One question that many of my friends regularly ask me is, “Yes, but what do you actually do?”.
The life of a musician is a slightly odd existence to many (including my better half, who doesn’t really know what I get up to, even when we are currently spending months together in lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis!!). I thought that I would take this opportunity to tell you a little more about my day-to-day life and the sorts of things that go on behind the scenes, which enables me to appear – as if by magic – on your wedding day and play you down the aisle.
Practise Makes Perfect
Yup. After all these years of playing, I still have to practise. Lots of people seem to believe that it just stays in the fingers. But ultimately, my fingers are like Wayne Rooney’s legs – they need to keep in shape (hmmmm!!) and therefore need to train every day. To be able to arrive and play for several hours, bluntly take hours of prep. I usually set aside one full working day per gig of practise time, just to make sure that my fingers are ready and raring to go. Some days I practise more, some less. Partly it depends what state my fingers are in, but it all adds up and is absolutely necessary to ensure that I’m always ready to play. And that’s without…
Included in all of my fees are the ability to have music arranged by me specially for your event. This can take hours, to find some suitable sheet music, work out how I can make it work on the harp and finally learn the notes. Each new piece that you would like takes the same, time-consuming process. But it makes it special. That’s why I do it. For every new request I have (or any new Ed Sheeran song which I imagine will be a wedding hit!) I spend about a day creating a version that I’m happy with.
Telling the World I’m Here
Advertising. Every small business’ Achilles’s heel. We all hate it. But we all need to do it or we would have no customers. For me, this includes time posting on social media, creating and maintaining a website, writing advertisements for industry-related magazines and improving my search engine rankings. It also includes attending wedding fairs, which take up about two days for each fair, once I’ve got all the printed material sorted, arranged a set-list to play and got everything ready. All of this roughly works out to be an hour a day, just spent staring at my computer… one of my most hated activities!
Looking after the Babies
The Babies (Baby and Baby Baby), are the affectionate and somewhat ironic names of my two 6-foot tall concert harps. These beauties are my life. Without them, I just can’t do my job. Sadly, harps do not appear in your life as if by magic. Concert harps are some of the most expensive instruments money can buy, and coupled with their relative rarity, means that many harpists have to invest in two of the beasts, just in case something happens to one as ‘courtesy harps’ just don’t come with the insurance policy…! Each of them requires an annual service (honestly!), fully comprehensive insurance and new strings (especially when the weather becomes suddenly much hotter / colder / wetter / drier, which is errr… all the time!!) along with much tender, loving care to keep them in good shape. Imagine the time and costs associated with buying and running your family car, multiply it by two, and you’ve just about got it. This of course has to be added up and averaged out per booking, just to make sure that everything makes sense financially.
Maintaining the Transport
Okay, so it’s just a Ford Mondeo, but I still need it to get me to each and every gig. Without the Tank (I seem to have a lot of names for inanimate objects in my life), I can’t go anywhere, so making sure it’s in tip-top shape is part of the day-job. I just can’t risk it not working… and so I guard my AA membership card with my life!
Paying the Mortgage
Yes, I know, we all do that. However, to enable me to house the Babies, plus practise and teach I have to have a Music Room. Sounds grand… but really it’s just my office. This space, however is a crucial part of my life and enables me to work (as anyone who claims ‘use of home as office’ from the delightful HMRC would understand). Any house move that we make, we have to budget for me to have a downstairs space, with flat access to the front door and an off-road carparking space. Easy? Well. Let’s just say, estate agents don’t always know what a harp is…!
Talking to You!
Each and every client who I am lucky enough to receive an enquiry from, I obviously need to reply to. Sometimes that by phone, sometimes email. Sometimes it’s Facebook or Instagram. Each enquiry takes time to read, process and respond to, along with all of the follow up communication to ensure that everything is just right for your booking. And that’s if I am lucky enough to become your harpist. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out and a booking isn’t made. But it’s still time that needs to be accounted for and takes about another hour a day. If you imagine that each message that you send me takes ten minutes to read and reply, plus creating booking forms, music lists, etc, then multiple that up to the number of emails that each booking rightly needs, that’s quite a lot of time sitting at the laptop dealing with paperwork!
I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I play music at weddings, I mean, it’s not exactly a miserable existence! But it is my job. A job I love. But still a job and so it has to make financial sense. If not, I might as well do something that doesn’t take me away from every family and social event for nine months of the year. I’ve been married myself (a long time ago, and in fact would have been married for a second time had the Covid Crisis not happened!) and appreciate that sometimes it’s easy to forget that all of your suppliers are not there just to make your special day perfect. Of course, that’s what makes us tick. But the bottom line is that we are all at work. Yes, wonderful work. But it’s still what puts food on the table for all of us. Hopefully this little post will give you a little insight into some of the logistics of what working in the wedding industry means and how we all exist to make it all perfect for your special day.
I’ve attended literally hundreds of wedding ceremonies. I would love to say that I was invited – but actually I was being paid to be there! Even so, watching all these wonderful couples go through this most romantic and life changing moment has been a privilege and an honour. I can almost recite the words by heart, but do you really know what goes on at a civil wedding ceremony? Hopefully this will help a little if you don’t!
What’s it all about?
In England, Wales and Scotland couples can choose to be married, or have a civil partnership (see the government information about this here). There are differences in the ceremonies, but since the government allowed same-sex couples to have a ‘marriage’, more couples are choosing this option and this is what I will focus on here. Legally, they are very similar, but in a civil partnership ceremony couples do not take vows, instead legally committing to their relationship, rather than making additional promises. For both ceremony types the following process is followed, but you would need to check with your local registry office regarding which is more appropriate for you.
What happens first? Choosing your venue (sorry, roof)!
You’re engaged! Yippee! You’ve decided that for whatever reason a religious ceremony isn’t for you, and therefore you are going to have a civil ceremony. This will be organised and conducted by staff from your local registry office, either in the Register Office itself, or somewhere else that holds the correct licence.So the first thing to do is choose your venue.
Many hotels, golf clubs, restaurants and pubs in the UK now have a wedding licence. It is relatively easy and inexpensive for them to get and it enables their clients to legally marry on the premises, meaning that your whole day can happen in the same place. Many registration services produce a list or magazine detailing all of the venues in the district that they will travel to (be warned – some counties, such as Kent, are split into more than one district, so you might need to contact a couple of offices!). It may be easier to find your wedding venue first, as the wedding co-ordinators there will be able to tell you which registry team to contact.
In the UK, unlike those American films we all know and love, you have to get married under a licenced roof. Yes. A roof. This means that a venue will need to get a licence for each and every room that they will allow couples to get married in. It also means that if you want to get married outside, there needs to be a gazebo or similar that has been approved for use as a wedding location. If you have your heart set on a garden wedding, just make sure that your chosen venue has a licenced gazebo. Some venues cheekily publish mocked-up pictures of garden weddings, even though they don’t actually have the right licence for you to get married outside. Many venues now have multiple licences, so that there are several ‘roofs’ for you to choose from, but do check as not every room will have a licence, so you won’t have completely free choice, even with an exclusive use booking.
Once you have chosen your venue and date, you will need to apply to the Registration Service to attend. