Try a Prism Concert . . .


While traditional-format concerts may work best for most music presentations, a different approach in programming can have an electrifying effect on performers and the audience. A Prism Concert, named for the prism which reveals the varied colors of light, presents the many facets of musical experience in as pure a form as possible, without applause, gaps between performances, and visual distraction. Want to try something different in programming at your school or church? Read the following . . . and try a Prism Concert.

Promptly at the listed time, the concert hall doors close and the auditorium totally darkens. A moment later a spotlight illuminates a pianist who at that instant begins a Bach toccata. As the last arpeggiated chord sounds and the spotlight fades, the opening notes of a choral number ring out; a change in lighting now reveals a group standing on risers in a front corner of the auditorium.

And the program continues until the audience has heard the orchestra playing from the pit, a guitarist seated on a platform in the middle of the auditorium, a singer on an elevated area in the back corner of the stage, an organist, another choir in the balcony, a harpsichordist, a brass group, and the band on center stage - all in immediate succession and lighted appropriately.

The audience, which has been quiet throughout the performance, responds enthusiastically as the band finishes its number and the house lights come up. The reaction to this collage of music is clear as applause ends in a standing ovation.


Over 25 years ago, Eastman School of Music initiated what it called a Prism Concert, a nonstop program that showcased many facets of its world-famous music program. It was an immediate success and continued for many years as a popular annual event at Eastman.

Two different adaptations of that concept have successfully been done at Walla Walla University over the last fifteen years. The following narrative describes that experience.

The first attempt at this type of programming at WWU was with a series of Christmas Celebration concerts which started in December 1993. Although there were some modifications, basic concepts associated with a prism concert were followed, namely, a prompt beginning of the program with no late admittance; presentation in a darkened room; a variety of groups and soloists; numbers following one another immediately, changes in lighting to focus the audience's attention, and no applause between numbers.

The modifications included appropriate seasonal flowers, Christmas trees and evergreen heavily decorated with lights, and a large wreath decorated only with clear lights, hung in the center of the back of the performance area. The lighting of the trees and other greenery consisted of four colors of lights, all of which could be used separately or in combination with a dimmer control panel.

The traditional organ prelude was omitted since its effect would be lessened by the usual buzz that precedes a program of this nature. The program started at the listed time with a partial dimming of the house lights and an appropriate welcome and invocation by the President of the college.

During the invocation the house lights were fully dimmed, the decorative lights changed, and appropriate lighting for the first number was set so that the music could start as the prayer ended.

Once started, the program continued like a prism concert but with subtle seasonal lighting changes happening in addition to the usual shifts in lighting.

Because it was a sacred concert, the ending was modified to include a choir recessional into the sanctuary immediately following the last number, with the singers carrying candles. Then, surrounding the congregation, they joined with them in the singing of traditional carols, led by the organist. Silent Night, sung a cappella on the final verses, closed the program, and the choir then filed out while the organ played a postlude.

Additional modifications in the program occurred in subsequent years. When spontaneous applause happened, despite requests to the contrary, the program simply immediately resumed as it subsided. Applause for the program itself occasionally happened after the final number on stage. Immediately after an acknowledgement by the performers and an end of the applause, the sanctuary was darkened, except for minimal decorative lighting of the stage greenery, and the choir recessional began.

The success of that format led to increased attendance at the Christmas concerts and, eventually, the giving of two performances, both in the same evening. However, changes in personnel and a shifting emphasis in the program itself led to a drift away from the prism concept.


The second venture in this type of programming started in the spring of 2001, when the department was asked to develop a music program that would promote the department and hold the interest of academy students who came to the campus in the spring for College Days. Since the goal of this presentation was to introduce prospective students to all aspects of the department, the prism concert concept seemed ideal.

Although it was given in the college church where the Christmas Celebrations had been held, the sanctuary had since been totally renovated. An expanded platform had been created, major acoustic improvements had occurred and a state-of-the-art lighting system was now partially in place.

Facilitated by these improvements, the prism concepts were fully applied and the program was labeled by that name. Kraig Scott, music department chair, and Trina Thompson, piano and theory teacher, started to plan for the April concert as the school year began. Scott contacted Morihiko Nakahara, who had worked with a similar program at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He made several suggestions and sent a copy of the flow chart used at CCM. As the school year progressed and Scott and Thompson attended recitals and programs, they watched for numbers and performers that might be included. In January, they invited the faculty to provide a list of possible performers and numbers, along with copies of the music to be used and timings.

With music in hand, they looked for possible cuts in the music when a number and performance were desirable but too long, mindful of preserving the integrity of the work. While this was possible in some solos and smaller group numbers, it was not in works by the larger ensembles.

Thompson in consultation with Scott then led out in deciding what would be used, and where it would be scheduled in the program. The goal was to fairly represent every studio and ensemble in the department.

Decisions on the sequence of numbers within the concert were made based on the keys of adjoining numbers, tempo, mood, length, timbre, and overall impact of each work. Students who were in multiple groups became yet another factor in this aspect of planning.


Other planning considerations included the physical set-up and location of the soloists and groups, and lighting needs, complicated by the fact that the lighting system was not yet automated. Special platforms were constructed and the control panel used in the Christmas Celebration concerts was adapted for use in overall lighting. Fortunately, Since the concert was at night, the auditorium would be dark.

A detailed script was created so that everyone would know where to be, what to do, and when. Two dress rehearsals focused on familiarizing everyone with these details, more than on having an actual playing run-through. It was assumed that all participants were ready to play and that understanding how to achieve precise and timely starts was the most important goal.


All of the planning and effort were vindicated when the academy students gave the program a standing ovation. A repeat performance was given in chapel the following week to the college students and faculty, who also responded with a standing ovation.

The Prism Concert has now been given in eight successive years to both academy and college students with the same result. It was also given on the Friday evening of Alumni Weekend in the spring of 2003, the response being so positive that its is now a regular and popular feature in that weekend's activities.


While the preceding narrative describes how one school approached the challenge of producing a prism concert, others may approach the task in a different way and with their own modifications. Whatever the approach, the following suggestions are offered:

1. Have one person, empowered by the faculty, who makes final decisions based on input from the group. This is not a committee project.

2. Proceed on the basis of a highly detailed flow chart and schedule.

3. Develop a detailed script for the program, with timings and all needed information such as lighting, ushering detail, etc.

4. Use the dress rehearsal not as playing run-through or time for rehearsing, but as a time to clarify logistics and the sequence of the program.

Ready for something different in programming? Why not try a prism concert?

Dan Shultz

Winter/Spring 2004 IAMA Notes, updated 2008