Ten Questions You Should Ask Your Wedding Ceremony Musicians

FB_IMG_1443691181801If string quartet or harpist immediately springs to mind when you consider your ceremony music, you have to read this…

You have your heart set on walking down the aisle to live music, so the obvious choice is string quartet or harpist. But apart from being a bit last century could you also be missing out on other opportunities? 

These are the 10 Questions you should be asking when looking for a Wedding Ceremony Musician…

1 Can I Afford the Live Music I Want?

Let’s cut to the bottom line: Everyone is on a budget, and you need to know how much this is going to cost, but be very careful when comparing prices as there can often be hidden extras involved…

Rather than asking “how much do you charge for…?” instead you should be asking “what is included in your price for…?” Some musicians charge per time spent at the venue, from the moment of arrival to the time of departure. I think this is misleading, as time spent at venue does not equal time spent playing. In my experience this can amount to between 1 and 2 hours of ‘not playing’ if set-up and down, breaks and meal times – or just hanging around between different parts of the day – are charged for. Of course it is up to the individual to work out how to cost their services, but if you are paying for 3 hours, you need to know whether that is three hours of music, or more like one and a half.

Quartet, Trio, Duo or Soloist?

Generally speaking the cost will increase in proportion to the number of musicians engaged, so a string quartet will usually charge more than a piano/violin duo of a similar standard. Sometimes a quartet may offer a trio or duo option to cut costs, but beware: Changing the formation of the group will seriously reduce the repertoire available, and may limit it to classical music only, as pop arrangements are often for quartet only. On the whole you are much better to go with the standard formation offered – so if you want a trio, look for a genuine trio – don’t employ a quartet and ask one of the members to drop out – cheeky, misguided, and more than a bit insulting.

When it comes to soloists the matter is a little different and you should expect to pay more than pro rata rates for a genuine solo performer. There are two main reasons for this: To perform solo takes a great amount of skill, nerve, experience and responsibility. Also larger instruments are difficult to move around, so a charge, traditionally called ‘porterage’ may also figure in the price, e.g. for piano or harp. But a soloist may offer other benefits such as the use of backing tracks for a fuller sound,  amplification through a PA system,  free arrangements, or accompanying a wedding guest, and they will certainly be more flexible and accommodating than a larger group could be, allowing you to better personalise the musical experience. If you are looking for specific pieces to be played, a soloist such as a pianist, guitarist or harpist or a singer or instrumentalist who uses backing tracks to perform with can be a sensible and often much cheaper option than paying for arrangements for a larger ensemble.

Travel Costs

Most musicians will include travel to and from a local venue in their pricing. Find out what they mean by ‘local’ as additional transport costs, although usually very fair and wholly justfied in my opinion, can soon mount up.

Payment

You may also want to ask how payment can be made. Most musicians will accept a deposit to secure the booking with the rest to be paid in cash on the day. Some take electronic payment methods (PayPal, SEPA bank transfer) but most won’t take cards, and only take cheques in advance in local currency. Make sure you organise cash payment to take place on arrival at the venue. Nominate someone to take care of this – a wedding planner, someone at the venue, or the Best Man. Nothing is worse that chasing – or being chased for – cash on your wedding day. One to avoid.

Basic Package, Bespoke or All-Inclusive?

Every artist will work out their costings differently, and so you need to be sure you know exactly what is included. A Basic package (such as one often-cited budget option of hiring student musicians) will usually include local travel, set up and a short break, but will definitely not include special requests, lots of down time or PA hire (important for outdoor events.) If these are offered as options, they will be additional and soon turn a budget package into a costly one. You are likely to get much better value for money from a professional soloist – the price may be similar to your student group, but you will get exactly what you want and an altogether more satisfying customer experience from an experienced pro.

Most professional wedding musicians will offer a bespoke service and will therefore need a certain amount of information in order to produce a tailor-made quote for you. That is why you will rarely find a price quoted on their website, as it is hardly ever a one-size-fits-all approach. Don’t feel bad about asking for a number of quotes from different groups, but make sure you ask them all the same questions, and specify if you want to make a special request, as there will usually be additional considerations for this, e.g. how much notice you need to give, whether you will have to source and buy the sheet music, extra charge for arrangements and rehearsals, etc.

