Sep 5, 2015
Vol 10, Num 4

Kalimba Magic NEWS

Being a Wedding Musician
A Challenging Role That Can Yield Great Joy

I have had the honor of playing music at many a wedding over the years. This summer I had another fantastic experience acting in this special role, which is characterized by a unique set of responsibilities and challenges not to be underestimated or taken lightly. In the following article, I share thoughts and insights inspired by recent as well as past experience.

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Preparation Beforehand

 
Communicate with the Wedding Party Early

Find out exactly what the wedding party wants from the music. Take your time figuring out exactly what you are going to do musically to meet their needs. Unless they want something that you already know how to do, you will probably have to learn some music, and you would like to have several weeks to do that so you are prepared when you get to the wedding (see Customizing a Special Music Request below).

Practice Until You Know You Can Do This Well

Some kalimba players play a lot every day, and they may be prepared without having to do anything special. Between 2006 and 2011, I typically played two to five kalimba performances each week, and I had a repertiore of close to 200 songs ready and out of the hat on kalimba. Back then, I was ready for whatever came along. Now, I do about one kalimba performance a month (I'm busy writing newsletters and books), and I am not really ready for anything unless I spend a fair bit of time preparing, brushing up on a hard song, or just going for a week's worth of daily walks each morning while playing the kalimba that I'll be performing on.

Unprepared tends to translate to nervous. So do whatever you need to do to feel totally capable, comfortable (as possible - look for an article on Performance Nerves in an upcoming newsletter) and on target. You want to be able to just be there, be yourself, be a conduit of positive energy and love and faith so you can facilitate a wonderful experience for the happy couple as well as everyone else present to witness the special day.

Wedding Setup
My setup
Sound Equpment, Instruments and Accessories

Double-check your list and make sure that you will be able to have everything you will need before the day of the wedding. This includes sound gear as well as instruments and accessories (spare strings, picks, batteries, tuners, cables, etc.). You don't want to be chasing down a cable 15 minutes before the wedding begins.

I was provided with two microphones, a powered mixer just like the one I have at home, and two main speakers. I actually prefer to play acoustically without amplification, but in a medium to large hall, or especially outdoors, I prefer some sound reinforcement. I brought my mandola and a stand, my old Alto kalimba (on the grass in above photo), an alto recorder, and a music stand with clothes pins. I was set up to the side of the wedding audience so I could see everything unfolding and I could react accordingly.

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Choosing the Music

Music is used for many purposes at a wedding. A prelude, contemplative music when nothing is really happening. A processional, when people are walking down the aisle. In the wedding I played at this month, I actually had three different processional musics, one for groom and his mother, one for the flower girls, and one for the bride and her father. And then there is the celebratory music at the end of the wedding.

At the very least, you need to reflect these different actions with music that is different. If you have different kalimbas that sound different and play different musics, that may be a good option. In my case, I play several different instruments, including kalimbas, flutes, and strings. I picked my instruments carefully to optimally reflect the actions that were taking place in the different parts of the wedding.

Of course, ultimately, the music choice will be subject to the wishes of the bride and groom, but in general, almost anything classical played on the kalimba will work for a wedding, e.g., Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring and Pachelbel's Canon - both of which are available in tablature in the Classical Alto book. Hava Nagila is excellent for a Jewish wedding.

Customizing a Special Music Request

I was asked to play the Jack Johnson song "Better Together" at the wedding this month. This is a great song, but it has a lot of words that come very fast, and was quite out of my comfort zone. I had to practice it hundreds of times to get the words in. To make matters worse for myself, I decided to rewrite the song.

In the first verse, Jack sings the words "These dreams, and they are made out of real things, like..." He was giving me a cue to sing about the real dreams from the bride and groom's lives. So I asked them if I could rewrite the song, referring to special events from their lives. The answer was YES, so I requested a list of things special to them. I got back a three page email with enough material to customize ten songs!

The end of the song "Better Together" isn't quite perfect for a wedding: "But there is not enough time, and there is no song I could sing, and there is no combination of words I could say..." That was sort of defeating the purpose of the wedding, a statement that THIS is the time, that THIS is the song, that THESE WORDS we say in our wedding vows point to the strength and depth of our love. So I rewrote those words too, ending with "As we celebrate one thing: We're Better Together", appropriately setting the stage for the words of the celebrants at the altar.

