A Musician In Processional:
Reflections on Becoming a Classical Guitarist, a Wedding Musician, and a Champion of Ceremony
An overlong essay for all wedding vendors, ceremony musicians,
and the folks who might just hire them by Neil Dixon Smith.
Greetings! My name is Neil Dixon Smith; I’m a solo classical guitarist based in Chicago. I’m hired to provide background music for all sorts of occasions, from art gallery openings to private dinner parties, from wine tastings to memorial services, entertaining folks from the corners of restaurants, farmers markets, corporate offices, and back porches. But what I do most of all is play weddings.
This, of course, was never part of any plan. Being a wedding musician was never something I considered until I found myself being hired to do it.
And then I found myself really digging it.
As I was preparing my marketing materials for the 2012 wedding season, it occurred to me that something had shifted in how I present myself. Instead of the “new guy on the scene”, I had graduated to the “guy with experience”. It’s now been seven years since my first wedding, and three full seasons of promoting myself to the Chicagoland bridal world as a professional ceremony/reception musician. I don’t have an official count, but that’s probably about 80 weddings, with 25 in 2011 (a perfect amount).
I’m not exactly sure what comes next, but I thought this would be a nice time to reflect on how I’ve achieved this lofty status and, more importantly, what I’ve learned about wedding ceremonies and what live music can offer them. I also hope to share a bit of “what it’s like” to be a wedding vendor. As my interactions with wedding planners, venue reps, DJs, caterers, officiants, florists, photographers, videographers and all the rest of the gang are often too fleeting, I’m also hoping to open greater dialogue, especially among those who enjoy taking their participation in this ritual seriously.
For newly engaged couple who may be reading this, I certainly hope this inspires you to consider my services, but even more so I hope this helps you think about and communicate what your ceremony means to you and how to assemble the team to bring your vision to reality.
Becoming a Classical Guitarist and Going Pro
I played my first wedding in June of 2005. It was on very short notice: getting a call from a desperate bride named Amanda on a Wednesday night for a Saturday ceremony, as the gypsy jazz quartet she initially hired had flaked. I had done a photo shoot with her photographer a few months earlier, and he dropped my name when she told him she needed a last minute musical substitute.
It was among the first times I had ever referred to myself as a “classical guitarist” to a complete stranger in official, professional-like capacity. Bucking contemporary attitudes, I don’t take titles lightly, and that one certainly carries with it a travel trunk of assumptions, some of which didn’t really apply to me.
Picking up Amanda’s call that evening was something approaching the mythic. I had just gotten home from a job interview I wasn’t confident had gone well and was in that all-too-familiar cloud of wondering if I’d ever break out my currently unsatisfying cycle of dayjobs. A call for a gig at a moment like that can feel like fate itself is tapping you on the shoulder.
I directed Amanda to my new, self-made website, which had a few samples of me playing. She told me that the ceremony was a bit non-traditional, and the fact that I didn’t know any standard wedding music was fine; she’d review what was on my site. We set a plan to talk the next day.
Playing weddings for me had become something of a inevitability, and now the fuse was lit.
Although I’d played guitar since I was a teenager, graduating from garage rocknroll bands through college to world-beat dance bands as an electric rhythm guitarist in my 20s, I didn’t start playing a nylon-stringed classical guitar until I was into my 30s.
Bored with what I already knew how to play, I signed up for a Latin Rhythms class at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music on a whim. In part, I wanted to learn to something new. But Latin music was also super hot then – with the breakthrough success of the Buena Vista Social Club album, which I loved. The rhythmic structures of Latin music were not something that felt “natural” to me, being a WASP from Northeast USA, but I wanted to know what it felt like to play that music. From my previous experiences learning new styles, I know that you have to learn how to play it right – not just as a collection of notes in proper sequence.
I took the class for a couple of semesters, introducing my fingers to the elemental motions of classical guitar technique on nylon strings (common in Latin styles from their Spanish heritage). I learned an entirely new world of Mexican, Brazilian and Andean folk music, and the non-classical, sometimes counter-intuitive finger/hand movements needed to play them “right”. After 18 years on steel strings with a flat pick, the hands-on-nylon feel was more viscerally satisfying – you could play lighter and rock harder, more expressively, in any direction. Using the full range of possibilities with hand and finger movements creates endless possibilities for new sounds. But re-adjusting my hands to the wide classical guitar neck was a gigantic physical hurdle at my stage in the game, to say nothing of the finger strength required. I might as well have taken on ballet.