Have you ever been on an All-Inclusive holiday? Course you have, and wasn’t it nice not to have to worry about the little things which can end up being huge spends? At the luxury end of the wedding market you will now also find All-Inclusive music packages, where a musician has put together a special offer to include the usual requirements and avoid any nasty or disappointing hidden extras. In my experience these are very, very rare, but well worth looking for as your budget is set from the start, and you will know exactly what you are getting for your money.  I offer a range of All-Inclusive wedding packages which include special arrangements, along with bespoke services and a more basic level for those on a small budget. Click here for details.

2 Do they play the kind music you love?

Now we have got the money out of the way, it is time to consider the actual music that will be played.

Basically with this question you are asking how versatile your musicians are, and whether they will suit your event. Sheet music is expensive to buy and produce, so a group’s repertoire will not be limitless, but if they are well established and experienced they will have at least 4-5 hours of music to choose from (I have over 9). Most classical ensembles will have a huge range of classical music, plus more modern pieces for a less formal ambience. That said, if you want to stick to a specific theme or genre (or avoid one), you should ask about this at the start. Don’t automatically expect to be able to cherry-pick the track list – I offer this option (even in my Basic Package) as I create a unique playlist for every client, but rearranging music folders is a nightmare and very time-consuming, so I can understand why most groups won’t allow it, especially if marketing themselves at the ‘Budget’ end.

3 Can they accommodate special requests?

It is reasonable to assume that your ensemble will be happy and able to accommodate you on this. BUT sheet music is really expensive, so it is also reasonable to assume that you will have to either provide the sheet music in individual part form, one for each instrument of the ensemble, or to pay for your group to source it for you. If it already exists this will probably be about £50 for the music plus rehearsals to ensure they can play it well enough! However, if the music is unavailable in the correct format (combination of instruments, individual parts), you will usually be asked to provide a piano/vocal score (or similar) or at the very least a lead sheet (melody plus chords) and charged for the arrangement. As this is usually contracted out (especially for larger or unusual ensembles) unless you are lucky enough to have stumbled upon a group which includes a competent arranger (like me, so they do exist!) this is going to cost around £100 per item (4 minute song) so check their repertoire for the music you love before you book, put your hand in your pocket, or go All-Inclusive!

Be warned – for something esoteric where the music is unavailable or unpublished you will struggle to find someone else to do this for you. Even many professional arrangers will not produce arrangements or transcribe from cd, and if you find someone who is willing and able, boy will you pay for it! I do transcribe by ear and I do not charge extra for this, but I have never come across any wedding musician who has even offered this service, let alone for free. To put this into context I do offer an additional arrangement service outside of my performance packages, and I charge Musician’s Union minimum rates which currently amount to £4.50 per bar of music, or £52.26 per hour (of arranging work). This means a typical pop song of 4 minutes length will cost you around £100-£150 (depending on the complexity of the song and availability of lead sheets, etc.).

Legal Warning: The arranging and public performance of copyrighted works is prohibited in most countries unless the correct permissions and licences are in place. This is an extremely complex issue and varies country to country. I can advise on this, so please do contact me if you have any queries.

If you would like your group to accompany one of your guests singing, the music provided must also be in the right key for the soloist. It is amazing that many people who think they can sing a bit have absolutely no idea about what key they are singing in, so it is imperative they find out as changes really cannot be made on the spot! (An exception to this would be a competent guitarist or pianist.) A rehearsal is almost guaranteed to be required, for the benefit and comfort of the musicians and singer alike. This will usually be arranged at the venue for the morning of the event, and is likely to, but will not always, incur a small extra charge.

4 Can you listen to them before you book?

The answer to this should be Yes. Any professional musical outfit will have YouTube, SoundCloud, ReverbNation or other samples of their work available online. Don’t ask for a cd – unless you want to give them a laugh – and don’t obsess about hearing them live. (I have read too many blogs that recommend this…) Sound clips, recommendations from the venue or a wedding planner plus a few glowing recent Testimonials on their website are all you need to be ensured of the quality of their work. Don’t worry about tracking down previous clients in person. Remember it is illegal to fake or favourably edit a testimonial on the internet – didn’t know that? You do now.

