The 10 Most Vexing Problems for Music Directors . . .
with One Proven Solution!
By NAfME Member Robin Linaberry
With few exceptions, most directors of school music ensembles have shared the irritation of the same all-too-common challenges. Many music teachers—especially in their first years—become overwhelmed by challenges with the stress of the calendar, student motivation, audience sizes (and etiquette!), attendance, and more. In the next seven minutes you’ll learn how to insulate yourself from these frustrations while, more importantly, also adding an exciting new dimension to your entire school community. That’s a bold claim, I know, but let’s start by seeing if the following list sounds familiar:
- “The students have worked so hard; why are they performing for just their parents and a small handful of others?” – Our audiences are small.
- “Why can’t people just stay to the end of the concert??” – People leave when their kids are done.
- “Well, we need to let each group perform, and it takes extra time to change over from Band to Chorus to Jazz Band.” – The concerts are too long!
- “I’m sorry, young All-State clarinetist, but we just won’t have time to fit your solo into the spring concert.” – There’s no time to feature soloists or small groups.
- “My teacher chooses music for the average players, but that stuff is boring!” – The most outstanding performers don’t get challenged…
- … but the less-skilled musicians are frustrated. “Ugh. The teacher doesn’t even notice that I’m faking that whole song!”
- “The noise! The talking! People walking in and out! And, oh, the glow of faces hovering over their phones. Let me out of here!” – The audiences (and sometimes the students!) have bad etiquette.
- “Oh no. My band is last on this concert … what am I supposed to do with a hundred students for the next hour-and-a-half??” – It’s so hard to house and monitor students until it’s their turn to perform.
- “What if the audience just doesn’t understand this piece?” – It’s scary to take chances with unusual repertoire.
- “Most students seem disengaged, and they’ll just let the officers (and me!) do all the work for the concerts.” – Students don’t take ownership of their concert.
- Oh, let’s add a surprise bonus: “Field trips, tests, college visits, fire drills, a pep rally, two snow days … and now our Principal Trumpet player has the flu – Arrrrghh!!! How is it possible to prepare 4-5 major pieces for the upcoming concert??!”
In truth, this short list may be just the tip of a shape-shifting iceberg constantly sinking the hard-working music director. But there’s no denying it: Most of us have faced the same collection of pervasive challenges, many of which could be improved or even eliminated.
Enter the “Prism Concert,” known also as a Kaleidoscope Concert. This is a format, wide open to the creative design of the teacher(s) and students who prepare the concert. Much like a prism breaks light into its constituent colors, the Prism Concert breaks a music department into its large-, medium-, and small-sized musical components. The result is a seamless, non-stop array of performances from the large ensembles, chamber groups of all kinds, and soloists representing the music department. The end of each piece dovetails into the beginning of the next, with no time for applause, and no distractions from staging-changes. Moreover, each “act” may be staged as a dramatic scene, with its own lighting effects. So, for a short but exciting period of time, the audience is literally surrounded by this “sonic kaleidoscope” with its continuous display of ever-changing musical colors.
I can almost hear you nodding! For newcomers to this concept, a lightbulb just came on. You’re already visualizing how this marvelous event could work its magic. And those who present Prism Concerts annually are grinning confidently, as you replay what you’ve heard so many times: “Yeah, that’s my #1 favorite concert of the year!!”
We’ll pause briefly here for an important note: This article is only the “Why” approach to Prism Concerts. Come back soon for the “how-to” version, which will carefully detail the steps to producing a successful event. First, with this post I simply want to show you why a Prism Concert is an outstanding solution to begin erasing most of the perennial annoyances. Ok, now let’s get back to how the Prism Concert can solve each of those “vexing problems.”
#1 >> Small Audiences
With its fast-paced and compressed design, the Prism Concert allows many performances, packed tightly into a shorter amount of time. And each act brings its own entourage of parents, friends, and other supporters. Besides, this is an intriguing and highly enjoyable novelty that satisfies its listeners while motivating its performers; the audience happily comes back to other concerts. Additionally, in the “how-to” follow-up article, you’ll discover a few of the innumerable ways to foster involvement from classes, teams, clubs, community groups, and even adults within your school community. Each collaboration contributes to an easy equation: [more performers] = [a larger audience].
#2 >> What? People leave early?!
A Prism/Kaleidoscope concert is designed to be short. We typically see events that can feature 20 to 25 unique performances without passing the one-hour mark. The audience—already entertained—stays happily for the entire concert. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the concert takes place mostly in the dark, and the entire space is used by performers. Only the sneakiest spectators could successfully leave during the concert . . . but very few will even try!
#3 >> The “Never-Ending Concert”
This is so easily controlled by the design itself. A Prism concert’s duration is determined precisely by its organizers: We regulate the event’s exact length by including more or fewer acts, and by choosing repertoire wisely, including cuts when helpful (e.g., by avoiding a written repeat). And because all chairs, stands, microphones, equipment, etc., will be preorganized in their correct spaces, the concert is “music only” . . . there will be no lost time between pieces. You see, by carefully organizing a program of music totaling sixty minutes in duration, we can know in advance that our concert will be one hour long.
#4 >> And for our Outstanding Soloists & Small Ensembles
This is the perfect venue for them to perform for a large, appreciative crowd; typical “chamber music” concerts tend to have much smaller audiences at most schools. Your school has individuals and groups that are simply too good not to be recognized. Imagine the audience’s delight when they experience the All-State trumpet player, premier Saxophone Quartet, seniors-only Brass Choir, or the audio-visual spectacle of a refined Percussion Ensemble.