Though I was having a great time in the group class setting, after a while I realized I needed far more intense instruction if I was going stick with it. And I wanted to stick with it. My knowledge and appreciation of Latin American musical rhythms and textures had started to grow into something more like an obsession.
It was the last day of what I decided would be my last term, and, instead of the regular instructor, there was an older man whose English was quite limited. Before saying anything to the class he started playing, and in my entire music/guitar-loving life I’d never seen anyone play like he did. He embedded incredibly fast dexterous runs within tricky hair-combing rhythms, utilizing an entire tool chest of crazy techniques and guitar sounds I had no idea existed. It was virtuoso classical music grounded in roots folk dance music, encompassing an encyclopedia of styles and cultures. I was mesmerized. Could I learn that?
It took me about a month to track him down. Alfonso Chacon, a near-70-year-old musician from Chile who had lived and performed all over South America before moving to Chicago in the mid-90s. A member of the “Golden Age of Guitar in South America”, he had played with the greatest musicians of his generation, and now here he was, in a humble apartment on the West Side. And he was accepting students. Why wasn’t every guitarist in Chicago lining up at his door? I still have no idea, but to me it was the opportunity of a lifetime – to learn directly from a Master.
This was the Spring of 2002. With a new job, a new apartment, only a few friends in town, and a lot of debt to work off, circumstances aligned perfectly to allow me to take on the challenge. If nothing else, time could be on my side. I had the hours between 6pm and midnight to practice, and practice I did. Three to four hours every night: an hour of finger exercises, an hour dedicated to new material, an hour dedicated to old material, and, if I had energy for a fourth, an hour to explore and see if I couldn’t reprogram my operating system to change what could feel natural.
By 2004 I had roughly 3 sets (hours) of solo guitar music ready. A white dude playing a mix of songs from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Cuba, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, along with a couple famous pieces of Spanish classical guitar music to make it official. Through some friends-of-friends in the catering world, I landed a couple jobs playing background music for dinner parties. Soon I was hooked in to the Green City Market in Lincoln Park, playing the biggest farmers market in Chicago once or twice per month.
Making the transition from “learning to do something” to “offering to do it professionally” is a huge psychological hurdle no matter what field you’re talking about – when are you good enough to take that title? But I could really feel that people enjoyed what I brought to an event. I was hooked.
Being a solo guitarist is like nothing else in music. You can fit into the tiniest of spaces, playing the toniest of highbrow parties to the most informal backyard family barbeques. As an individual artist, you disappear into the environment, enhancing the experience, heightening the senses: the taste of the wine, the warmth of the conversation. While playing a cocktail or dinner party, occasionally folks find their attention wandering to me to focus for a few minutes, maybe on a familiar tune, but otherwise, you are the air, and it’s equally satisfying to be unnoticed when you sense the good feeling in a room.
It had occurred to me that as I was becoming a “classical guitarist” one of the things I could do was play weddings, which seemed thrilling, as well as intensely intimidating. But I had no idea how this was to happen. In keeping with my philosophy of “jump in the pool, then see if you can swim”, like a divining rod in reverse, the pool eventually found me.
My First Wedding
Amanda and I spoke the next day, and she was pleased to find some music that she loved on my site. She would walk down the aisle to a classic Brazilian piece, Heiter Villa-Lobos’ “Choro No.1” (which has a wonderful march feel), and she mentioned that there would be a special portion of the ceremony where she wanted me to play “Recuerdos de la Alhmabra”, one of the most famous pieces of romantic Spanish guitar music (and my first calling card for classical guitarist legitimacy). There would be no rehearsal, so she described how the ceremony would transpire. But I was in a cloud of nerves and can’t say I fully grasped what she was telling me, and that turned out to be a good thing.
