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Behind the Curtain - Playing Piano Music at Weddings - a Piano Matters Blog

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

In my last blog post I focussed on my past, whereas in this one I’d like to focus on the present, where I'm playing piano music often at weddings. Having had a lovely chat with a couple at a recent wedding who had absolutely brought the house down with a song performed during the speeches, their interesting questions about how I approach things got me thinking it could make an interesting article.

I provide a totally bespoke service when I'm booked, which means I will play whatever the couple request from me, and fine tune it to their big day. I don't overbook myself throughout the year, so the weddings I do take on get my full effort and attention. I like to think that makes a big difference as to how the music goes down on the day!

Will you play literally anything if you’re asked to?

Yes pretty much! Unless something absolutely won’t work on piano, I will learn anything I’m asked and make it work on piano. This involves a few things, but what may surprise you is that most of the work learning or arranging something new involves using the ears more than anything else. Listening is the most important musical skill, so a top tip from me if you are looking to learn or improve your music, is to listen as much as you would practise the actual playing.

Hand written sheet music
Working on an arrangement at home

If it’s a pop or rock type song, I will listen to the original versions, work out the general patterns of the music, the chords, melody themes, riffs or repeated phrases etc. I don’t have Perfect Pitch but have pretty good Relative Pitch which means I often don’t think of the song in the correct key based on the recording, but work out the general patterns relative to themselves. If I can find a lead sheet or basic sheet music, then I’ll use that, but if not then I’ll write it out by hand to give me something to work on and type it up later (which allows me to “move” it to whichever key sounds best on the piano). I’ll think about it for a while, playing it in my head as it were, to build the shape of the song’s melody, and how to bring that through when it’s just melody and accompaniment and no words. Only once I’ve done that for a while will I go to the piano to try it out, see what works and what doesn’t - by that time I already know the tune quite well in my head so can then play about with it as much as I need to in order for it to sound good. So although at that point my hands and fingers are doing the playing, it’s still my ears which are telling me what’s right or not. Doing it this way also makes for a more flexible approach when playing it, as you are not stuck to a rigid format or only playing it a certain way.

It's sometimes said that in jazz music, you never play the same thing once! (Louis Armstrong probably didn't say that)

If it's a song I know but haven't played before, then because of the way I listen to music, I've probably already got a good idea of how it'll go on piano so I can skip the first few stages and can pretty much go straight to the piano. This is a result of having studied all the music theory and having taken an interest in harmony, but also a good musical memory that I can use to kind of work out where tunes and chords are headed. Incidentally this musical memory also makes it very hard to write my own original music as very often I'll unconsciously steal little bits from all over the place!

Doing all this does require practice and experience, but don’t despair, that can only come from doing it, having a go, trying it out!

Classical is slightly different - I don’t tend to listen to a new classical piece before learning it, as I enjoy the discovery process of sight reading a new piece and working out my own interpretation of what is written down (as I’ll be using sheet music for that almost all of the time). I may listen to recordings once I’ve broken the back of it a little, or for tricky passages, and also to get some inspiration of how others have portrayed it.

How much do you need to practise?

The Grand Piano at Prestwold Hall
The Grand Piano at Prestwold Hall

It depends what you mean by practice, because everybody works differently and your idea of what practising involves may well be different than mine! As I alluded to in the first question, I actually do a lot of what I call “silent practice” during the working day or whilst doing the housework - effectively playing the piece of music in my head and imagining how certain things might sound, sometimes

tapping my fingers on my lap or my desk as well to work out certain phrases or rhythms, but mostly just getting used to it so that I’m effectively playing it using hand-to-ear coordination from memory when I do go the piano. I play a lot as well, not always for very long in one go (life and day job gets in the way!) but I’d say little and often, obviously ramped up as I get closer to a wedding I’m playing for. I do play quite a wide variety of things, which keeps my piano playing fitness up and keeps me open and exposed to all kinds of influences which I like to use when I play the things people have asked for - effectively using a whole wide collage or palette to kind of “mash up” a variety of textures and sounds to make your final version.

How do you deal with the nerves?

This is an interesting one and there are as many answers to how to deal with nerves as there are people! I did all the grade exams (and theory) as a child, so I think I kind of got used to it a bit from then onwards really as it becomes something you acknowledge, work with, and use to your advantage - for example turning that nervous energy into a more exciting and dynamic performance.

However, I have realised something in the last few years that I think is quite interesting and could explain it. Playing music, be it on piano, guitar, singing, or just listening to it, is basically my wind down activity - when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, getting lost in music is what I do to calm it down and gain some peace. But the helpful by-product of this, is that it means I’m very used to playing while feeling anxious and flustered! And that also it’s the music which calms me down, so once I start playing I know I'll be under control and fine.

Reminding yourself that you are doing what you love, amongst happy friendly people in beautiful venues, and seeing the bride and groom’s faces when they hear their music makes it all worthwhile.

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