If your community relies on seeing photos of the Honor Band weekend, or reading about students’ achievements in a newsletter, they’ll never understand the maturity of these remarkable young musicians’ skills. The Prism Concert puts those students in the spotlight.
Oh, you still feel you won’t have enough time? Consider adding pre-concert performances by other groups/soloists in the foyer and throughout the halls, as people arrive. We’re creating opportunities (and memories!) for the students and the concert-goers alike.
Next is a bilateral problem (#5 and #6), seen in almost every music program. We build a concert program by choosing literature for many reasons, including stylistic variety, educational value, historical/cultural relevance, and more. Much of the chosen repertoire reflects a director’s attempt to match the ensemble’s upper-median skill level. Despite our best intentions, the music is often uninspiring for the advanced students (they may mistakenly believe it’s “too easy”), but too technically advanced for the less skilled musicians. For the latter, their frustrations may become our frustrations.
#5 >> My large-ensemble literature doesn’t challenge or inspire the most advanced students. However …
#6 >> …that same repertoire is too difficult for the youngest and less-skilled musicians.
Of course, we work carefully to choose literature at the “perfect” level for our students, but is it possible to meet everyone’s needs? Probably not. However, the concert’s featured musicians will choose repertoire that both interests and challenges them; this kind of opportunity will showcase them better than your full group’s repertoire can. Therefore, the Prism Concert provides keen motivation and educational value for the most advanced performers, who will gladly accept “easier” music during the full ensemble’s performance on this concert. There is certainly a wealth of high-quality music at every level of challenge.
A great secondary benefit of the Prism concert design is that, in many cases, the major ensembles will prepare just one piece each. Your large ensembles (and you!) are under less time-bound stress to prepare a long program. Therefore, in rehearsals during the weeks prior to a Prism concert, you can . . .
- dig deeper with the group’s musical expressiveness;
- explore more alternative rehearsal activities;
- allow structured time for your featured performers to work together elsewhere which, in turn, affords you more opportunity to work with the less-skilled students during class-time.
- get a head-start on other literature (think of your contest repertoire for later events!)
#7 >> Believe it or not (!), our audiences—yes, even our own students—sometimes display undesirable behaviors.
These short-form concerts are very engaging, and they offer no breaks in the music. The basic nature of a Prism Concert helps to improve the attention span for everyone involved. Still, this is an important topic, so the follow-up (“how-to”) article provides specific strategies designed for long-lasting enhancements to your community’s concert etiquette.
#8 >> What shall we do with so many students until it’s their turn?
The conundrum of a “large audience” is that fewer places remain for your students to sit in the auditorium. So, while a new plan perhaps may seem daunting, the Prism Concert also opens wonderful new possibilities.
First, depending on your venue and the itinerary of your concert, sometimes large groups can stay seated in their performance set-up for the entire concert. For example, large portions of the band might stay on the stage, while chorus members remain seated on risers in the Pit area, and perhaps the jazz ensemble is established on one extreme edge of the stage. Featured soloists and small-ensemble members travel inconspicuously, eventually returning to their large groups.
In other cases, students may need to wait outside the auditorium. Perhaps your IT staff can livestream the concert into the rehearsal classrooms, where your students will stay constructively engaged, watching their peers’ performances. Your creativity will determine the best strategy for your school’s application. Experience has shown that students enjoy the stealthy “ninja-like” character of this event, and their behavior improves to meet the audience’s needs.
#9 >> We worry about the audience’s reaction to unusual literature.
Actually, this may be the perfect forum for experimental programming. Audiences are more receptive to non-traditional music at this non-traditional concert event. Their enjoyment is amplified because the entire concept is so unusual. The concert’s rapid pacing—in conjunction with its transformative variety—works to provide something for everyone. That is, any opinionated listeners who don’t “get” Paulson’s Epinicion for band, or Monk’s Panda Chant II for the chorus, need to wait only moments for something else to replace it.
#10 >> Students don’t feel “ownership.”
This event is ripe with opportunities for student responsibility and leadership. It’s not surprising that students will prepare more carefully, and earlier, because they know they will be exposed. The details become very important to soloists and chamber group members, who realize they will be in a spotlight without their teacher’s help. Moreover, the remaining large ensemble members—those without a featured role—will still feel the personal obligation to be in the right place at the right time, without disrupting the flow of the event. Further, there are many tasks that can be assigned to students, individually or in groups. The “how-to” follow-up article will discuss several of those attractive opportunities. For example, the 3rd clarinetist who plays in only one piece might also enjoy serving as a guide during the concert, or a stage-crew worker delivering musical props, or even a score-reader to help the lighting technician know when to change scenes.
Oh, and perhaps you think I’ve selectively forgotten about those nagging disruptions. We all feel it when we lose an important rehearsal to a fire drill, or discover that the softball championship, after being rained out last week, has been unavoidably rescheduled to conflict with our concert. Too bad.
But the Prism Concert has allowed me more time for focused rehearsal on a shorter program with my largest ensembles. “We’ll have an exceptionally effective concert, but we only had to prepare one piece!” And with the extra time, I also got to rotate students through important roles during rehearsals; so, several qualified students are ready to perform important soloistic lines.
With a Prism Concert, everyone wins.
Come back next time to find out how!
About the author:
Retired 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.
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.
January 27, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)
January 27, 2023
January 27, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)