Mahler for geeks – devising a rehearsal schedule for a monster

One of the less obvious tasks of a conductor can be described under the heading of ‘rehearsal strategy’: ensuring that rehearsals are productive and enjoyable as possible. This is obviously very important, particularly for a non-professional orchestra where the players are giving up their valuable leisure time. No matter how satisfying the eventual performance, if rehearsals are boring or demotivating, players will soon vote with their feet!

Being a project-based orchestra, APO has a limited amount of time over the course of a few weekends before each concert – around 23 hours, if you count the general rehearsal on the day of the concert. Rehearsal strategy can’t just ‘happen’ when I first stand up in front of the band to sight-read the music at the first rehearsal; a plan must be put in place to get the best out of the time available. Naturally, that plan is provisional and will evolve as the rehearsals proceed.

These are some of the factors that need to be borne in mind when developing a rehearsal plan:

  • The need to cover all the musical material adequately during the course of the rehearsal period, with difficult sections given more time and focus to overcome technical challenges and promote listening/ensemble.
  • Avoiding players sitting around doing nothing for long periods when they’re not playing, if necessary by not requiring them to attend (this is less of a challenge for the strings, who are invariably involved in everything, but more of a challenge for the lower brass and percussion – though they usually bear the waiting as ‘par for the course’ when playing orchestral music on their chosen instrument).
  • The need for sectionals (to the uninitiated, that’s when sections of the orchestra split up and rehearse individually, rather than ‘tutti’, or all together), which can also include the availability and use of specialist tutors – APO usually employs at least two tutors per concert.
  • The availability, size and sound of rehearsal venues.
  • The availability of the players. Despite everyone’s enthusiasm and commitment, we are a non-professional ensembles and everyone has busy lives – it’s unheard of to have 100% of the players before the day of the concert. If I plan a brass sectional and only one trumpet can attend, that’s obviously pretty pointless.

What’s special about Mahler 3?

It’s HUGE! Normally, the length of an APO programme will be anything between 60-90 minutes, split across 3 or 4 pieces (2 of which usually have 3 or 4 movements). This makes formulating a schedule relatively straightforward, as it’s easy to breakdown. The Mahler is around 100 minutes, and the first movement is around* 34 minutes – that’s as long as many whole symphonies!

That’s quite overwhelming when sitting at a table with a blank piece of paper and some post-it notes. Clearly, there’s a need to breakdown the piece into movements to have a hope of coming up with a viable rehearsal plan. And actually, such was the challenge of breaking down the Mahler, that I went a little bit further than normal. This is where it gets geeky. I attach at least some blame to Melanie Le Breuilly for this. She is leading the orchestra for this concert and helped with what I’m about to present. She’s a Maths graduate (from the best university – Cardiff), the loveliest geek you’ll ever come across, and certainly one of the finest musicians I know. When we sat down and looked at the provisional analysis I’d done to help us devise the rehearsal schedule, well, things got a bit out of hand. We ended up with a huge spreadsheet and totally geeked out!

The first step was to break down the symphony not just into movements, but bits of movements. The rehearsal #s in the second column are figures that Mahler (or his publisher) put in to make it easier to say, ‘go from x‘ during a rehearsal. I listened to a recording, followed the score through and split them up into reasonable chunks that correspond to discrete sections that I thought would be useful to analyse. What you see on the left is the breakdown of the first movement.

It’s pretty arbitrary. If I did the same exercise today, I’d probably split it up differently. And differently again on another day. Some sections are as short as one minute; some as long as five. Regardless, it’s a start. In the ‘difficulty’ column, I’ve made an assessment not just of how tricky the notes are, but also how challenging they are to get together as an ensemble. There’s a lot of passages which are relatively straightforward to play individually, but where a lot of listening is required, or perhaps it’s difficult for me to be clear with my conducting (‘Surely not!’, I hear the players say, sarcastically).

Next step was to look at each individual part (of which there are nearly 50!) and decide, for each passage, how involved each player is – the ‘workload analysis’. This helps with the rest of the analysis, but is mainly for individual players, especially in the woodwind, brass and percussion (not so much for the strings – as I’ve said above, they’re usually in everything, though actually no so much in some sections of this piece). If you’re involved in a section, you’re marked as ‘green’ (‘Y’ with some conditional formatting), if not, red. Then there’s the bits where you have hardly anything to play, but that material might be of high importance (HI – dark orange) or lower importance (LI – light orange).

