Hum a few bars, pay cash, and make room for the bows: The "do's and don'ts" of hiring a string quartet

October 30 | Guest post by Spookyginger

Last time we got insider-info from a wedding musician we talked all about the music. Now let's talk about the musicians with a Tribesmaid and cellist.

String Quartet!!
Photo by Mike Whitaker

The other night I played at a wedding with a violinist. The gig was fairly standard, until we spent 45 minutes standing around at a stranger's wedding reception watching their guests eat dinner while we waited to get paid. We left 45 minutes after we were supposed to, and after people had to run off to find an ATM! We ended up raising the fee for our extra time and people were stressed out.

I've discovered that the easiest gigs to play aren't necessarily the ones with the most competent colleagues (although I'm blessed with very good people to play with), or the ones in the most convenient locations, or the ones with the easiest music. They're the ones in which the people who hired us have made an effort to know what they're doing.

Here are a few dos and don'ts when hiring a string quartet:

DO give us clear instructions. What you want us to play and when. Are we starting the processional when the congregation stands? When we can see the bride? When the groom gives us the secret signal?

DON'T look at us accusingly, or turn and ask someone why we aren't playing, if you haven't given us any instructions to play for the bride's uncle's cousin as he walks down the aisle.

DO make sure that at least one member of the quartet can see what's going on, especially if it's a wedding. We can repeat Canon ad nauseum, and if we can't see that the mother of the bride is already seated, we will. It's also important that we can all see each other. There's a certain amount of non-verbal communication that occurs between quartet members. It's also nice to have room to move our bows.

DO pay us in cash, preferably with bills that are easily divided four ways. We're musicians (and probably teachers). We don't always carry around change for hundred dollar bills.

DON'T pay with a check unless we know you personally. Odds are at least one of us has been burned before. Plus, it likely means one of us has to go to the bank and then split up the cash. And that might be the money we needed to buy toilet paper on the way home.

DO give us plenty of notice if there's a special piece of music you want. We either have to order or arrange it, and that takes time and sometimes, extra money. If it's something really "out there" that's not in our normal repertoire, we might even have to get together to rehearse it first.

DON'T look offended if you ask for your favorite Beatles tune right before the wedding starts and we either don't have it or don't know it. Most string quartets are pretty progressive and have a lot of pops tunes under our belts, but we don't have everything. Standard wedding fare is probably fair game, though. Usually we can even figure it out if you just hum it for us… you don't even need to know the title or composer.

DO feel free to book us in an outdoor venue… within reason.

DON'T get upset if it is unreasonably hot or cold and we end two minutes early or have to keep re-tuning. We play expensive instruments that are sensitive to temperature and humidity, and they go out of tune and can even sustain damage if they're left in those conditions for too long. Even Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman didn't play live at Obama's inauguration due to weather.

DO ask questions and encourage your kids to ask questions about our instruments or what we do. A lot of us are teachers and are happy to talk to them when we're finished or in between tunes. We love to recruit new "orch dorks." And with really little kids who are attentive, and whose hands are clean, I'll even let them touch my instrument or pluck the strings with some instructions on how to do it properly.

DON'T allow your kids to run right up and grab our instruments. It's not a good idea for you to do it, either. My cello is worth more than my car, and believe me, you don't want to pay for repairs if it breaks.

DO tell us how long you expect us to play, and compensate us accordingly.

DON'T leave it up to us to guess when the gig is over and give us uncomfortable signals to try to tell us that it is. We've got music for hours and unless the gig is outside in ridiculous weather, or your wedding is on the deck of the Titanic, we'll just keep going unless there's a very clear sign or you tell us we're done, or you've set the times for us in advance.

DO hire us again and follow these tips.

DON'T get the idea from this post that I resent every gig I've gotten. Quite the contrary! I love to play, and getting paid for it is a bonus. I've also seen some really amazing weddings. But these guidelines make it a lot easier for us to do the best job we can for you!

  1. This is awesome advice! I lucked out in that a friend of mine plays violin and I also know that he has played the video game concert previously and is also a super nerd. So I left him a lot of free room to play geeky music of his choice. He was a guest, and this was his wedding present, but I did also thank him with a gift card to a local comic book store because he frequently shares graphic novels with me. But a lot of these tips are things that would never occur to me had I been booking officially, even if I have sung at a wedding and have tons of friends who are musicians.

    1 agrees
  2. Great post! I am a former classical musician with experience playing in large ensembles and chamber groups. So many pieces of advice here rang true for me–we need to be able to SEE each other when we're playing chamber music, and yes, our instruments are that expensive. Plus, as a flutist who plays a wooden piccolo, outdoor venues are not always a go.

    I think this is a great list given that, if you don't have experience playing in a chamber group, you might not have ever thought of these things!

    2 agree
  3. my cousin is in a quartet. she loves it, but she definitely has horror stories! they have changed policies now because of some of the horror stories, which is sad, but its their business! they gotta be able to protect themselves.

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  4. Here's a PS from a music teacher: If you want a quartet or a live group but are worried about the price for pros, go check your local colleges. Lots of music programs have groups that are really talented and will play for a little bit cheaper since they are less experienced/in college/want exposure. Being in college doesn't mean you won't get professional quality!

    We had a jazz combo at my school that went out and did lots of things. They've played at weddings and midnight breakfast at my university and other public events. We also had many singers that were paid to cantor weddings at churches. College students are eager to go out and play, can be there at strange hours/late hours, are used to going with the flow if there's an issue, and can easily be bribed with food :P

    My fiance and I are both music teachers and we're getting married this coming July. Our former church choir director is playing for us and the church choir is going to sing. We have musical friends that are invited to play during the ceremony and the reception. I'm hoping it's awesome.

    Support your local musicians!

    Support your local music and your local young musicians!

    9 agree
    • This is exactly my plan! We're approaching the college whose campus we're getting married on to ask if they have a bassoonist and flutist who are willing to play music I've arranged (I play flute and bassoon myself). If they lack a bassoonist, I'll start contacting all nearby music departments.

      2 agree
      • Please do! I worked at a music college, and we had a dedicated phone line where folks could leave messages for they type of musicians they were seeking – string quartet, singers, background piano music, whatever. The students were very talented and it gave them experience working with clients and the chance to earn a few bucks.

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  5. I'm surprised that people would be so clueless as to leave their wedding musicians hanging for their compensation. I thought being prepared to pay your vendors/talent is Wedding Planning Etiquette 101!

    Thanks for sharing this information – it sounds like you really love what you do and take pride in providing a good experience!

    2 agree
  6. My quartet has also changed policies and revamped our contract due to issues that have arisen at past gigs. And most gigs are great!!!

    I ask for the name of the person delivering the final payment in my contract. That helps so much when it's time to leave!

    I have FAQ's on my website too, which also seem to help.

    1 agrees
  7. I love this! The Titanic line made me almost die with laughter. My favorite part about this is that you include DOs as well as DON'Ts. It drives me nuts to see the "Don't do this or that" and then I'm going, "Okay, so I know not to go with my instincts. What do I do then?" Thanks for the awesome advice and giggles.

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  8. Man i would have thought most of this was common sense! We had an amazing quartet who played modern songs and it was awesome, singing sweet child of mine to strings was amazing. We made sure the best man had the cash to pay the ladies and thanked them personally when everyone moved on to the marquee, it was such a beautiful touch to the wedding that i would recommend a string quartet to anyone xx

    0 agree

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