on weddings

I played my first wedding ceremony last weekend. I suppose it’s a pretty standard gig for many working musicians, but such opportunities hadn’t come up for me until now – so it feels like a milestone.

The singer and I met for the first time about half an hour before the ceremony, and I think our duo performance went pretty smoothly overall. I mistakenly repeated the first chorus of the bridal entrance song (A Thousand Years), but as luck would have it the timing worked out perfectly: the bride crossed the threshold just as we arrived at the graceful subdominant harmony of the second verse, and everything else went off without a hitch (naturally excepting the bride and groom). Afterwards, the singer and her husband – both trained musicians – told me they wouldn’t have guessed it was my first wedding gig (I strategically withheld that detail from my duo partner until after the ceremony), so I’m pretty chuffed with that outcome.

Anyway, the whole experience got me thinking about weddings, ceremonial gigs, and what it means to be an outsider providing music at a family event. I wanted to jot down some thoughts here for the benefit of anyone who is waiting to hear those elusive wedding gig bells ring for the first time.

I should note here that in addition to being my first wedding gig, this was the first wedding ceremony I had attended since I was a small child. So on the way in, I did not expect everyone in attendance to be so visibly anxious. Of course, the singer and I were nervous about performing unrehearsed, and the celebrant and event manager were running around discreetly tying up loose ends and eyeing the time. The groom showed up early, in a cold sweat. The doors were opened early without warning, and a few minutes after the guests were seated it became clear that the bridal party’s entrance was fashionably delayed. The poor groom was stranded alone at the front of the room, visibly shaking for a good few minutes. Besides the obvious anxiety of the betrothed couple, all of the guests clearly turn up worrying whether they’re suitably dressed and how the photos will turn out, how is my hair, will the ceremony run smoothly, will my children behave appropriately, and how will the catering be? There is a lot of inward-facing energy in the ceremony room, and while many guests try to pass for relaxed, on this particular event the groom’s closest friends made a tactful effort to diffuse tension by teasing and heckling him (“She’s not coming, bro!”).

So as an outsider and stranger amidst all this nervous energy, the musician’s most important job – your job – is to be a comfort to the people around you. Firstly to your fellow musicians, and next to the celebrant and event manager, next to the marrying couple and finally to the guests. Be early, be prepared, be relaxed, and if anything untoward happens – musically or otherwise – do not break face. Your performance at any family ceremony, be it wedding, funeral, or any other, exists to help the anxious guests turn their attention outwards, away from their personal insecurities and towards the beauty of things unfolding around them. To literally reshape the air around them, and help them find and connect with one another, and share in the commemoration of lives lost, created or changing in real time.

I’ve learned that the wedding musician’s performing role begins from the moment they reach the venue, and continues indefinitely until such time has passed where no further contact with the family of the betrothed is necessary. It goes without saying that a high level of technical musical competency is required to perform music in ceremonial contexts, and the ability to mask one’s surprise, embarrassment or disappointment at the odd missed note or bungled lyric often goes hand-in-hand with the attainment of such competency. Most of us are taught this skill (or at least instructed to develop it) at some point in our musical education. But I’ve never heard anyone talk about the purely social need to maintain a facade of relaxed professionalism – that is, for the sole purpose of providing comfort to those who may need it. Right now I believe that with the underlying musical skills taken as granted, the ‘ideal’ ceremonial performance is produced at the intersection of a pro-social, sympathetic and approachable persona and a respectful professional detachment from the ongoing proceedings.

Note for engaged couples: if you’re picking out songs for a Western-style wedding ceremony, regardless of whether you’re planning a secular or religious service I am now thoroughly convinced that you can’t go wrong with slow triple or compound time feels.

Looking for a wedding band in Sydney? Direct your enquiries to Sarah Homeh.