From the analysis of each part for each section, we created a ‘% forces’ column, to show roughly what percentage of parts are involved in each section. This was not only useful determining the rehearsal plan, it’s also handy for me to identify some ‘go to’ sections when I’ve got a tutti rehearsal and we’ve been bogged down rehearsing a bit where there’s a lot of players sitting around, potentially getting bored. But it’s even more useful as an individual player: you can look at the workload analysis and see fairly easily whether you’re needed during a particular rehearsal. If you’ve very little material and it’s ‘LI’, you might ask me whether it’s okay to skip that particular rehearsal, or at least be prepared by bringing a book to read!

Now we start to get really geeky. To help determine how much rehearsal goes on each section, or more generally which movement, Mel and I graded each section according to the difficulty rating I’d assigned earlier: E (easy) = 1, M (medium) = 2 and H (hard) = 3, then multiplied that by the length of each section in minutes. By dividing that by the total number of minutes, we could then calculate a % of rehearsal time for each section, and total it into each movement. Naturally, we checked the face validity of this versus the score study I’d done up to this point. The split was as follows. What’s particularly interesting is what the value is compared to the percentage of time each movement represents in the symphony (in brackets):

  • 1st movement – 35% of rehearsal time (36% of the piece)
  • 2nd movement – 11% (10%)
  • 3rd movement – 18% (17%)
  • 4th movement – 10% (9%)
  • 5th movement – 5% (5%)
  • 6th movement – 23% (22%)

“What a waste of time!”, I hear you cry. After all that analysis, the percentage of rehearsal effort require equates pretty much with the percentage length of movement. But remember that some of the movements are very long. The real value is the breakdown of rehearsal time for each little section, as you can see with the small example on the right. It’s from the 6th movement. The section from rehearsal numbers 21-25 is slightly longer than 25-28, but the latter requires nearly 30 minutes’ more rehearsal. And with only 24% of the players, it’s a candidate for a sectional (it really is – it’s the brass chorale which ushers in the glorious conclusion of the piece, and while it’s very beautiful, it’s a big challenge for the brass players in terms of sound, breathing and balance).

I can’t necessarily account for each minute in the rehearsal schedule like this, but I can be prepared to spend longer – maybe even dedicated specific sessions or parts of sessions, on sections that need more time. I might well have done this anyway, had we not done the analysis, but this would have been based on instinct, rather than informed analysis***.

And finally, to actually allocating time in the schedule to each movement/section. I mentioned earlier we have roughly 23 hours of rehearsal. 3 of those are on the day, so we’ve kept them in reserve and not ‘planned’ for them (the rehearsal on the day is very often governed by availability of soloists, and in this case, two separate choirs**). Each ‘half’ of each rehearsal session is about 1.1 hours, allowing for a bit of faff time/lateness and a generous tea break (very important!). So our final sheet saw us try to divvy up the allocated time for each movement into the various sessions, using clever formulas to show us how much time was left for each movement. We quickly ran out of time for some movements and had to reign in the desired amount of time, also ensuring that rehearsal effort was spread across the different rehearsal days so that we’re not doing too much on any given day (promoting a ‘scaffolding’ approach to learning, as well as making sure that if an individual player misses a day’s rehearsal, they don’t miss out of learning a particular section) whilst not falling into the trap of trying to make it too bitty, which would be as difficult to fulfil as it would be frustrating to execute.

It will never be perfect (no model is). It will definitely need changing. But it’s a start. Even though the rehearsal schedule is still ‘by movement’, Mel and I know which sections need more rehearsal time than others. We will try to keep track of how much time we’ve given to each section – not necessarily to be slaves to the analysis, but to see whether this extensive exercise in geekery was useful, or whether I should have just relied on my instinct, anyway! Either way, I really enjoyed working with Mel on this. It was a really good way for us to connect on the structure and challenges of the piece, as we begin this epic journey, which will end with what I’m sure will be an equally-epic performance on 20th October.


*And for this and other practical reasons, we’ll be having an interval after the first movement.

** A children’s choir (being provided by the University of Reading’s ‘Universal Voices’) and a women’s choir, bringing the total number of performers up towards 150!)

*** Interestingly, if you believe my DISC profile, I prefer to do things on the fly, rather than in this very structured way.