Through the Prism:

A Compelling Solution to Your Vexing Problems (Part 2)

By NAfME Member Robin Linaberry

Just for a moment, the thunderous applause from a capacity crowd goes silent, replaced by the director’s passing daydream of how things might have been. Only several years earlier, students were unmotivated by music they felt was too simplistic or, worse, frustrated by compositions beyond their skill level. The director felt too hesitant to select certain literature, and undeniably awkward when people complained that concerts were long (sometimes very long!), even though there was never time to feature the most advanced, deserving musicians. And the sparse concert audiences dwindled after each group, as disengaged parents realized, “Hey, my kid is done, so we can leave now.” But now tonight’s sincere ovation is a loud reminder that the addition of a Prism Concert has improved the entire culture of this music department.

male singers

Photo by Lisa Helfert

While it may seem like an odd approach for a music education blog, this article is not about teaching music! There’s no attempt to sell you on a method or share a specific pedagogical technique. Rather, this is all about how to successfully design and produce a Prism Concert which, in turn, will help you to …

  • … direct a vibrant music program;
  • … motivate your students;
  • … find ways to include ALL of your students with opportunities matched to their needs;
  • … solve your nagging perennial problems; and
  • … keep the entire school community engaged with your program through this very special event.

My first article revealed how a Prism Concert can solve many educational problems while enriching your entire community. Today’s follow-up article provides the “how to” blueprint, briefly outlined here:

  1. Planning: We’ll discuss how to design (or improve the design of) your unique event. This segment addresses your objectives, the venue, and some suggested philosophical decisions to consider in advance.
  2. Production: Here are suggestions to reduce your angst about the complexities of setting up your marvelous event, especially regarding the concert order and how to share students in multiple groups without conflicts.
  3. Performance: Under this header, we’ll look at some strategies, tips, and tools to help ensure a successful, exciting event.

Since this could be a deep topic, at the end of this article I’ll provide a link to a collection of additional downloads to help with your project. Enjoy!

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PREFACE – An Overview:

The Prism Concert concept was introduced a half-century ago at the Eastman School of Music by Donald Hunsberger and Gustav Meier. In its most basic state, this unique format envelops the audience with different styles of music performed by a wide variety of ensembles, as well as soloists. Much like a prism breaks light into its component parts, the Prism Concert breaks the department into its musical performance components. This dramatic concert—which may also include artwork, acting, dance, film, props, and other non-musical elements—becomes a collage of soloists, duets, trios, other chamber groups, along with the full-sized ensembles. The music is continuous. The beginning of each new act is synchronized with the final notes of the previous, so the listeners’ attention is shuttled naturally from one performance to the next. By design, there are no interruptions from applause or staging chores, and the entire venue is utilized, rather than just the stage.

The total event can be condensed to this basic design:

5 minutes: Pre-Concert introductory speech, possibly including a demonstration act to “warm up” the audience. Perhaps choose a timed slideshow or video presentation rather than a live emcee; this option offers additional possibilities, including acknowledgements, honors lists, calendar details, community announcements, and more.

50-60 minutes: The Prism Concert, with numerous varied performances using all spaces (Stage, Pit, perimeter, inner aisles, balcony, stairway, etc.). Consider a gradual trajectory from soloists and smaller groups toward larger ensembles, perhaps with a “Grand Finale” involving the entire department.

2-5 min: “Bows” and personnel recognitions, not unlike curtain calls at the end of a musical; remember the crew!

With careful, strategic planning, a single musician can participate in multiple performances, even at different locations throughout the venue. The cornerstone of the planning, of course, is to schedule performances so that shared students are never active in two adjacent acts. Therefore, the order will allow “high-achiever Whitney” to play Tenor Sax in the Jazz Band, sing in the Mixed Chorus, perform a Piano solo, and play Clarinet in the Band, Wind Ensemble, and Clarinet Choir, all on the same concert. It’s a bit of a klotski—a slide puzzle, where moving one block affects all other blocks—but by adhering to a version of the following suggestions, you’ll find success right away. Soon you’ll discover, adapt, and invent your own innovative strategies.

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PART 1 – PLANNING:

Note – Because there’s no one-size-fits-all plan, view these suggestions with creative eyes. “How can this basic planning template be adapted for our unique situation?”

