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String Quartet Disasters and How to Avoid Them: A Primer for the Beginning Wedding Player
You’ve started to play the recessional, and the entire bridal party gives you a frantic “not yet!” look. You ask yourself, “Could I have avoided this?”…
Those gig disasters have happened to everybody. Well, except YOU, since you’ve only been playing weddings since last Tuesday. I’ve been playing string quartets in weddings for over two decades, and I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, how NOT to have that terrible moment when the focus shifts from the happy couple to the instantly mortified violinist. Let’s get right into it!
The Wrath of God
I was playing a wedding outdoors, and the weather was perfect. 70 degrees, sunny, blue skies, exactly what the bride was hoping for. We had finished the prelude and the bridal party entrance, and we began the bridal march. It was a new one for us; Love Actually had just come out in theaters and this was our first time playing All You Need is Love. The bride began walking down the aisle, and a HUGE gust of wind, the first in a previously calm day, blew all of our music right off the stands. We’d rehearsed it earlier, thank heavens, but the guests were still treated to the sight of our violist madly chasing down eight pages of sheet music while the rest of us improvised furiously. We made it through, but it was a close thing.
Weather can happen eerily fast. Pages should always be in binders when playing outside, and the pages should be securely fastened to the stands. Music stores sell long, spring-loaded clips just for this; I use clothespins from the dollar store. (They’re cheaper, and I don’t mind if they get lost or broken.) Either way, USE SOMETHING! It may feel like an eternity between the bridal party and the bride’s entrance while you’re securing the clips, but unless you’re the cellist on Pachelbel’s Canon, it’s better than having your book blow closed or off the stand in the middle of it. Also, make sure you’re sitting somewhere where, if it starts to rain, you don’t have to make an undignified dash for it. It’s right in my ceremony contract, “… quartet requires a sheltered place to play in case of inclement weather.” (You DO have a contract, don’t you?)
We’re playing WHAT?
On one of my first wedding gigs, way back in college, we had a bunch of borrowed music, and stuff we got from the college library, including two albums of Handel’s Water Music. During the prelude, the best man came over and told us the bride needed five more minutes for whatever brides need five more minutes for, and could we play one more song? I said, “Okay, Handel’s Hornpipe!” We hurriedly pulled it out, found the Hornpipe, started to play… and pretty quickly realized that there was a Hornpipe in BOTH books! For about two measures it was pretty raucous while we figured out what was going on, and we got some funny looks from the guests in the front row.
Having good wedding books takes time and effort, not to mention money. First, you need a list of wedding music essentials. There are hundreds of those online; I won’t waste time in this essay. Once you figure out what you need and where you’re going to get them, they need to be organized. The best string quartets I’ve played with have single-volume, categorized, numbered books. Mine are broken into broad sections; Classical, Wedding, Cafemusik, Tango, Rock/Pop, Ragtime, Jazz, and Pop Culture. Each section has a color tab, and the pieces are numbered. If I want Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that’s “blue tab, number 1.5.” Por Una Cabeza is “orange 6.” It makes finding music easy and fast, and keeps everyone on the same page. I probably have a dozen Minuets or Menuettos in the books; this makes sure we’re all on the same page!
So what about that premature wedding march I talked about earlier? Well, there wasn’t any good way to hide it. I cut off the quartet, gave the bride an embarrassed “I’m REALLY sorry” shrug, and gave a big comic cue when the priest gave us an equally comic “OK, NOW!” wink.
The best defense against this kind of thing is to get to the gig early. REALLY early. I commonly arrive at weddings at least 30 minutes, and sometimes as much as an hour before the prelude music will start. If it’s a long drive, I give it extra time. If it’s outdoors or I’ve never been to the venue, extra time. This ensures I have the time to do several things:
*Look over the physical setup and make sure we have chairs, adequate space, and if outdoors, adequate shade and/or cover from rain.
*Find the wedding planner and ask about number in the wedding party, will we be playing for anything we haven’t found out about yet, (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh, we’re doing a sand ceremony, can you play something for that?”) and most importantly, who will give us the cue to begin the entrance music. It’s usually the wedding planner, but if there isn’t one, it might be Aunt Mathilda, who may need some gentle coaching on how to signal a string quartet across the length of a cathedral church.
*Lastly, find the officiant or celebrant (whoever is actually performing the wedding,) and find out what is the very last thing that he is going to say before the new couple walk back down the aisle at the end. It’s usually, BUT NOT ALWAYS, the introduction. (“I now have the honor to introduce, for the VERY FIRST TIME, John and Mary Whatchamacallum!)
Awesome! I’m ready to play weddings!
Well, maybe. There are always things that pop up. I’ve actually had a bride decide, on the day of, with a packed church, that today wasn’t going to be the day. How do you handle that? (I’ll tell you. You play Mozart until the guests have left, and then, with the utmost tact, ask her father for the balance of your fee.) Preparation only goes so far. At some point, experience will kick in and then you’ll find that playing weddings is a pretty good way to earn your living…
… unless you’re the cellist, and it’s Pachelbel time.
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