The wedding took place in one of the Tiffany-domed Halls of the Chicago Cultural Center. I arrived an hour and a half early and made myself dizzy staring upwards as I warmed up, the sound of the guitar booming against the stone tile floor. It felt so grand to be there, and I loved the feeling that I was a part of what was about to happen.
The first guests arrived to their seats about 40 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, so that was my cue to start playing. I’m not even sure if Amanda and I discussed prelude music, but I was instinctively prepared with a set of slower pieces to set the mood, and also to begin the process of self-hypnosis, to take me away from nervousness, and have my hands hot for the bridal processional.
For the next 30 minutes I played as guests arrived with murmurings of greetings and conversations. I might has well have been playing a dinner party in a friend’s home. I felt comfortable and could tell people were enjoying the atmosphere. But a few minutes before showtime things shifted, the conversations stopped, and I was now the only sound in the room, and seated up front next to where the bridal party would stand, I was suddenly the sole focus of attention. What was background was now foreground.
I finished my last piece and, with just a slight trickle of sudden cold sweat, was given the nod to start the processional. “Choro No. 1” is a special song for me, one of the first “higher level” pieces I learned. It’s also a canonical work of Brazilian guitar music, and it’s often my “security blanket” song: the first tune I’ll play to get myself centered at a high-pressure gig. So it was a great fortune to play something I had such confidence in for my first processional – maintaining divided attention between song and bride, ensuring I resolved it in a musical way as she arrived. My hands were shaking, but I nailed it. The spell was cast, the ceremony could begin.
Oh yeah – Amanda mentioned that this was going to be a bit of a non-traditional ceremony, and it was. She said that there would be a few words, and then they would step forward to a table behind the officiant, and that would be my cue to start “Recuerdos de la Alhambra.” I didn’t have any understanding as to what would happen or how long the music should go for.
Amanda and her fiancé created this ceremony on their own, and one of the features was that the vows were all done in whispers, underneath the sound of music after completing a ritual of walking around the table several times. When I began “Recuerdos,” I was the only sound in the room, no audible voices. I ended up playing the entire composition, a good 5-6 minutes, and that was not all! As I was reaching the end of the song, I could tell they needed more time, so I made the executive decision to keep playing, and on the fly I pulled out a couple Venezuelen waltzes played very slowly to seamlessly sustain the mood. I was so glad I didn’t understand that this is what was going to be beforehand, because I would have made myself sick with nerves thinking about it!
It’s not something you truly realize until you’re doing it – as a solo musician, there’s no one else to cover for you, there’s no place to hide, you are the sound and everyone’s listening. You can have a brain lapse or cold nervous hands or be distracted by the scene. Risks abound. Mistakes are going to happen in a live performance, especially one with so many unpredictable variables as a wedding ceremony. You have to know the material so deeply that it’s coded in the muscle memory of your hands, allowing your senses and cognition to turn to observing and reacting to the situation.
For the most part, I feel great about my performances at wedding ceremonies, but there have been times where I left feeling that a finger flub here or there broke the spell – bringing unwanted attention to me as opposed to the ceremony itself.
But on this, my rookie debut, in a ceremony that was essentially wall-to-wall guitar music, I helped create a beautiful space, a sensual filter through which the meaning of their bond became manifest.
I can’t even recall what I played for the recessional, but I can remember how I felt at the end of ceremony – not relief, but pure exhilaration. These were two people I had literally just met, and my life and practice just intersected with theirs at perhaps the most significant moment of their lives. And their reaction to me afterwards was another level of gratification – what I did worked. This was important.
This is something I’m supposed to be doing.
Becoming a Wedding Vendor in the Ceremony Music Category
Over the next three years I played another dozen weddings or so. Some friends’ weddings, then weddings of friends of friends, and then even some regulars at the Green City Market. In each of these I was basically brought in to “do what I do”. Everyone understood that I play this wonderful Latin guitar music, and then it would be a process of choosing which pretty, but essentially obscure tunes I would play for the bridal party, the bride and the recessional.
My favorite bridal processional became a piece of Paraguayan-influenced music by an Argentine composer called “Guarania”, still among the most soulful pieces of music I know. If there was a large wedding party that would require their own dedicated music, I might choose a piece called “Varriaciones de Milonga”, an exploration of the folk roots of tango, which works wonderfully played slowly and has frequent opportunities for resolution, as it might be hard to predict how long a large wedding party will take to process. For the recessional, I had a couple Brazilian carnival marches that I discovered that were perfect – strong and celebratory, full of life and humor, and especially effective if I was segueing right into the post-ceremony cocktail hour.
