I don’t subscribe to much of the girly agenda. Those that know me well know that I love beer, sports, blue jeans and can’t stand the likes of Gossip Girl or Sex and the City. However, the one girly thing that gives me butterflies is the idea of a wedding.
The flowers, the dress, the hair, the food, the dance, the company…it all gets me so excited for that one future day that I get to share with the man of my dreams, God, and our closest friends and family. We’ll have a unique musical ceremony, eat a fantastic chicken dinner, and dance the night away like the dorks we’ll be (and like a good Wisconsin wedding, there will be several polkas).
I’ve been a part of weddings for as long as I can remember. Somewhere in my house is the flower girl dress I wore for my aunt’s ceremony when I was eight. I still have the gift from reading at my cousin’s wedding in high school. However, my first shot at being a wedding musician came at sixteen. I played the entire ceremony as well as a three-hour reception on harp. Since then, I have played more weddings than I can count. I’ve heard and seen any and all odd request a bride could have about music, and I’ve granted them all with a smile.
I love being a musician. It’s in my blood, it’s who I am, and I’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into my work. But that’s exactly what playing for a wedding is: it’s work. There’s nothing glamorous about it. You don’t get your hair done with the bridesmaids, get your toes painted to match the bouquet, and you get two awkward photos that the photographer always seems to snap during a super tough passage so you look like you’re trying to pass a kidney stone.
Let me give you a better picture of a typical wedding day for me:
I’m playing for 30-45 minutes before the service as the guests arrive. I’ve spent months putting together a few different binders depending on how decent the piano is when I arrive at the space, but no one remembers to think about that. While everyone comes in and catches up with old friends and relatives, I’m stuck alone at the piano. As everyone gets situated, I then have to coordinate with the ushers, minister, and bridal party how the music will proceed, and often times I’ll play Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring fifteen times until the 3-year-old flower girl decides to finally make it to the front. By this point, I’ve played an hour of music and depending on the temperature of the space, my hands are probably freezing.
Then comes the announcement. The bride and her father are ready to walk down the aisle. The moment everyone has been holding their breath for lies on me giving the EXACT right cue for the minister to ask everyone to rise, the ushers to open the doors, and then I have to fill the space with as much sound as I can muster on fingers that are pretty much numb.
I can feel my heart in my stomach as the little girl inside me hopes to sneak a glimpse at the dress, the flowers, the way the betrothed look at each other, the way the mothers start crying, anything I can. But each moment I look away from the piano opens up the door for mistakes. If I’m supposed to be accompanying THE MOMENT, there can’t be any mistakes. Eventually I see both the bride and groom facing the officiant, and I finish up as the ceremony begins and everyone sits down.
When everyone is seated, I have a fair amount of time to get some feelings back in my hands before the bride’s college roommate gets up to sing a George Strait song everyone seems to know except me. I won’t complain about the front row seat to watching the service, but it’s usually pretty short lived because before you know it, they’re married and ready to kiss.
And then the marathon begins…
I get to catch a millisecond of the kiss and then the music starts. The recessional music has to be upbeat, lively, and energetic as the couple walks out to start their new life together. I love playing a good recessional; it’s the music that follows that is exhausting. For the next 30-45 minutes, depending on how quickly people file out of the space, I am responsible for continuous fast, lively, and energetic music. When the last person leaves, I finish my last chord and realize I’m sweatier than a warm piece of cheese at a school dance. I pack up quickly to try to catch the bride and groom, especially if they’re family, but by then they’re usually already taking pictures.
If it’s a paid gig, I collect the check, thank the officiant and leave, reflecting on the job I just completed and satisfied at the appreciation for my work. If it’s an unpaid favor, such as if the bridal couple are friends/family, I take a deep breath to regroup and head to the reception with my family. If the bride is considerate enough to ask, I may bring a guest since I’m 24-years-old and ethically entitled to a sympathy date invitation at this age (even if I’m more single than a nun these days). However, since the bride almost always considers me an employee first, even if unpaid, if I’m not explicitly offered to bring a date, I usually skip the reception or go with my family, mostly to get a free meal out of it. No one goes to a wedding alone anymore thanks to social media, and I’m not about to be the awkward one who wasn’t allowed to bring a date to show up not knowing any other single people. I usually just go home where Netflix and pretzel M&Ms never let you down.
I’ve already accepted that my lot in life is at the keyboard, [almost] never the bridesmaid. I possess the face and body of a composer, not a soloistic star, and most people I’ve known have envisioned me as the pianist at their wedding rather than standing beside them. It’s a reality I’ve come to accept. Besides, being a wedding musician is something I’m quite good at, and people want the best they can get at their weddings. If I’m not there to make them look good, I’m there to make everything sound good. However, the more I do it, the more people want me to do it for free. Those requests are really starting to grate on my artistic integrity, and I know of several colleagues who feel the same way. If bridal couples want a great photographer, they’ll pay for a great photographer, but live musical work is always requested (more often demanded) for free. The word “professional” is applied appropriately to almost all aspects of services provided in a wedding, but musicians are the ones whose “packages” seem the most “negotiable” to brides and grooms, an entirely unfair sentiment considering musicians have had the same number of years of training, if not several more, in their craft. Still, reality television shows have given Americans a toxic complex in believing that every musician is an average joe with “natural talent” and “hasn’t had to toil away at it” so they don’t deserve to get paid for the services the do provide.
At the root of it, when you do something for nine years and the monetary value of it keeps getting cheapened, the butterflies go away and you don’t enjoy it anymore. The work feels like a monumental task because you’re being publicly exploited, even if the bridal couple never sees it that way. It leads to a joyous day being enveloped by plaguing, festering feelings of frustration at the lack of respect for your art form, a poisonous trap to fall into. If this means that sensitive people like me need to hang it up and quit, then maybe that’s the best solution. A DJ gets paid $1000 for a night spent pressing play on a machine, so it seems foolish to kill myself preparing for a couple hours of exhausting work for nothing, right?
Now don’t get me wrong, some couples make it all worth the trouble. They’re extremely grateful and understanding of the job of the person who curates the background mood for their special day, and they compensate you to the best of their abilities. I even had a couple go out of their way to thank me in their speeches at the reception, a gesture I never expected but truly appreciated.
My mom keeps telling me that my feelings will change when it comes time for me to get married. She says that the music will mean so much to me and I’m going to want the best, just like these people that have asked me to play want the best. They aren’t intentionally taking financial advantage of me, it’s their way of complimenting me and the things I’m good at. While I appreciate the sentiment, I think I’m a more exciting and well-rounded human than just my fingers will ever be, and I think it’s time for me to present that side of me rather than involuntarily agree to be “the wedding musician” every time I’m asked.
Besides, maybe if I say no next time, I’ll get butterflies at the opportunity to bring a date…