The first steps must always involve several main “big-picture” decisions:

  1. Your Objective – Who will be involved, and who will oversee the production? This could be your district, or just one building. It may be a single strand (e.g., “Bands only”) or all-encompassing. Will yours be a collaborative event, and with whom?
percussion

Photo by Lisa Helfert

  1. Your Venue – Where will the event take place? You’ll think of auditoriums first, but it may also be in a gymnasium, or offsite using a theater, church, college, arts center, or somewhere distinctive to your plan.
  1. Your Theme – Perhaps you’ll begin with a “variety-show” approach, with an array of great performances. Or, will your event be bound under one thematic umbrella? The following suggestions demonstrate options:
    • Large Ensemble Showcase – Not specifically recommended due to space issues, this is nonetheless a good way to start. Consider putting all large groups in a gymnasium, and then run consecutive performances without time between.
    • A Building-Wide Prism Concert – Present groups/soloists from one building’s music department (“the high school”)
    • An “All-District” Prism Concert – Feature soloists/ensembles representing all ages and buildings within a district, leading gradually to a finale that incorporates (for example) the combined members of the elementary, middle school and high school Bands.
    • A Topic-Themed Prism Concert – Unify the concert by historical periods, composers, styles, or any other themes (e.g., “A World Tour” – “Time Travel” – “Grammy Winning Music” – “Disney Movies” – “A Multi-Cultural Revue”)
    • An Honors Prism Concert – This approach involves musicians selected through a competitive audition for inclusion as featured performers. Or, students may only be featured if they’ve already qualified for a county, regional, or state event.
    • A Composers’ Showcase – The musical selections have been composed or arranged specifically for the event, perhaps by the students themselves. Note: this can work at all levels.
    • A Multi-Media Prism Concert – This approach easily incorporates film, slide-shows, artwork, dancers, gymnasts, poets, actors, or other non-musical acts.
    • A Collaborative Prism Concert Invite exceptional soloists and ensembles representing the community, area colleges, local private teachers, or professional guest artists. Consider hosting a clinician for the day, who will then be featured at night.
    • A Holiday Prism Concert – This is both popular and well-received!

The next steps will create an organized template—a “fill-in-the-blanks” planner—matched to your department’s needs. Note: I recommend coming to early agreement on all aspects of your collective plan. A well-planned roll-out helps to avoid many potential problems.

  1. Determine your target concert length. By establishing the event’s duration, you’re providing guidance for many other decisions, including how many acts to accept, and the maximum length of any single performance. Moreover, knowing the concert’s total length can control tie-breakers and other acceptance/rejection decisions, especially when students themselves have agreed upon the expected duration.
  2. Develop your philosophy.  Who will be included? That is, will the featured acts be chosen …
    • … by live audition? (and how are these auditions evaluated, and by whom?)
    • … by “quota” from each participating teacher?
    • … using adjudication scores? (for example, a solo festival score, or an honor festival audition)
    • … by seniority among students?
    • … through qualification from accumulated merit points?
    • OR??

Think carefully. The philosophy you develop—perhaps even as a written document—may prove helpful to guide certain choices, including these examples:

    • Which piano soloists will be accepted, and why?
    • How will ties be broken among equally deserving students?
    • Will students be allowed to participate if not enrolled in a music course? (e.g., rock bands)
    • Could a student group ever be displaced by an “outsider” act, and why?
    • Should limits be established even before auditions? For example, “Solos must be less than 3:30 to be considered.”
  1. Publish a calendar, including:
    • the deadline for students’ Solo and Small Ensemble applications
    • audition date(s)
    • when the final slate of “acts” will be released (think of a Cast List poster)
    • the due date for details from performers (title, composer, names, equipment, etcetera)
    • production task dates for teachers/planners
      • when the order of acts will be established
      • when lighting/drama/staging choices will be designed
      • meetings with teams
      • work sessions for chairs/stands, lighting, technology, PA equipment, et cetera
      • Think ahead carefully to build your calendar

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PART 2 – PRODUCTION:

Let’s start with a review of perhaps the biggest obstacle:

The Task: Create an order that can accommodate shared musicians, and shared spaces

The Problem: Neither the same musician nor the same space can be used in adjacent/successive “acts”

The Solutions =

        1. Your creative ingenuity,
        2. LOGIC, and
        3. the use of tools we’ll explore next
rock band guitar

Photo by Lisa Helfert

To design a successful concert order will require information about each act, but many of these details are obvious. For instance, the performance locations will be based mainly on the size of the group, and what equipment is required. But it’s easy to determine that the Band will need the full stage, while a Piano Soloist will of course require a piano! Of equal importance, if “Whitney” is a member of the Clarinet Choir and the Mixed Chorus, then those two groups cannot perform without at least one act between them.

The important task here is to create a list of students who will perform in multiple acts. Then, work to design an order that avoids conflicts with those shared students. Remember that during your planning stages, you’ve already collected details about each act.

Next, I’ll recommend compiling all details into a master “Information Collection” device. Consider Excel spreadsheets, Google Sheets, or any other sortable method. For many years, I used Excel, adding several columns that allowed me to sort the order; I also used the “Find” function to look for shared-students’ names in adjacent acts. However, you might prefer index cards, which can be shuffled numerous times to discover a workable order. Or, search for a scheduling app with a conflict-resolution feature.

A check-up: Provide your order in print for shared students to examine. Whitney will quickly notice her conflicts: “Mr. L, I can’t play Clarinet for Act #7 and then make it to the Pit for Act #8 in time to sing in Chorus.” With just a little practice, you’ll see how to juggle acts successfully, even if—on occasion—a “filler” act must be inserted (consider the novelty of a short accordion solo performed in an aisle by a well-liked teacher!).