But what I really learned from my early wedding experiences was the power and importance of what I now call the “prelude” or, in less classy terms, the “seating music”.
The processionals are the pageantry, and for the musician, the real intensity. But for them to be received in full glory, the guests and participants should be somewhere on the same conscious page, and this is the power of the prelude.
Guests arrive 20-40 minutes before the ceremony starts – there’s always a lot of initial chatter, greetings, hugs, laughs – but eventually everyone does want to settle in and be relaxed in their seat. Everyone comes in with their own stories from the day – the preparations, the travel, the renewed connections – but as they absorb the scene and acclimate to the space, they take notice of the presence of a darkly beautiful and relaxing tone underneath the murmurings. Sentiments are expressed more easily, attention to the moment elevates. As the ceremony nears, the conversations quiet, but one point of focus carries through: this calm, soulful, hypnotically rhythmic music.
Spanish-rooted classical guitar music is in the collective conscious the sound of romance, of nostalgic memory. It is joyful music tinged with knowledge of the tragic. Mixed with the influence of African and indigenous rhythms by Latin American composers. It’s also quite cinematic, and folks are often more likely to have heard this music from films than concerts or personal collections.
But even if folks have never heard this music before in any context, live classical guitar music engages the senses and emotions while transporting listeners away from their individual concerns into a common emotional awareness.
As you might guess, I really enjoy contemplating these things.
Allow me to toot my horn. If the conditions are right, and I’m on my game, I believe I contribute to the depth to which a ceremony is experienced. The rhythms calm the breath, the music evokes memories, the “liveness” brings folks into the present moment, and the musician’s status as an outsider (not a family member or guest) connects the proceedings to the greater human family. That is something that is extremely difficult to put into words, much less scientifically verify, but I think it’s real, and I think it’s important. Assign your own definitions of spirituality here, but all I’ll say is that I love making it happen.
By the end of 2007 I was at a crossroads. I had pretty much exhausted the possibilities of any further “friend” weddings, and if I wanted to keep doing this, I would have to do more than just hope someone else from the farmers market would hire me.
And then I got another one of those fateful calls. An event planner who had previously hired me for a dinner party passed my name along to a gal who was planning a big wedding for the following May. She had never heard of me or seen me play, and while they did want me to “do what I do” for the prelude, she was hoping her wedding would have, you know, wedding music: “Ave Maria” for a “mother’s processional”, “Canon in D” for the bridal party, “Over the Rainbow” for the bride, “Ode to Joy” for a mid-ceremony ritual, and the “Wedding March” for the recessional. Classic stuff. And I didn’t know any of it!
At my stage of development, this meant I would need to dedicate a mountain of time to learn and memorize these pieces (in addition to my own studies, my electric band, my guitar quartet, my full-time day job, plus, uh, life).
To take this job meant another quantum jump. The leap from “guy learning classical guitar in his kitchen” to “playing a stranger’s wedding and getting paid for it” was but a puddle hop compared to the leap to “guy who markets himself as a professional wedding musician.” Titles matter, and if I was expecting planners to refer me to work, I’d have to be able to play everything, especially the classics. If I was to be a wedding musician, I’d have to embrace all that that encompasses.
I took the gig.
It required leaving the day job for a while – essentially to learn and memorize the music to play one wedding, but that was the music I would need for nearly half the weddings I’ve done since. And to make it all worth it, I needed time figure out how to find the couples who may be interested in what I have to offer.
It was time to become a part of the Bridal Industrial Complex: the vast network of trade shows, trunk shows, tastings, websites, featured banner ads, bloggers, back scratchers, hustles here, hustlers there. I volunteered to play the Macy’s bridal salon, playing to one prospective bride at a time on rainy Saturday afternoons, and wasted days at gigantic bridal shows sandwiched between F16-cockpit-worthy DJ apparati and full dentist-chair set ups for on-site teeth whitening. “Hey! I’ll be the only musician there!” quickly turned to “Oh, this is why there are no other musicians here.”
