A Wedding Music Compass 1.0: Finding Good Musicians

wedding compass

I had a delightful meeting with an engaged couple last night. Their wedding is still nearly a year in the future, but time flies and ducks must be lined up in their row. Plus, with a May wedding, you can’t book good musicians too early.

As I get older, I find I love consulting on weddings more and more. Maybe it’s my personal maturity peeking above the din, or maybe couples come with more reasonable expectations than they did in the 80’s. Whatever the reason, I find I would prefer to play a wedding these days as much as a funeral.

I’d like to offer a series of posts on how to choose music for a wedding. For people visiting for the first time, I’ll make a confession up-front. I will approach the topic as a church musician who works with couples who have opted for a church wedding. My background is as a Roman Catholic, but much of what I will write will apply to other religious traditions. I’m not a conservatory-trained musician. My academic background is in theology. I think the spirituality of a wedding liturgy or ceremony is paramount. If you want a fancy show and are putting your effort into the reception and honeymoon, then God bless you for that. Take what you like and leave the rest, as they say in 12-step groups.

Some couples enter the wedding music process with a good idea of what they want. They might be musicians themselves. They might have admired selections at a family member’s wedding, or liked the musicians who played at a friend’s. They might have a cd of “Twenty Wedding Hits of the 1990’s” or they might even have surfed the net and found some really nice stuff to cram into their iPod. If you’re looking for good music, there’s never been a better time to find it.

Many couples have few ideas about wedding music. They are at a loss when their church organist starts playing samples. They might shrug their shoulders and say, “Sounds good.” And it likely will on the wedding day. This is not a bad way to go. If you are sure you’ve booked an excellent church musician (ask your pastor or church music director for a few good references) and put the whole thing in her or his hands, and you just want it to sound good, you probably won’t be disappointed with the result.

To kick off this series, let’s look at hiring church musicians and what you would likely find where you live.

1. If you are a churchgoer, listen to the organists, pianists, and singers at your church. If you hear somebody you consistently like, there’s a good bet that this person would do well for your wedding. It is very appropriate to hang out until the last postlude is played, ascend the choir loft or head over to the piano and ask, “My bff and I are engaged. May we talk to you about playing at our wedding?’ You set up an appointment, and things flow from there. (I’ll address how to “dialogue” with a musician in a later post.)

2. If you aren’t a churchgoer, but are getting married in the church, three things:

a. There’s never been a better time to start going to church.

b. Most church musicians have more experience than almost all non-church musicians in playing weddings. You might go to a Sunday service at the church at which you plan to get married. Check out the “home field” musicians first, especially if they sound good to you. The advantage of booking the home team is that they have the keys, they know the instruments and the quirks, they can set everything up and put it away, and they work with the rest of the church staff there.

c. There is the option of church-hopping. I don’t recommend it as a spiritual practice once you find a good faith community. But it is possible to inquire about the churches in your area with the best music programs, attend their services, and check out the musicians and singers from the pew. Time consuming? Yes, but look on the bright side: you might find a really good church to join.

3. If you aren’t a churchgoer, have no intention of being a churchgoer, and aren’t getting married in a church. Well … you still can’t go wrong hiring a church musician. And there’s always the yellow pages, or recommendations from friends. I have little advice for you that doesn’t apply to church weddings. Good luck.

Some churches employ what is called a bench fee. This means that the church’s music director is paid less than a full salary. In return, the pastor “guarantees” an income for the musician from weddings, funerals, and other special events. If you don’t book the music director to play your wedding, you may have to pay a fee to her or him anyway. This is a long-standing custom in many Protestant churches. It’s not unknown among Catholics, especially back east. It’s not total crack. Most music directors who command this stipulation in their contract are excellent musicians.

Maybe you have musical friends. Great. Lots of people consider me their friend and I’ve played at their weddings, and I think I do pretty well for them. I’ve also been a church musician for thirty years, I sing, I play a bunch of different instruments, and I can learn music from a tape or cd.

Maybe you think that if Uncle Joe and your bff’s little sister would make a great combo for your wedding. Maybe Aunt Judy can sew all the bridal dresses and do everybody’s hair, too. The mothers can put together some appetizer plates for the reception, and the father of the bride can take pictures on his cell phone and your grandparents’ backyard will make a great place for the reception. If this is your style, great. You will probably have the most wonderful wedding that family love and affection can piece together.

Consider the overall effort on the wedding. There’s nothing wrong with everybody pitching in to have a friendly, informal celebration. But … if you are going professional on flowers, hairdressers, clothing, reception & parties, DJ or band, honeymoon, transportation, photography & videography, you might want to think about the overall balance. Nervous but earnest Uncle Joe strumming on dvd, but at least everybody gorged on the pate de foie gras afterward.

You may be on a budget, but laying out good money for good wedding musicians will not be a disappointment. In the next post, I’ll tackle how you can talk to a wedding musician, what you can expect to pay, what service you can reasonably expect to receive for your investment, and such. But for now, I’ll leave my comment box for other friends to chime in with suggestions on how to find good wedding musicians.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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5 Responses to A Wedding Music Compass 1.0: Finding Good Musicians

  1. Bob B. says:

    I noticed the hammer dulcimer at the top of your blog. I also play hammer dulcimer at a Catholic church. I suspect there aren’t too many of us!

  2. Todd says:

    Bob, thanks for visiting and posting. Indeed, no, there are not too many. I’ve been playing much more regularly in my new parish. I’m fortunate to have a situation in which I can sit in with various music groups and fill in the gaps.

    Just last week, I probably played a historically unique arrangement to the Hornpipe from Water Music: organ accompaniment, trumpet on the trumpet parts, and hammer dulcimer on the “horn” parts. Fun. Don’t know how the overall piece sounded from the pew, but it was fun.

    If I had my choice on that piece, it would have been way cool to do with guitar instead of trumpet. Ever try the Vivaldi Mandolin concerto on hammer dulcimer?

  3. Pingback: A Wedding Music Compass 2.1: Meeting Wedding Musicians « Catholic Sensibility

  4. Excellent post. Hope to read even more great posts in the near future.

  5. While we are taking on the topic of A Wedding Music Compass 1.0: Finding Good Musicians Catholic Sensibility, Another of the important wedding photography tips to be aware of is to create a “shot list” before going to any job. This is vital to keep you organized and on track while at the wedding. The average wedding takes place over the course of a day, and with all the excitement and business of the day, it can go by faster than expected.

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