String Quartet Disasters and How to Avoid Them: A Basic Guide for the Beginning Wedding Player

You’ve started playing recession, and the entire bridal party gives you a frantic “not yet!” aspect. You ask yourself, “Could I have prevented this?”…

Those concert disasters have happened to everyone. Well, except YOU, since you’ve only been playing weddings since last Tuesday. I’ve been playing string quartets at weddings for over two decades and have learned, sometimes the hard way, how NOT to have that awful moment when the focus shifts from the happy couple to the instantly mortified violinist. Let’s do it!

The God’s anger

I was playing an outdoor wedding and the weather was perfect. 70 degrees, sunny blue skies, exactly what the bride was hoping for. We had finished the prelude and the entrance of the bridal procession, and we began the wedding march. It was new to us; love actually had just been released in theaters and it was the first time we played All you need is Love. The bride started walking down the aisle, and a HUGE gust of wind, the first on a previously calm day, blew all our music off the stands. We’d rehearsed it before, thank goodness, but the guests still enjoyed the sight of our violist madly chasing eight pages of sheet music while the rest of us furiously improvised. We made it, but it was close.

Weather can happen very quickly. The pages should always be in folders when playing outdoors, and the pages should be securely attached to the supports. Music stores sell long, spring-loaded clips just for this; I use clothespins from the dollar store. (They’re cheaper, and I don’t care if they get lost or broken.) Either way, USE SOMETHING! It might seem like an eternity between the bridal party and the bride’s entrance as you secure the clips, but unless you’re the cellist in Pachelbel’s Canon, it’s better than having your book closed or off the lectern in between. . Also, make sure you’re sitting somewhere where, if it starts to rain, you won’t have to run undignified. It’s okay in my ceremony contract, “…the quartet requires a sheltered place to play in case of bad weather.” (You have a contract, don’t you?)

We are playing WHAT?

At one of my first wedding concerts, back in college, we had a bunch of music on loan and stuff we got from the college library, including two Handel’s Water Music albums. During the prelude, the best man came over and told us that the bride needs five more minutes for whatever brides need five more minutes, and could we play one more song? I said, “Okay, Handel’s flute!” We quickly pulled it out, found the Hornpipe, started playing…and quickly realized there was a Hornpipe in BOTH books! For about two bars it was pretty raucous as we figured out what was going on, and we got some amused 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 them online; I will not waste time on this essay. Once you figure out what you need and where you’re going to get them, you need to organize them. The best string quartets I’ve ever played with have single-volume books, categorized and numbered. Mine are divided into broad sections; Classical, Wedding, Cafemusik, Tango, Rock/Pop, Ragtime, Jazz and Pop Culture. Each section has a colored tab and the pieces are numbered. Yes I want it Eine Kleine Nachtmusikthat’s “blue token, number 1.5”. By a head is “orange 6”. It makes finding music quick and easy and keeps everyone on the same page. I have probably a dozen Minuets or Menuettos in the books; this ensures that we are all on the same page!


So what about that premature wedding march I talked about earlier? Well, there was no good way to hide it. I interrupted the foursome, gave the bride an embarrassed “I’m REALLY sorry” shrug, and gave a big comedic cue when the priest gave us an equally comedic “OK, NOW!” wink.

The best defense against this kind of thing is to get to the concert early. Very early. I usually arrive at weddings at least 30 minutes and sometimes up to an hour before the introductory music starts. If it’s a long trip, I give it more time. If it is outdoors or I have never been to the venue, extra time. This ensures that I have time to do several things:

*Please review the physical setup and make sure we have chairs, adequate space, and if outdoors, adequate shade and/or protection from rain.

*Find the wedding planner and ask him for the number of people in the wedding party, are we playing for something we haven’t figured out 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 signal to start the entrance music. Usually it’s the wedding planner, but if there isn’t one, it could be Aunt Mathilda, who may need a bit of coaching on how to score a string quartet throughout a cathedral church.

* Lastly, find the officiant or celebrant (whoever is celebrating the wedding) and figure out what is the last thing they will say before the new couple walks back down the aisle at the end. It is usually, BUT NOT ALWAYS, the introduction. (“I now have the honor of introducing, for the FIRST TIME, John and Mary Whatchamacallum!)

Awesome! I’m ready to play wedding!

Well maybe. There are always things that appear. In fact, one bride decided, on the day of the packed church, that today was not going to be the day. How do you handle that? (I’ll tell you. You play Mozart until the guests have left, then tactfully ask his father for the balance of your fee.) Preparation only goes so far. At some point, the experience will kick in and then you’ll find out that playing weddings is a really good way to make a living…

…unless you’re the cellist and it’s Pachelbel time.

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