Once your concert order has gone through several careful troubleshooting stages, share it with participants, still looking for remaining conflicts.

cellos. A prism concert is a compelling solution to many ensemble directors' vexing problems.

Photo by Lisa Helfert

I highly recommend this optional step based on years of experience: we can use a “Merge” feature to create individualized plans for all Acts. Whitney would therefore have six unique plans, giving careful instructions for each of her acts. From your detailed Excel file, for example, you can easily provide students with all of these details, personalized for each act:

  • The # of the act
  • The location in the venue: by “code,” by text description, or with a map
  • When to Enter, and Exit (e.g., “enter during Madrigal Choir, Act #6”)
  • The pathways to be used (Example: “enter using the Orchestra Room door to backstage, then emerge from Stage Left”)
  • Additional information may include: standard reminders, assigned tasks (e.g., “Chris controls the stand lights with the power-strip switch”), advice in case something goes awry, curtain call instructions, et cetera

Another optional step increases your efficiency: provide instructions for Crew members. People in charge of sound, curtains, audio-visual projection, props, and other components will be more effective with well-written instructions. The lighting technician(s) may need a score-reader’s help to identify when to change scenes.

Finally, encourage students to build a customized Guide Sheet. That is, Whitney will record where to leave her Tenor Sax and music, her Clarinet and folder, and “when-to-be-where” without forgetting materials! I create a blank sheet, encouraging the busiest multi-act performers to scribe their personalized instructions.

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PART 3 – PERFORMANCE: 

These optional suggestions will contribute to a nicer concert and will make the performers jobs easier.

After providing the details to all participants, you and your students will set up the entire venue: all chairs, stands, instruments, percussion, pianos, lighting/sound choices, and other details are now pre-established.

I recommend a dress rehearsal, of course, but the focus should be on staging, movement, and transitions rather than on the music. This dry-run—at first using a fully-lit room—exposes problems with equipment placement, students’ memory lapses, and the potential for collisions in the aisles as students travel between acts. The lighted walk-through can take only a few minutes. Repeat it, now with the venue darkened. The performers can and should rehearse their music in the venue, but can do so on their own time.

multicolored arrows showing traffic flow

iStockphoto.com | JuSun

Your event may become more efficient with “traffic flow” plans in place. Consider glow-in-the-dark tape for aisles and stairs. If your non-performing students are waiting in their respective classrooms, an internal livestream will be extremely helpful, both for the timing of performers’ movements, and for managing the behavior of the students, who will be engaged watching their peers. Volunteers might hold up backstage placards for each Act (“#12” on a poster) to keep the “on-deck” students informed of the timeline. Perhaps you’ll even use a group messaging app to keep large numbers of participants informed.

On this page find a collection of sample documents, performance “tools,” graphics, and more. These materials will complement what you’ve just read in these two articles.           

Final Thoughts

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel! Experienced Prism Concert producers will gladly share their suggestions.
  • Start “easy”—you’ll find ways to grow and improve
  • It’s easy to get large numbers involved: consider teachers, community groups, local TV personalities, Theory/Composition classes, Technology/Video production classes, guest artists, Modern Band groups, your student teacher, actors-singers-artists-dancers-craftspersons-and-on-and-on. There’s no limit to the possibilities!
  • Your Prism Concert tradition will become very popular. Consider having two or more performances, even on the same evening. Showtimes at 6PM and 8PM, for example, will be effortless because your equipment set-up doesn’t change. The “double-feature” offers extra opportunities to your students, and helps control crowd sizes for large audiences.

A Prism Concert can support your efforts with the culture of your program, student leadership/mentoring, individualized goals for everyone, and equity for all students. Regarding the latter (inclusion), imagine how the design of a Prism Concert allows a blind musician to be “in place” when the spotlight comes on, or how well the audience accepts and supports a student requiring an assistant, particularly when that student participates as a member of a featured small ensemble. Your careful planning makes this the ideal event to offer perfectly matched opportunities for any student. With a Prism Concert, everyone wins.

So, what’s holding you back?! Your students, audiences, and entire community will soon call this “My Favorite Concert of the Year!”

Meet the author in person at a live session, Through the Prism: A Concert for Collaboration and Unlimited Creativity,” at the NAfME Eastern Division Conference in Rochester, New York, on Saturday, April 15 at 10:45AM.

About the author:

Robin LinaberryRetired Director of Bands at Maine-Endwell Senior High School in Endwell, New York, and author of Strategies, Tips, and Activities for the Effective Band Director, NAfME member Robin Linaberry is a multi-faceted musician, highly regarded for his work as a teacher, conductor, performer, educational mentor, clinician, and speaker. He is a state Chair for The National Band Association, conductor of the award-winning Southern Tier Concert Band, and Head Director Emeritus for the American Music Abroad Red Tour. Robin has been published in numerous journals, honored by many organizations, and consistently lauded for the effectiveness of his engaging rehearsal strategies.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

March 10, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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