You’ve envisioned the perfect walk down the aisle, but have you decided who’ll play the song you’ve been dreaming about? We chatted with two musicians we admire from both coasts, the owner of Sweet Harmony (New Jersey) and Josh Rawlings (Washington), for advice on how to find the right wedding musicians for you.
If you were choosing your own wedding musicians, what would you look for?
Sweet Harmony (Tara Buzash): I’d want musicians that love to play for weddings. You can tell when someone is genuinely excited for you and is grateful for the opportunity. They’ll be honest about what they can and can’t do, and they’ll do their best to meet your requests and keep your day stress-free. That’s what matters most. If you have a company that’ll work with you, everything else will fall into place. A bride and groom should trust their instinct.
What’s something that a lot of clients overlook?
Josh Rawlings: I’ve played some weddings where I’ve had a proper tent to cover me from the rain and elements, but my hands were so cold from being outside that I could hardly move my fingers on the piano. It’s important to keep in mind not just your guests, but your vendors who are working outside. That’s really the only thing I’d say to take special care with. Don’t overlook possible issues when having an outdoor wedding. Beyond that, I think getting the right music vibe by really detailing out each portion of the event is so important as well. Clients often trust me to pick the right music and I love that freedom and trust, but it’s also great to really get to know their music tastes and the vibe they’re going for throughout the day. It’ll just add that special polish and touch to the whole experience.
SH: They overlook the fact that it’s more than just a musical performance. There are so many details that are involved and necessary in order for the music to play smoothly. Clients also don’t realize that there are multiple reasons some wedding musicians charge more than others. A novice musician won’t communicate with the wedding officiant and coordinators, or position themselves so they can see properly. Brides and grooms need to look for wedding experience, not just musical experience. A highly accomplished musician might not do a good job at a wedding because they don’t have the right experience.
What should couples pay attention to when listening to samples?
SH: They should ask themselves if this is what they want their wedding music to sound like. What they hear in a company’s samples is what they’re going to receive as an end product. Some clients find recordings they like on YouTube and request us to play it exactly like in the video. While we can imitate the style, we can’t exactly replicate the sound, because each performing musician has an individual approach. That’s part of the magic of live music. It’s especially the case if recording technology was used to produce the video’s music. Online videos can give you inspiration but you really want to hear the company’s wedding musicians for who they are.
JR: I’d recommend paying attention to elements that give you those “goosebumps” and chills so-to-speak. Those are the best indicators for making a connection to the music and the performer making that music. It’s hard to completely get from samples online or on a CD. However, you can listen to your gut and look for similarities to music you already enjoy. Hopefully when checking out a particular artist or band you’ve already picked them based on the style you’re going for and they exhibit the professionalism and vibe you hope to achieve. A foolproof method to find exactly who you want for your wedding is to see them perform live before your wedding day. This way, the sample you hear is a live, human one and you get to see them perform in their element. It’s the best way to try to experience the wedding musician you’re thinking of hiring.
How would you recommend couples choose their processional music?
JR: I often check first to see if traditional ceremony music is what they would like first. If not, then I get to explore what kind of music is special and meaningful to them. I have sample lists for my clients to view for processional music. I’m also happy to guide them with less traditional music options based on previous experiences that worked well.
SH: There are practical concerns to keep in mind, like how long you’ll be walking and how long the aisle is. Wedding size is important too: if you only have twenty guests, you won’t hear much music for the processional. Also, you want to ask yourself what kind of walk you want to have: do you want to walk slowly and stately, or do you just want to get to the front of the room? How do you want to feel as you walk the aisle? Remember that the procession is almost like a dance and the music propels you forward.
What do you recommend for ensemble size?
SH: We have general guidelines. For fifty guests or fewer, we go with a soloist. For sixty to a hundred, a duo works, or a trio if the venue’s outside. If we have over a hundred guests, we’ll recommend a quartet.
JR: It really depends on multiple things. It depends on the client’s budget, the space the wedding musicians will perform in, and their vision for how they want they want to experience the music at their wedding. For me, my favorite setup for playing Jazz at a wedding is playing with my Trio because there’s a perfect balance of rhythm, bass and harmony. Of course, if the music is for the ceremony then going with a solo or duo gives some intimacy without having too large of an ensemble. Clients might want a larger ensemble for a “bigger” sound and more energy if it’s for the reception. However, I’ve found that even a smaller group size can get a crowd dancing. It’s not always about the size of the group, but the style of music and how good the musicians are at bringing the energy or dialing it back for portions of the event.
Just for fun…
What are the most requested or unique songs you’ve been asked to play?
JR: Some of the most requested songs are Canon in D for the wedding ceremony and classic Jazz ballads like When I Fall In Love or What A Wonderful World for first dances. However, some of the most unique songs I’ve been asked to play are covers of Top 40 songs that don’t easily translate to a Jazz Trio (but certainly can be done) and video game music themes like Mario Brothers for example. I’ve taken on traditional Chinese pieces and worked them out so they carry the same vibe on the piano or in a group. Clients have asked me to sing too (which I can do, but I tend to play instrumental music). I’ve played songs like One More Time by Daft Punk, more sentimental Pop/Country pieces such as White Dress by Ben Rector and instrumental renditions of songs like Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. It runs the whole gamut when you’re a Jazz musician because so many of us can recreate just about any kind of music.
SH: The number one bridal song has been and still is Canon in D. A Thousand Years is a close runner-up. Can’t Help Falling in Love is also very popular, but clients tend to use that for bridesmaids. Another well-requested song is All of Me by John Legend. As for unusual songs, anything goes. These days people are looking to individualize their wedding and really express themselves in a way they didn’t twenty years ago. They get excited about personalizing their wedding. They want to walk down the aisle to a song from their favorite musical group. That’s what makes playing weddings fun: we’re introduced to and get to learn cool new music for brides and grooms. A few couples still choose Here Comes the Bride, but it’s definitely becoming rarer.
What is the most memorable wedding processional you’ve played?
SH: Back when we first started, a bride wanted The Misshapen Steed by a heavy metal band from Oregon called Agalloch. We just did the first part of the song because it starts out with a really beautiful, haunting guitar melody. The rhythm is complex, so it took us a while to learn it, but it was so beautiful. It was a really creative project, and I still remember it all these years later. It’s not the kind of music you’d imagine a bride to walk to, but it was beautiful. The song doesn’t have to be happy and perky, it just needs to be moving and musically honest. As live wedding musicians, we’re exposed to the different kinds of beauty and uniqueness of music.
JR: My most memorable wedding processional might be one I did not too long ago at a Catholic church. I had to learn some specially prepared Catholic liturgical music for the ceremony. I’m not super familiar with Catholic liturgical music in general. In cases like these, I trust in my abilities to adapt and in the end, it works out perfectly. I’ve also done a number of special wedding ceremonies on people’s properties over the years and often outdoors; those are always really special.
Is there anything else we haven’t asked that you think is important?
JR: Never feel strange about asking for help if you’re stumped on song choices and repertoire for the right vibe. That’s what wedding musicians like myself are here to do. We want to curate the best possible music experience you could dream of.
Want to learn more about wedding musicians? Tell us!
Check out how to choose the right wedding band
Photo by Jenna Perfette Photography