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Music for Every Moment

Martha Stewart Weddings, Spring 2006

Nothing stirs the heart like music. Here, how to choose the songs that will underscore the most important day of your life.

Shakespeare wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on," and nowhere is that sentiment better realized than at a wedding. From the moment the first guest takes her seat until the last person leaves the dance floor, music fills the day. When chosen thoughtfully, it can set the rhythm for the event, enhancing emotion during the ceremony and inspiring jubilant celebration at the reception.

Have you always pictured yourself walking down the aisle to the elegant sound of a string quartet, or imagined your friends and relatives twirling around the dance floor to an eighteen-piece orchestra? Or is a lively reggae band, or your favorite records spun by a deejay, more your style? The great thing about a wedding is you can select one type of music or a combination -- just as long as it reflects the atmosphere you'd like to create, as well as your own personal style.

When she married Bill Hockmuth in 2002, Catherine MacRae wanted music that was true to her Texas roots. "We hired a three-person mariachi band to play during the cocktail hour," she says. She also asked her deejay to play some country-western songs at the reception. "My father and I danced to 'Amarillo by Morning' by George Strait. It was a wonderful love song to Texas," Catherine says.

Not sure where to begin? Think about the songs or genres that have been important in your life, says Gale Curtis, a consultant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who helps people choose music for their wedding ceremony. "I always ask couples what their passions are," says Curtis. For example, is there a song your father used to sing to you when you were little? What type of music was played in your house while you were growing up? Do you and your fiance have a special song? "Then we use the answers to these questions as starting points to create a program," Curtis says. If you're stuck, you might ask your bandleader or deejay for suggestions. Elizabeth Gardner of Riverside, Illinois, relied on her church's organist for her ceremony. "The only directive we gave him was not to do the cliched wedding marches," she says. "He played pieces for us in advance to veto if we wanted to, but we didn't. His choices made me feel like royalty."

At their September wedding in Virginia, Shannon Goodson and Nathan Carter, kicked off the evening with a two-step to Willie Nelson's "A Song For You"; the rest of the reception was filled with more classic country and southern rock 'n' roll. While you don't have to make a playlist for every minute of the wedding, you will want to choose some songs to punctuate significant parts, from the bride's entrance to the first dance. It helps to think of the day, not as a single event, but as several little ones. Here is a typical breakdown.

The Ceremony Most weddings can generally be divided into five main parts: prelude, processional, the ceremony itself, recessional, and postlude. The prelude -- background music that plays as guests begin to assemble -- sets the mood. While a solo violinist, pianist, or flautist will create a serene atmosphere that's in keeping with the solemnity of the ceremony, don't feel you have to use classical music. Quiet jazz, for example, is a fine option. Plan for thirty to forty-five minutes of music before the ceremony begins.

One song can span the processional, though couples often choose two or more -- music for the entrance of the wedding party and a different piece (following a brief pause) for the bride. Consider the length of your aisle; a wedding held in a large hotel ballroom may require a longer musical selection than a small country church, say. If possible, visit your site before the wedding and time the walk, then adjust it for the number of people marching in your processional, keeping in mind that some may walk in pairs.

Wagner's "Wedding March" from Lohengrin (or what many people know as "Here Comes the Bride") is the most traditional and still the most popular choice for the processional. But enchanting pieces from motion pictures or musicals can also be perfect, as can certain pop songs. Robin Rosenthal walked down the aisle to something very unconventional, the lively beat of "Wild Thing" by Tone-Loc, when she married Matt Hall in May 2005 at Le Parker Meridien hotel in New York City. "It set this scene of total fun," says Robin. "People really got into the spirit of it."

During the ceremony itself, there may also be musical interludes, for example, during the lighting of a unity candle. A performance (or two) by a vocalist or a group of vocalists, such as a gospel or boys' choir, or a solo musician is a nice alternative to a reading. Once you've been pronounced husband and wife, you'll walk back up the aisle to applause and cheers, followed by the members of the wedding party. The recessional music should be joyful and festive, in celebration of the marriage. As guests begin to file out, the postlude continues the mood and prepares the crowd for the reception.

If you're having your ceremony in a church or a synagogue, be sure to clear your choices with your officiant. Some may have restrictions against secular music. Others may allow it only while the guests are being seated but not during the ceremony itself.