I spammed and postcarded bridal planners, event planners, party planners, bridal shop owners, photographers, caterers, wine shops and florists, offering to play any event where prospective brides might gather, gratis (still do, btw). I bought some ads here and there and signed on to referral services. Built and re-built websites and printed promo materials.
And I continued practicing, burning “Canon in D” so deep into my muscles it can be summoned with the ease of a sneeze. (can you summon a sneeze?) I offered to learn special requests for all comers, both to accommodate the wishes of my clients and to build for future offerings. I learned great classical works by Bach, Chopin and Vivaldi as well as Filipino folks songs, Italian film music and Colombian cumbias. I became adept at creating solo guitar arrangements for pop songs when guitar sheet music didn’t exist: from “Only You”, the 80s synth pop hit by Yaz, to “Maria” from The Sound of Music to “Dixieland Delight” by Alabama.
As I gained experience, I found that I really enjoyed the conceptual process that came with talking to couples about their plans for their wedding. I developed an ethos of open-mindedness and an enthusiastic willingness to meet with couples early in the planning process, making suggestions, honoring whims, attending rehearsals, and overall trying to a positive and stress-reducing voice in the process.
And of course, I learned that you need to sometimes say “no, I’m sorry, but that is just not possible” or “I don’t think that is going to work”.
It took a year or two to start finding my niche, the bridal shows and advertising that made sense. Sure enough, by the grace of good efforts, opportunities came, and I felt the feedback to be positive enough to keep going and keep reinvesting in all that’s required to keep one’s name out there. It’s all been worth it.
Playing one wedding can be a thrill, but after playing many weddings and meeting all the personalities who bring you in, you begin to gain a greater sense of humanity and a larger sense of purpose. Everyone is different, every wedding wholly unique, but all participate in the ritual to accomplish the same thing.
Live Music and the Wedding Ceremony
I admit it, I have a skewed perspective. All the weddings I go to are pretty friggin’ cool.
I thought I’d conclude with some thoughts about ceremonies, in the most general way possible, for those who way be contemplating one as well as for those working in support. No so much as advice, but maybe more like the sharing of an ethos, best stated in the quintessential jazz aphorism: t'ain't what'cha do, it's the way how'cha do it.
So let’s talk turkey – you’re planning a wedding, you want it to be great, you want it to reflect who you are and you want it to communicate what marriage means to you, all while not freaking out the collection of family and friends there to take part.
Stop right there. You know, you don’t really have to do any of this. You could just head down to City Hall or fly to Vegas and get it done today. No fuss, no muss.
Out of the question, you say? Gotcha. This is just too big, for you, for everyone. Very serious long-term, life-shaping vows are to be taken, and they need to be witnessed. The gravity and significance of the undertaking must be acknowledged, and the joy of it all must be celebrated with those who mean the most to you. Two people are now as one, recognized by family, by community, by spiritual tradition, by state law and federal tax code.
From there, by what format you get that done is pretty much up to you. And let me tell me you, being a party to the incredible variety of different ways in which people accomplish this, even within the narrow band of “the kind of folks who hire me”, never ceases to surprise and impress.
No matter what decisions have been made, no matter what philosophy of marriage is accorded, no matter what aesthetic is employed, a wedding ceremony is among the few public rituals we all participate in that everyone is ready to open and pour their hearts into, no matter what our role. It’s not terribly unlike a sports event where fans can sway the outcome, or a concert where the audience pushes the performance to new heights. But it’s a rare that we have such events in our lives where we can let our emotions flow for loved ones in such a direct and intimate way, for such a concrete and real purpose.
It’s a funny thing, the people that organize the wedding really only experience a particular slice of it. From my vantage point, usually at the front of the assembly, I get a unique window into the behavior of wedding guests. People are in a peak state, looking their absolute best, full of anticipation, senses operating at full strength. The richest wedding experiences are a collective effort by everyone involved from the Maid of Honor, who essentially took on a second job for six months, to the slacker cousin, who didn’t lift a finger to help with nuthin’ and shows up late in tennis shoes but gets the ice-breaking laugh from the room that soon segues to tears of joy.
