Wedding function bands – can you really pull it off?

Wedding function bands – can you really pull it off?

Following on from last weeks’ discussion about musicians being paid to play at weddings, I wanted to bring the subject of wedding function bands to the table.

Now at Musicademy we have a function band comprised of professional musicians that play at weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. We charge a set fee depending on the event, number of musicians, distance away etc etc. We always try to pay our musicians well, partly because they are so often the last in the queue to be paid in their church and professional lives (so often they are expected to play for free despite this being the way that they earn their living – music is the day job).

What never fails to amaze me is how many people we come across that expect their Sunday worship team to suddenly be able to morph into a “play any request” function band for weddings and other special occasions. There seems to be limited understanding that a) rock & pop songs can be quite challenging to learn and b) the band don’t play these together normally so will need considerable practise and rehearsal time. Even pro musicians that don’t play all the time together as one band will need quite a lot of rehearsal when putting together a new list of rock & pop songs for an acceptable live performance.

I know that many of our pro musician friends are frequently approached to “pull together” a function band for a one off event. Generally there is no budget and a really mixed bag of talent (or lack of). We’ve spent years getting the Musicademy function band repertoire together and even now, will have at least one rehearsal before each and every gig, even if it’s the same material. The amount of times I’ve heard a church come up with an idea to do an outreach event with their worship team playing party songs and it falls flat because:

  1. Everyone including the musicians underestimate the amount of rehearsal the whole thing needs to sound really good
  2. The team have only ever played worship music so have no idea how to play pop and rock authentically
  3. They also have no idea how to woo an audience onto the dance floor and keep them there all evening
  4. They have no idea how to communicate to an audience who doesn’t know them, isn’t ‘for’ them and if they don’t like it, doesn’t feel compelled to stay in the room!
  5. Basically if they’ve only ever played in a worship team where ‘performance’ is considered a dirty word (even though the reality is that many of us do perform to one degree or another) when they actually do need to perform to engage people, they have no idea how
  6. The sound techs have only ever mixed worship so the whole dance floor experience is just too quiet – or at the other extreme, way too loud!
  7. The sound techs have only ever mixed worship so all you can hear is the acoustic guitarist!
  8. It just sounds plain lame!

Two more observations from our experience of running a function band (hopefully these will serve as a ‘heads up’ to anyone thinking about starting one):

  • Brides and grooms always want to go through the song repertoire one by one ticking off those they like and deleting those they don’t. Now, whilst we obviously want to deliver a rocking set that will have the entire gathering dancing, being restricted by the bridegroom’s penchance for death metal, and the bride’s hatred of anything by The Monkees (believe it or not one of our dead cert dance floor winners) is not going to help with the general flow. This flow, or the order of songs is just as important as the songs themselves. So even the right song that everyone knows and likes in the wrong place can kill the dance floor. A good band or DJ will constantly reassess whether ‘that’ song will work in ‘that’ moment. Sometimes it’s to do with demographic and sometimes it’s down to experience. For instance we’ll often pick songs that the ladies like more than the men. Simply because if you get the ladies on the dance floor the men will follow anyway. Generally men will be more uncomfortable dancing than women and if you play to them they will either muck about and try to do funny dancing to cover up the anxiety or they end up moshing to Marillion and nobody likes that amount of testosterone at a party. So we select a set list based on demographic, gender and allow flexibility for change depending on what goes down well on the night. Sound familiar worship leaders??
  • Be careful of special requests – we’re normally happy to do the odd request that’s been asked for with plenty of notice. You’ll get asked for something really obscure that you’ll spend hours rehearsing that’ll never see the light of day again. Or the happy couple will ask for a really bad song that you won’t be able to get out of murdering. I once managed a jazz-funk band wedding band that allowed occasional requests as long as they were in the jazz-funk genre. The bride’s unwavering request? Eternal Flame… you have been warned.

So what has this got to do with playing worship music in a church worship team? Well actually everything! If your church wants to create any kind of ‘flow’ in a time of uninterrupted worship where you play a bunch of songs back to back, the ability to read how people are responding to them, or not, and change something up to engage them is a crucial skill.  There’s a difficult tension between songs that flow in terms of tempo and key but not necessarily theme or thought, and between songs that have good thematic and theological journey but just don’t shoehorn together musically at all. And, depending on the type of church you go to, you probably experience one of those extremes fairly regularly. And you know what? Neither extreme has all the answers or is ‘correct’.  Picking a set of songs that work in the moment isn’t an exact science, it’s an art or a moving target, one that requires intuition, sensitivity and looking and listening and an ability to embrace change.