5 Do they play outside?

Outdoor ceremonies are really popular, especially for Destination Weddings, so the answer is: Probably – but there will be conditions. Classical instruments, especially stringed ones (and that includes harp and piano) cost a small fortune to buy, maintain and insure, and will be damaged by heat, cold, any amount of moisture, or direct sunlight. Expect a flat refusal to set-up in bad weather or direct sun, or play in temperatures below 17°C. Provide your musicians, whoever they are, with shade from sun, shelter from wind or rain, enough chairs without arms for all the musicians, a flat level hard playing surface (grass is NOT a suitable surface) and a supply of soft drinks. Nominating someone to look after them is a great idea – they won’t need much, but it is horrible to be thirsty when you are playing, and never nice to be ignored or hungry.

6 Will the sound be loud enough?

That is a great question, and one often overlooked. Acoustic instruments, excepting brass instruments, whilst great inside a small hall or chapel tend to get lost outside as the sound travels upwards and is not projected outwards. This also applies in big rooms filled with lots of people as their bodies and clothing act as dampers to the sound, effectively muffling it. To get around this, an acoustic group may offer to use a PA system to amplify the sound: A soloist will usually have this covered, as they will be used to not being ‘naturally’ loud enough under most circumstances; a piano will not need amplification, a string quartet may or may not offer this facility, and you will usually pay for the extra hire and installation costs of a PA, plus there will have to be access to a suitable electricity point nearby. I have never heard of a harpist ‘amping up’ but I am happy to hear from harpists to put me straight on this…

7 Do they cover Religious Ceremonies?

This can be rather a minefield, as the music choices are often very specific – and numerous. You should make it clear what type of ceremony you are having – a Full Catholic Mass with Communion is rather different from a simpler Anglican Ceremony – and this will be reflected in the price.  Whatever the denomination, your music should be discussed with your Priest or other religious celebrant at your first meeting, and well in advance of your event:  Some will be very strict, not allowing any popular music, or even opera, or anything else considered to be ‘lay’ to be played, whilst some will be less concerned. You need to find out what their rules are as soon as possible, choose your pieces and then convey them to your musicians to allow time to prepare each piece. Putting the celebrant and the musicians in direct contact is an excellent idea. Sheet music and keys will need to be discussed for accompanying the Priest or Congregation, as well as easily overlooked details such as number of verses of Hymns to be sung.

It is vital that you determine the order in which each piece will be played, and how they fit into the Order of Service, to avoid any confusion, desperate shuffling of sheet music or awkward silences. As with any Readings which will appear in the Programme, you should aim to have all the music sorted in time to go in to the printed Order of Service – leave it any later than this at your peril. The Order of Service can then be used by the musicians as a checklist and handy Running Order on the day. Make sure your Ushers give them a copy each. It is also polite to mention your musicians’ individual or group names in the printed Order of Service.

8 What is their Dress Code?

Most male classical musicians will be in possession of a dinner jacket and tie – what we refer to as Concert Dress (think ‘Last Night of the Proms’) and I don’t see anything wrong with that, as long as you don’t mind them removing their jackets if playing outside in the summer or in a very hot room towards the end of an evening do. (Let me tell you playing is really physical work…) What I personally hate is seeing female musicians interpreting ‘Concert Black’ as black tee-shirt and trousers. It’s a wedding. As a female ‘cellist this is one of my bugbears – no, you can’t play the ‘cello in a tight fishtail skirt, but if your budget doesn’t stretch to a decent black ball gown then you are obviously not gigging enough. Also, I do have a slight problem with musicians just wearing black – it is supposed to be a celebration after all…

As a soloist, it is undoubtedly much easier for me to co-ordinate, so I really make the effort to find out the colour theme for the flowers and Bridesmaids – so I can blend in, rather than stand out. (It also gives me the ideal excuse to blow my wages on dresses and shoes…) But there is no reason why the female members of your ensemble need to dress like they are going to a funeral.