So let’s go ahead and acknowledge another deeper goal of the wedding ritual itself: to conjure this spirit of engaged, emotional participation. It’s why you’ll choose the perfect space, the colors of the dresses, the flower arrangements, the music. To entrance, to enchant, to evoke. It’s why you’ll care about things like the design of your invitations: after all, you want everyone to be ready and in the right vibe upon arrival. As a bride and groom you want to milk this experience to the maximum for yourselves, and hell yes you should. Because as guests and vendors, that is what we want, too.
And despite the pressures that may come from the desires for perfection, the simple truth is that it’s pretty tough to screw up a wedding.
I can recall a wedding I was hired to do, brought in by a groom I found quite prickly. He was an intense small-business owner used to being blunt (and cheap) with vendors. He wasn’t much interested in talking about the ceremony, and I found his attitude about it to be clinical and unsentimental. He didn’t “get it”, I surmised. And he couldn’t have done more to make me feel indifferent about playing his wedding. But I took the job and prepared.
When possible, I always like to attend the rehearsals; it’s fun to meet people and often I need to time the processionals to get a proper edit of a song. This rehearsal, however, was mostly just tedious and unorganized. The officiant was a friend who had never done a wedding before, and he hadn’t really planned ahead in terms of what was happening. My impression was that the ceremony was being conceived on the fly. I was hoping for a practice walk of the bridal party, and it was like herding cats. No attention had been given to décor – it was essentially a backyard, come-as-you-are deal. I was amazed I had even been hired. Driving in the next day for the ceremony felt like going to work. I wasn’t feeling any buzz of anticipation; I just wanted to get through it.
The guests arrived, the music started, the open space suddenly seemed close and intimate, everything slowed to a relaxed pace, and there was more laughter and tears in the next 45 minutes then at any ceremony I could ever remember. And amazing words too, truly wise reflections of life and marriage delivered by a goofy uncle. One particular moment will always stand out: the bride took a moment to honor her mother, walking over to her and embracing her, thanking her for all she had done. Everyone just lost it, including me. It was all so sincere and spontaneous. I have rarely been so moved. I remember driving home feeling so thankful to have been a part of that.
That’s how it goes: you never know.
The point is that there is no correlation between the amount of resources and planning and even good vibes that goes into a wedding and its effectiveness as a ritual. The wedding ritual is bigger than any of that – people will come, you will be you, and love will be all around. Just let it happen. Ultimately, none of us wedding vendors are really necessary (shhhh!).
So all you need is love, love is all you need. Tight-fisted fellas, rejoice!
More likely though, if you’ve taken all the time to read this here overlong essay, you want to do it right. You want folks to be happy to be there, you want them to be stoked at the sight of your invite, you want the ceremony to be grand, you want an abundance of good food, good feeling and the best of memories. And you have access to a world of wonderfully talented people out there ready to help make it happen for you, so you can focus on what truly matters for yourself.
I will now end my wishy-washy, isn’t-everyone-awesome schtick and advocate on behalf of my musician brethren.
I don’t need to convince you to have music in your ceremony, just about everyone has music in their ceremony in some capacity. The issue is where the music is coming from.
I’ve been hearing increasingly troubling reports out there. Reports that folks are resorting to pre-recorded music, iPods and whatnot, to broadcast through stereo speakers. For preludes, processionals, recessionals, the whole nine.
Perhaps the musical requirements for the ceremony are so specific that use of electronic device is the only means by which this can be solved. A particular recording of a particular song that is just too meaningful, or maybe it’s a style of music that the locals just can’t play. OK, got it, we’ll let you slide, I guess, but I’m thinking these are rare circumstances.
No, I think the culprit here is that folks may be reluctant to hire live musicians for their weddings because of concerns about expense, or maybe they just don’t know how to go about find the right ones. I will briefly address each of these concerns.
It is true, professional musicians, especially those worth their salt, do not play for free. It may also surprise some what a musician might charge for a wedding, especially in terms of what one might perceive as the time commitment involved (“the ceremony will just be 30 minutes long – what do you charge for that?”).
