.

(BZ: I have told you many stories about Lehner during rehearsals. He was the violist of the Kolisch Quartet, which gave the world premieres of the Berg Lyric Suite, the Schoenberg Third and Fourth Quartets, the Bartok Fifth Quartet, and many other works that are now staples of the 20th century repertory. He had the most astonishing blue eyes that sparkled with wit, wisdom and humanity right to the end of his long life.) 

Sometime in the early 1930s Lehner played the Mahler Seventh under Anton Webern. Webern rehearsed in his usual intense and unworldly way, oblivious to time constraints and totally immersed in every detail of the intricate score, attuned to even the most subtle of nuances in a complex piece that had hardly ever been played since Mahler’s death. Lehner said the insights he brought were breathtaking, and he and everyone else in the orchestra worked with an intensity and oneness of purpose that he had experienced in chamber music, but never in orchestral playing.
Finally, the rehearsal period was over and it was time for the performance.  Webern had rehearsed, with unparalleled intensity, almost the whole of the first movement exposition, and no further!  For the remaining 4 ¾ movements they just had to wing it.  Needless to say, the performance, as a whole, was more than a little wanting.  But Lehner said that he learned more in that rehearsal – working on the first movement exposition in almost inconceivable depth – than he had ever learned playing under any other conductor, and he still felt when he told me this – 35 years later – that Webern was the greatest conductor he had ever played under.
I was reminded of this story when I was listening to Saturday’s rehearsal, because what happened within the orchestra was similarly amazing, as if gradually moving from the periphery of Mahler’s unique sound world nearer and nearer to the center. It wasn’t just a matter of sloppy, inaccurate playing gradually getting cleaned up. Far more, the rehearsal was about finding the Mahlerian spirit in every melodic turn, every harmony, every odd touch of orchestration, every expressive mark. By the time we were ready for the break the large and chilly room was steaming with the passion and lacerating emotional truth of this music. I was dumbstruck at how far the players had come, from the inchoate playing at the beginning of the rehearsal, to the focused intensity that was ultimately achieved.
Everyone knows how much you like shining eyes. The uncanny blue of Lehner’s would have been radiant.

JOE CRADLER-328166-edited.png

PS: We have just heard that, in their infinite wisdom, the top brass of the US Marines have allowed their newest recruit, horn player Joe Cradler, to delay his induction into the Marine Band, in order to play first horn in the Mahler 9th on tour to Europe!

Topics: White Sheets, Mahler, Possibility

Benjamin Zander

Written by Benjamin Zander

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