Music will be the rhythm of the wedding celebration, so it requires special attention during the planning stage. Certain rules apply to the hunt for the perfect band—no matter what sound you’re looking for.
Begin your search at least six months before the wedding day by deciding which musical direction best suits the tone and atmosphere of the reception you are planning. If it’s something traditional (such as a contemporary band with a vocalist or two), think of weddings you’ve attended, and contact the musicians who impressed you. Word of mouth is the best endorsement; friends and relatives may have suggestions, and wedding planners, event coordinators, florists, caterers, and photographers can all be terrific and reliable sources.
If you are interested in something more unusual, you’ll need to be more resourceful in your search. Nothing prohibits you from offering the gig to the local band you love, but when hiring bands unaccustomed to playing at weddings, be very clear about the arrangements: Concerts at clubs can run behind schedule with nobody blinking an eye, but on your wedding day, you don't want to be worried about the band showing up late.
Your search may lead to an entertainment agency that will work with you to define your musical requirements and budget and to find the right musicians. All such agencies should offer the opportunity to “audition” various bands—some with audiotapes, some with videotapes, still others by encouraging the couple to attend a function at which the band is performing. If you hear a band you like, make sure that what you’ve heard is what you’ll get—don't sign on for “a female singer,” sign on for the specific person whose voice wowed you.
Susan de Bois, of de Bois Productions in Los Angeles, says that to be assured of a tight sound, hire a band that works together regularly. Also, take stock of the venues where the band has performed, as this will reflect its level of professionalism. And of course, ask for references. A satisfied former client is the best referral; if reassurance from past clients isn’t forthcoming, there is probably a reason.
The magic of the music won’t be ruined by nailing down the business arrangements. The contract you draw up with the musicians should spell out every detail of the terms of their hiring, from the names of each of the principal band members to a specific song list (or at least a musical style). It should cover the logistics of arrival, setup, and departure times; liability-insurance coverage; payment schedule; attire; food and drinks for the band; break times; transportation arrangements; and provisions for overtime and other unforeseeable costs.
In considering the size of the band, both budget and venue will be factors. Even if the budget can accommodate eighteen players, the size of the room and its acoustics may dictate a more intimate sound. Access to a piano may be an issue: If a keyboard won’t do, be sure to inquire whether the site includes a piano or can accommodate a rental—but know, too, that a piano rental and tuner will have a significant impact on the music budget. The following cost estimates apply to traditional wedding bands; costs may be significantly lower or higher for alternative choices.
As a general guideline, a well-rounded band will consist of six to ten musicians, made up of a rhythm section (piano or keyboard, bass, drums, and guitar), a small horn section comprising saxophone, trumpet, and trombone (one to three horns is average), and a “hands-free” (non-instrument-playing) vocalist. Other members of the band may also be expected to sing, but a dedicated vocalist—or two—is the norm. Estimating $400 per musician for a four-hour reception, the musician fees for a six-to-ten-member group should average between $2,400 and $4,000. A fuller sound (appropriate for big-band or Latin music) will generally involve additional horns (up to fifteen), and fees will begin to approach $10,000. Overtime will generally be prorated in half-hour increments.
A set number of breaks for the band will need to be specified, typically three or four during the course of a four-hour reception—one twenty-minute meal break and the rest around ten or fifteen minutes. If arrangements have been made for continuous play, the band members will alternate breaks, so there will be seamless music and no need to use recorded music to fill in the gaps. If not, the bandleader will be responsible for playing select recorded music through the breaks. No matter what, the musicians must be fed, although they don’t need to be included in the guest count. Ask the hotel or caterer about vendor meals, which they should offer at a reasonable price.
To satisfy a broad age range of guests, most wedding bands will play a wide variety of music, including songs from the 1930s to present-day hits. Professional bands have hundreds of songs in their repertoire. At the first meeting with the bandleader, he or she should have a menu from which you can select both the types of music and the specific songs you'd like the band to perform (or not perform). Should you want a popular song played that isn’t in the band’s repertoire, the band will likely offer to learn the song (but there may be fees associated).
Many couples prefer to limit their input to tried-and-true categories such as swing, fifties favorites, Motown, or disco. If you want more unusual choices, you can add them to the mix; but keep in mind that guests are more likely to enjoy music they know than music they don’t. A larger wedding may call for a less adventurous song list; tastes will be more diverse, and too many unfamiliar songs may sap the energy in the room.
Energy comes not just from the songs the band plays but from the pace as well. Music acts as a subliminal “map” during a wedding reception, helping to guide the mood of the celebration.
A small jazz combo (or one or two members of the band) playing standards is a popular choice for the arrival of the guests and for the cocktail hour, offering a pleasant and slightly sexy contrast to the more formal music played during the ceremony. Alternatively, and if a different kind of elegance is preferred, the string quartet engaged for the ceremony can also be hired to play during the cocktail hour.
As the cocktail hour winds down, the full band will begin playing and will continue to play while guests are seated through the entrance of the bride and groom, until their first dance. The first dance is a pivotal musical moment, with all eyes on the newlyweds and all ears on the band. If the bride and groom have “a song,” now is the time to share it. If not, they may choose a romantic classic or go all out and embrace the drama of the moment—there is no rule saying the first dance can’t be a tango.
After the first dance, it’s common for the band to play something upbeat and celebratory—a swing tune, or, at a Jewish wedding, the hora—to invite all the guests onto the dance floor. From here, a balance of light dance tunes and more subtle background music, echoing the pace and service of the dinner, with the lightest accompaniment during the main course, is preferable so guests can relax while they eat and easily engage in conversation.
The Final Stretch
After the main course is served, it is generally the father-daughter dance that reopens the dance floor. The couple should be sure to tell the musicians before the wedding how they’d like the song to be introduced, how long to sustain the solitary father-daughter spotlight before the groom and his mother join in or get up to dance to their own special song, and how verbal, or not, the bandleader should be in coaxing the other guests to the dance floor. This moment will help set the tone for the reception’s final stage—a lasting stretch of festive, energetic music and dancing.