Being a professional musician is very much akin to being a professional athlete. You have to keep in constant condition, and your life is organized around being in top mental and physical condition for public exhibitions. Performing for a wedding ceremony is a high-profile, high-pressure performance – you are not just playing music, you are part of the landscape of the ceremony, composed and (hopefully) dressed to complement. To be ready to concentrate at that level is not just about showing up an hour early, it’s about what you did the night before, what you did and ate that morning. Playing a wedding on Saturday kicks into gear scheduling that can start on Thursday.
And that is nothing compared to the actual preparation time, regardless of the specific music chosen. Rock solid performances are a function of a musician’s skill in combination with muscle conditioning and an ability to block distractions that only comes from experience. There are plenty of practice-room virtuosos whose hands would crumble to play in dead silence in front of 200 hundred strangers at the biggest moment of a client’s life. That solidity comes from a mammoth sacrifice of years of practicing and multitudes of performances. When you are paying your musician, you are doing more than paying them for their time that day, you are honoring them for their dedication to music. And I can assure you, it’s very unlikely they are getting rich from it.
And that still doesn’t address the time preparation for a specific ceremony, whether maintaining knowledge of oft-used traditional repertoire or learning special requests. I’ll spare you the additional violins, but the point is that, with extremely rare exceptions, most worthy professional musicians are grossly underpaid under any reasonable evaluation of their time.
In other words, I can’t solve the “expense” problem by suggesting that we make musicians cheaper. Musicians can only hope that as you contemplate your ceremony, you realize the value and significance and specialness of live music and accept their proposal with positivity.
When it comes to discussing a fee, there’s nothing wrong with offering a counter-proposal, pricing is a function of local market forces, after all. And timing can be a big part of it. Personally, I may be unlikely to accept a counter offer if the event is more than 3-4 months away. I try to maintain a standard pricing model, but if given short notice to an event (say 2-3 weeks), my pricing can also fluctuate in either direction. My time may be less expensive as I look to fill up an upcoming light weekend, or it may be more expensive as I start to block out distant dates that I know will eventually fill up.
But business aside, hiring musicians is fun! Instrumentalists are an eccentric bunch and greatly underutilized in society. Most are friendly, mildly OCD housecats filled with great stories. Set up a meeting, get to learn a bit about them, bring them into the process. Let them play to their strengths, give them challenges, request their consultations.
And when it’s all said and done, you’re going to look back on that as some of the best money you spent.
Maybe the tougher issues though are how to find the right musicians and how to choose the right music?
Some folks know exactly what music they want and how they want it played, but, more commonly, couples don’t even know how to start thinking about it.
Is it that there’s music you want to hear and it’s just a matter of finding the folks who can do it? Or do you know what musician you want but are unsure what they should play?
People find me a number of ways. I’m a member of a couple online “gig” lead-generating services, and there are more and more of these all the time. There are a handful of booking agents, venue managers and event planners who recommend my services, and these are likely your most powerful sources. Some folks just stumble upon me through a google search. And of course, some folks contact me after seeing me live.
I take equal pleasure in taking orders from folks who know what they want as I do offering suggestions to those who request them. Every musician will have their spiels about what they do and what is possible for them. For some with gifted ears and years of knowledge, learning new music can be very quick and easy. For those without the benefit of formal music training, it can be a steep slope.
Here’s my insight for you if you’re not sure where to begin: second only to getting jobs for themselves, musicians love to refer jobs to other musicians, even and especially “the competition”. Moreso than in other trades, I think, a referral to another musician will beget future work. If I can get a job for someone else, odds are very good the favor will be returned. A noble tribe we are.
So no matter what your challenge, be it finding an inspiration for a sound or song, or identifying a particular artist or ensemble, just find one musician who you think is in the ballpark (either because they know you or because they know something about music), and they will at least have someone else for you to talk to.
And when it’s all said in done, keep in touch. You’ve now likely made a meaningful connection that will last years. In quieter future moments you can check out what they do beyond play weddings. And be assured they’ll be delighted to see you.
That’s it! I hope you enjoyed this excursion and I invite you to drop me a line to learn more. If you’re getting married, I wish you all the best! And if you’re a fellow wedding vendor, let’s get to work!
Neil Dixon Smith is a guitarist based in Chicago.