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Performing the Music

A wedding is a scripted but live event, subject to uncertainties and unknowns and misunderstandings. Be prepared to play a piece longer than you had anticipated - someone may have torn their dress, or one might get the last minute jitters, or have to go to the bathroom unexpectedly. In one wedding I played at in my favorite place, Sabino Canyon, the bride had fallen down onto a cactus, and the groom was helping her free her dress and pull the spines out of her leg. "How romantic!" chimed my musical partner in a look-on-the-bright-side moment. In another wedding, the father of the bride was ill and became disoriented and had to sit down and recompose himself. Anyway, you might be playing the processional tune for a lot longer than you had imagined...

I had been playing improvisations on Pachelbel's Canon on the kalimba for quite some time. This piece served as a prelude, starting at 2:00 when the wedding officially got underway, but also served as a processional for the groom and his mother as they walked down the aisle to the altar. I had to play for a long time, so to break things up, every couple of minutes I would divert from the generally constant chord progression that defines Pachelbel's Canon, and go to other chords to build up tension, and then release the tension by returning to the regular chord progression at a simpler level, giving me room to build up. I was holding back the whole time in both volume and complexity. Finally, as the groom and his mother appeared, I let the music swell in volume, a signal to everyone that we were finally getting underway. As they approached the aisle, I launched into the climactic section of the song, which I had been withholding for minutes. As they approached the altar, I let the music come down, stopping within a few seconds of the groom and his mother turning around to face the wedding audience.I knew I was going to withhold the climactic segment of the music until groom and mother were there, but the swell in volume was totally unplanned - I was just so relieved that they were here and I would soon be able to stop playing!

Then I was playing improvised recorder music for three flower girls, ages 2 through 6, and a 2-year-old ring bearer, as they walked down the rather long aisle. They turned this way and that, came closer to each other and then farther apart, sped up to complete the journey and then finally stopped at the altar. I tried to reflect and complement their motions through the music that I was playing, almost as a composer might try to add a music score to a film.

At the end of the ceremony, as the bride and groom walked back up the aisle through the community of family and friends, I played a waltz on my recorder that I had written just for the occasion, Peter and Jeanne's Waltz. The waltz had two sections, a lower masculine part to represent Peter, and a more delicate and lovely part to represent Jeanne, both parts fitting perfectly together. As I played this final piece, I was remembering Jeanne playing on the grass as a baby, and a flood of joy welled up in me as the cheers and hoots of people filled the air.

This is all part of your job as the musician - to perfectly reflect what is happening in the wedding, to enhance the experience of the audience - while keeping a sober eye on your musical performance and other relevant environmental variables. Ultimately and above all, respect the fact that this a community of friends and family coming together to bless a holy day for two people, who are very important to this community. If something in the event does not reflect that highest hope and love, see what you can do to uplift and transform it positively through your music. As I have said, the role of the wedding musician cannot be underestimated.

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Meaningfulness

Primarily, the music needs to be meaningful to the wedding party and gathering, but to the extent that you can make the music meaningful for yourself, the more deeply present you will be and this will strengthen your performance.

Wedding Location
I remember the bride playing here as a child.

The bride in this recent wedding was the daughter of close friends of mine. I had seen the daughter grow up, first meeting her when she was in diapers. We would all go - the parents, their daughter, and my son, to a beautiful green park at the edge of a golf course - welcome relief from the New Mexico desert. Often while we were there, I would pull out my recorder and I would lead a parade of toddlers. Sometimes they would dance. It was always a joyful scene. I had actually forgotten about all of that, but the mother of the bride had not: "When I think of my daughter as a baby, I always remember how you would play music for her and how you would march all the kids around and get them dancing!" As luck would have it, the wedding this month took place on the grass in the shade of the trees at the edge of the golf course, less than 100 yards from the location of our marching and dancing some 25 years earlier. It was deeply meaningful for me to contribute my gifts to help launch Jeanne into her next phase of life.


This article describes how I poured all that I am worth into filling and surrounding a wedding event with loving, intimate and sensitive musical support that buoyed the ceremony to a transcendent dimension. And the joy that I walked away with was indescribable. As musicians, we are keepers of a very special kind of magic, this inscrutable universal language, which heals and enlightens and uplifts and transforms. The drive to share this gift keeps many of us performing, even when we know we'll never pay the rent doing this which we love the most.

—Mark Holdaway, August 2015

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