A violinist, who also played at the ceremony, led Michele Saba, Doug Dillard, and guests up the path to their reception. Their wedding at a vineyard near San Francisco featured a string quartet for the cocktail hour and a blues band at the reception. "Ours wasn't typical wedding music," says Michele. "It was upbeat and funky; everyone danced and had a great time."

The Reception
For the cocktail hour and dinner, light music that won't interfere with conversation is best. If the style of your band isn't appropriate, consider arranging for recorded music to play during this period.

In addition to your first dance, which should be to a romantic song (perhaps one that has meaning for the two of you), you may also want to select specific songs for the introduction of the wedding party, the cutting of the cake, and other special dances, such as the father/bride dance. If you have a band, talk to your bandleader ahead of time to make sure your songs are part of their repertoire.

Where music with lyrics is concerned, make sure to listen carefully. "I Will Always Love You," the soaring song made popular by Whitney Houston, seems lovely enough, but the lyrics are actually about a breakup.

The rest of the reception is devoted to dancing. Timeless classics by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, and so on are often the standards of the big-band sound. If you want to be more adventurous, opt for music that reflects your backgrounds or the location of your wedding, like a calypso or zydeco band, or a klezmer band performing traditional Jewish music. A contemporary group or deejay can play popular songs in whatever genre you like, be it Top 40, country-western, or rock 'n' roll. Just be sure they include songs with wide appeal. "You need great versatility, as the age ranges are usually broad at a wedding," says Valerie Romanoff, founding partner of Starlight Orchestras in New York City.

If there are certain songs you'd like your musicians or deejay to play, make those preferences known in writing before the event; the same goes for songs you don't want to hear. That said, don't micromanage. You're hiring professionals for their expertise, so give them a chance to do what they do best. They want what you want -- to keep your guests dancing all night long.

A band with an eclectic repertoire may be all you need. For their summer wedding in the Catskill Mountains, Kate Taylor and Mike Mermin hired the Zillionaires to perform a mix of big-band, Appalachian folk, and klezmer music. Members of the group played on the way to the reception, as guests joined in with kazoos, tin whistles, and other toy instruments.

Hiring Musicians and Deejays
Book your musicians or deejay at least six months before your wedding. Ask your friends, wedding planner, or manager of the reception site for recommendations.

Consider your venue. The sound of an orchestra will fill a grand ballroom or museum; intimate settings lend themselves to smaller ensembles. And a harpist sounds great indoors but the lilting music may disappear at a breezy outdoor ceremony.

Be sure the band or deejay you want is accustomed to working at weddings. And find out where else they have performed in the past to get an idea of their professionalism.

Many musicians provide tapes or videos of their work, which can give you a sense of their sound and style. Still, try to see them play live if possible before making a final decision.

Fees vary widely depending on the time of year, location, day, and any special requirements. Chamber-music ensembles and bands tend to cost more than deejays, since there are more people to pay. If you want live music on a budget, you might hire a string quartet from a nearby university's music department.

Make sure you understand what the fee includes. Bands and deejays are typically contracted for four hours, but you can book for more time. Discuss overtime fees up front so there are no expensive surprises.

Before signing a contract, check to see if your site has any limitations on the number of musicians, the equipment they can bring, or noise levels. Also contact references and the Better Business Bureau to be sure there are no complaints against them.

Comments (3)

  • suziecello 31 Mar, 2013

    Nobody uses Here Comes the Bride anymore. One out of a hundred, maybe.

  • suziecello 26 Mar, 2013

    Do not hire a student string quartet, you don't know what you will get.

    There's more to pulling off a wedding than being able to play the songs. It's all about timing and flexibility. Not always do weddings go according to plan, in fact, something usually doesn't, you need an experienced group for your ceremony.

    We call these 'train wrecks'.

  • suziecello 25 Mar, 2013

    I would be leery of hiring student musicians for a wedding ceremony. It takes more experience than just being able to play the music to pull this off. It is all about timing and being flexible enough to change something at an instance in case the original plan doesn't happen. (Which it always does)

    I feel you do not want to hire students, I have heard of them not even showing up for the gig, get a group that plays ceremonies regularly and are completely reliable.