One of the nice and sometimes unanticipated things about having live musicians as part of your day is the visual focus they provide. People mingling with drinks will congregate towards the string quartet/harpist/piano because watching people play is absolutely fascinating. If you have live music I guarantee that at least one of the photos that make it into your album will either be of one of your guests in raptures over the music, or of the musicians themselves lost in the moment. Photo opportunities abound, so they need to look the part.

9 What else can they help you with?

As I mentioned before, don’t be afraid to find out what services are available and included, and ask different groups for quotes for your event – professionals take this in their stride, and you can tell a great deal about how you are going to get on with potential suppliers by asking a few pertinent questions at first contact.

Customer service is paramount, and one of the things you are really looking for is a good response time. E-mails should really be answered within 24-48 hours, especially initial enquiries. Any longer and you could be looking at issues closer to the date. If they sound like the ones for your event, try to judge how much help they are prepared to give you in choosing the right music for you, and in accommodating you requests. Can they help you with choices based on your musical tastes? How flexible are they about timings on the day? That sort of thing…

10 Do they have any Special Requirements?

This is rather a catch-all, but worth asking about to make sure everything has already been covered. Demonstrate you are a caring employer by addressing the following:

Meal & refreshments

Ceremony musicians won’t be expecting to be invited to the wedding breakfast, but they will appreciate a soft drink or even some canapés being brought to them without having to ask for it (they will probably have skipped lunch). If on the other hand they are playing through your meal then you should offer them something for when they have finished. It is not beyond the wit of your caterer to provide a hot main course for them, but they will need a heads up. You shouldn’t have to pay extra for this, but if you do, take it on the chin. The musicians should never be asked to pay for their own refreshments, including meals offered. They can take their meal in a side room, but if you are able to and ask them to join you they will be blown away by the invite. Whatever you think is appropriate, be sure to discuss this beforehand with your group. I once drove 30 minutes from a venue to a fast-food drive through with my band in order to get something to eat, only to be told on our return that they had set a table for us in the marquee and were expecting us to join them. Bit of a shame for everyone.

NB: Evening musicians will expect and deserve a feed, even if it is just a plate of sandwiches and a slice of the wedding cake. They will probably have skipped their tea as they will have been travelling or setting up when they would have normally been eating. Don’t ask them to help themselves to the buffet/canapés/champagne/free bar as never forget they are working, and won’t have time to serve themselves. (By the time they take their first break the buffet will be decimated.) Pour them a drink (or drinks) and take them a plate of food each – they will love you for it. Never ask them to buy their own drinks, this is extremely bad form – so square this with the venue staff beforehand. Don’t worry about them drinking you dry, you can’t drink while you are playing, and most musicians will restrict themselves to a couple of pints only. Remember a happy musician plays well, and the corollary – I can vouch for it from bitter, personal experience…

Changing facilities

This is a common problem for all wedding suppliers – they have probably driven a fair way to get to you and the first thing they will likely need is to euphemistically ‘freshen up’. (You would not believe the places I have had to get changed/have a wee even if I told you…) Arrange for someone to meet and greet, get them a drink and direct them to somewhere to pee. Musicians invariably have a load of heavy kit to move, they need vehicular access to as close as possible to the performance area, somewhere to store their cases, then somewhere to park their car and then somewhere to change. If a dedicated ‘Green Room’ cannot be made available to them then do think about other options. Talk to your venue, and make sure this happens. You will take some of the stress out for them and get a much better performance.

Payment

I know I already said this but it is so important it does warrant reiteration: Make sure they are paid when they show up. I was once in a situation (in a band) where The Wedding Party had given the fee to the Wedding Planners at the venue who had then retired without making the payment; the band being unaware of this arrangement, and unable to find anyone else to ask, The Bride was then approached for the money and said Wedding Planner had to be got out of bed to bring back the fee. Awkward? You Betcha…

To Summarise:

Just remember: When you employ somebody to deliver for you on what is arguably going to be the most memorable day of your life, obviously do consider the direct cost to you, but developing a genuine human relationship is by far the best way to ensure a perfect match with your musician, or indeed with any of your suppliers. Pick someone on your wavelength, apply common sense, (and maybe heed some of the above) and all will be well.

Samantha Bramley is an experienced wedding professional and musical arranger now based in France. Please Contact for any further information or assistance.

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