A Musician's guide to having live music at your wedding

Guestpost by Ann on Aug. 29th

The most musicians I've ever shot on a stage at once… at a wedding. Photo by Megan Finley.

So, you've decided that having the Worst DJ In History roll out "Puppy Love" isn't something you want to experience on your wedding day, and you want something a little quirkier than an iPod playlist for the music at your reception. So you're now considering live music. Fantastic! What could be better than inviting a group of people who love what they do to help you enjoy your wedding?!

Well, who knew it wasn't actually as easy as all that. Having musicians perform live at your wedding ceremony or reception can be a truly magical experience with a special kind of atmosphere that's rarely found elsewhere. But it can bring with it a whole host of problems you'd probably never thought of — from divas to wind direction, from mics to marquees, from amps to acoustics. Here are some thoughts to help you decide on whether you want to have live music at your wedding.

Disclaimer: I speak only in general terms, and from my own experience as a violinist playing at a range of different events. Most of what I say is intended only to be a guide — your final choice of musician/band will be able to help you more in terms of your and their specific needs, based on the circumstances. Also I am not a proper techie — I'm only able to tell you what I've picked up from assisting set-up/take-down and recordings. Ask someone who actually knows what they're talking about, and of course, ask your venue what they're able to provide/accommodate.

The Basics

What kind of music do you want?

The first thing to decide on is: what kind of vibe do you want? At most receptions anything is possible — do you want a smooth jazz pianist for a chilled atmosphere, do you want a rock band to party to, a formal string quartet, a fun ceilidh band to dance to, or a mix? Each will have their own requirements and demands based on the instruments, but each also brings its own atmosphere. Apart from the more standard settings I've mentioned before, a mix of instruments can often be fun (and handy if you can gather a bunch of friends to form a band with their own instruments to play for you). A great and popular combination I've played in, which works well in any setting (add and take away instruments as you please), is keyboard, violin, guitar, (bass guitar, singer, drums).

Where do you want it?

While technically anything is possible (and believe me, I've been there), some things are much easier than others. For example, it's technically possible to drive an entire drumkit to the middle of a field miles from the nearest town, have the whole thing set up, and get an amazing drum solo during the signing of the register… but it may not go down too well (and be prepared for musicians to refuse you if it's too difficult). Some logistical questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Is my ceremony/reception inside or outside?
  • What's the space like?
  • What're the acoustics like?
  • Will we have electricity?
  • Will the set-up (wires, amps etc.) be safe? With kids running around?
  • What will we do if it rains? (NB: some musicians won't play their instruments outside for various reasons, and others won't do it in hot sunlight/damp conditions, even if sheltered from the rain).

We'll address some of these questions later.

How about payment?

Like photographers, musicians can seem expensive. Like many other artsy and crafty people who do what they love, they can often be HUGELY underpaid, and for this reason it's helpful if you talk about hourly rates. If you're hiring a bunch of musicians, such as a band, the number of people should get taken into account, and it can get expensive. My advice is to look around the local University/Music College for some discounted rates on good performers just starting out if money is a real issue — but again, make sure they're not selling themselves short.

As a rough guide, standard prices should start at around £25-£35 ($40 – $55) per person per hour, and then increase based on experience, standard, demand, etc. Singers are often more expensive, as are harpists and other "rarer" instrumentalists — mostly because they can be.

The Details

My ceremony/reception is going to be inside!

Check with your venue about the details of the kind of music/band you want and if they give the go-ahead then you should be fine. They may have dealt with similar situations before and can advise you as to details. If you're winging it and they're letting you have free rein over the place then some things to consider are:

  • Is anything provided? Think chairs for your string quartet, music stands for the less improvisational-style groups and bands, amps and mics for your electric/mic'd up instruments, etc. All musicians should be prepared to bring these but it's worth knowing and talking to them.
  • Where are they going to be in relation to the rest of the guests? On a stage? In the corner of the room? If you're having speakers, will you be blasting granny's hearing aids out by putting them next to her table? If they're non-mic'd and sitting down, and all 200 of your guests are standing crowded around them, are people on the other side of the room going to be able to hear them?
  • What are the acoustics like? Is it all hardwood floors and brick walls, making it really echoey? Are there soft carpets and comfy sofas which are going to absorb all the sound?
  • Are you having a mainly electric/mic'd up band? Will they have enough space for all the mic stands? Are they using their own amps or will it go through to a mixing desk — and where will that be? Have you left space for their foldbacks? Are there rules your venue has about sound levels? When are they allowed to start setting up/sound checking?

