Wedding Drumming 101: A Crash Course
Maybe it’s that dorky cummerbund, or the seemingly endless rendition of “We’ve Only Just Begun” during the first dance. For whatever reason, wedding gigs have earned a bad rap. Sure, they lack the trappings of rock concerts — with the limo rides, after-parties, and groupies — but in fact, many talented musicians make good livings playing these events. Some even have fun doing it.
Playing in a wedding band has many challenges, and the principal one is being able to play a variety of musical styles well. Fortunately, that’s also one of its greatest pleasures: Few gigs cover such a wide stylistic range. Having high school and college jazz band experience is certainly helpful. You need to have an extensive database of songs in your head, be familiar with typical song forms, and have a good set of ears — yet be able to fake it when necessary. It helps if you have an easy-going personality and can roll with on-the-spot changes. However, if you have a hot-tempered Type A personality and are prone to sudden outbursts of anger, consider starting and leading your own band.
Many different kinds of bands work the wedding circuit. These include small jazz groups that play instrumental standards, occasional vocal numbers, and some pop music. You’ll also find large society orchestras with woodwinds and horns, a rhythm section, and several vocalists. These bands usually require reading skills, since they play carefully written arrangements. There are also smaller groups, which often have a sax player, rhythm section, and a male and female vocalist. These outfits can change a set list to reflect current songs more quickly than a larger group, which usually has to buy charts.
Some smaller groups use backing tracks that require the drummer to play along with a click track and nail the form of the song. While some groups are well rehearsed and always use the same group of players, many rely on skilled freelancers sight-reading charts. Unless you join a forming band, you may never rehearse with them or even meet them until the gig. One band I worked with several years ago averaged ten musicians, but other than the leader, I rarely played with anyone else in the band twice. Whenever an audience member asked how long this group had played together, it was an effort not to look at my watch.
Party bands play functional music to announce and accompany traditional wedding events, such as tossing the garter belt or cutting the cake, as well as providing background and dance music. If you’ve never played an event like this, the typical three-hour wedding gig consists of a dinner music set and two dance music sets. The dinner music set features low-volume, instrumental jazz and Latin standards played while the guests dine. Occasional speeches can interrupt the music (keep in mind that it’s bad form to yawn).
You may be asked to play as the bridal party and newlyweds are first introduced and enter the room, and later during the cake-cutting ceremony. The “first dance” usually follows dinner, and allows the photographer to get good shots of the newlyweds. This is sometimes followed by a separate dance with the full wedding party. After this, the dance floor is opened to the rest of the guests, the dance music starts, and the drinking really begins. If the reception includes a garter and bouquet toss, bands will often play a march as the single men and women are called to the dance floor. One band I worked with humorously played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Ted Nugent’s “Hey Baby” for this segment. Be prepared to play a cheesy song like “Night Train” or “The Stripper” while the garter is removed. Drummers usually perform a buzz roll to set up the garter and bouquet toss, and the band will play some sort of brief fanfare or fast theme after the cursed object has bounced off the chandelier. Most of this occurs during the second set, leaving the final set for dancing.
Sometimes a cocktail set will precede the dinner set, and occasionally the party wants the band to play overtime. Bands are contracted for a set length of time, say 9:00 to 12:00. Bandleaders are very precise about stop and start times, and have had tons of practice ignoring drunken chants for “one more song.” You’ll only play past the contracted time if someone comes up with OT money. If the dinner is running behind you may end up playing two dinner music sets and one dance set in which all the wedding events take place, increasing the likelihood of OT. At some corporate events, the presentation, auctions, raffles, awards, and speeches can eat significantly into your playing time. I’ve done gigs where I only played for half an hour. Don’t worry, you’ll be paid for a full gig.
The term “wedding band” may be a bit of a misnomer. If you play in one of these bands your work may actually be divided between weddings, corporate events, bar mitzvahs, country club events, and the like. Fortunately the repertoire for each type of event is largely the same. Golf banquets, charity auctions, or corporate parties often require the band to play “stingers” to transition professionally between the presentations. Stingers are those short snippets of songs you hear played while a guest walks from the curtain to his chair on late night talk shows.
You’ll need a black tuxedo, cummerbund (the pleats face up), bow tie, dress shoes, and white and sometimes black tux shirts. Dry clean your tux regularly. I once used a sub who acquired the not-so-affectionate nickname “Stinky” from the band. If you have long hair, bring a ponytail holder. Even though the desired look leans toward conservative, you may need a loud Hawaiian shirt and shorts for outdoor summer gigs.
Sometimes there isn’t a set list. But even if there is, you may deviate from it as the bandleader reads the crowd. Many will simply call out the next song toward the end of the current one. At reading gigs, sometimes a leader will just call out chart numbers like, “64 — 103 — 216.” When he does that, pull those numbered charts out from the book and place them behind the current chart in the order called. Often, you have to do that while playing a song.