My ceremony/reception is going to be outside and we have no electricity whatsoever!

Firstly, may I suggest looking into a portable electricity generator. These can be very easy to transport, and may be able to be hired from your venue if they're used to having outdoor events. Each should come with specifications on what kind of power they provide, and what kind of noise levels they make — though often noise is sorted by placing them behind a bush a few metres away.

If this really isn't feasible, then your options are narrowed somewhat, but everything's still totally do-able.

  • What kind of area do you have to be covering? Sound gets lost more easily outside, especially with wind blowing it away and trees blocking it. Consider if people are standing up or sitting down, and if there are other loud noises like a river which may compete with the music. Remember, harder surfaces will reflect the sound better (e.g. concrete will do better than grass).
  • What kind of instruments will be playing? Some instruments carry naturally better, so if you're going for a string quartet then you shouldn't have too much of a problem. Saxophones and oboes will be fine too as will similar instruments. More "breathy" instruments or strummed/plucked ones may not carry as far though, so it may be a good idea to hire an extra guitarist or a choir rather than a solo singer (barbershop quartet anyone?!).
  • What if the weather is crazy? Presumably you're already thinking about alternatives such as shelter if it rains, but it's also best to discuss this with the musicians. The more expensive the instrument, the less they will be willing to expose that £5000 varnish to blazing sunlight or spray from the rain coming under the canopy. Also if the ground is soggy or damp, it may be worth putting down a rug or some boarding if your musicians are seated/need to rest something on the ground. You wouldn't want a double bass to start sinking into the mud halfway through the jazz.

My ceremony/reception is going to be outside and we have access to all the electricity we want!

You may also then be considering using mics and speakers for the vows/speeches, which your venue will probably help out with regarding the layout. In addition to pretty much all of the above you should think about:

  • Safety. There will probably be wires trailing everywhere, and nowhere to tape them down. Consider carefully where they will be (between speakers, all around the band, from the band to the mixing desk) and set up accordingly. If there will be children running around consider no-go areas. Also consider damp/wet areas and make sure to cover up any sensitive equipment with plastic coverings when not in use.
  • Do you have a noise limit? It's easy to overdo things outside as generally the sound isn't reflected back at you so you can't hear how loud it actually is, and therefore how far it's carrying. If it's a public place or you'll be playing into the night, it would be a good idea to warn neighbours, or check with the venue provider. Also think about balancing levels, especially if you're going to have lots of bass.
  • Do you have a mixed band? Check if they all want mics, and if so if they want different kinds. Do all/some need seats?
  • How far away is parking? A lot of equipment, and some instruments and stands will be very heavy and the musicians won't want to carry it very far. Ideally most things will be able to be driven right up to or very close to where they are able to set up, but as long as you're not asking them to trek for a mile with the equipment you should be fine. Just remember, the further and the more there is to carry, the longer set-up/take-down will take.

In general…

  • Musicians can't play forever. Expect and discuss with them when they will take a few breaks.
  • Talk through with them the kind of atmosphere you want to create and the kind of music you want them to play. They may have playlists lined up for this kind of thing already and be open to that, and if you have specific requests, they may be up for slotting those in too. Some things may not be possible though, and sometimes you may just have to accept that it may not work and find someone else, or iPod playlistgo back to the iPod.
  • Be accommodating when they ask for certain things. And remember they are providing a service for you and they need preparation to do that service — singers and instrumentalists will need water, time to warm up and tune etc. If you do think they're being unreasonable then calmly chat to them and ask them why they need to eat six precisely cut cubes of cheese before they start playing — they may have a very good reason!
  • Let them join in! Most musicians are lovely people and will really appreciate sharing in your big day — if they're enjoying it, it will come across in the music and atmosphere.

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About Ann

Ann is a violinist, singer, conductor and composer currently studying Music at Durham University, UK. In between playing at an awful lot of different events in different bands and groups on demand (and not forgetting the bits of wedding planning she does now and then) she enjoys playing bass -- the only instrument sufficiently cool enough to make her feel like a real rockstar.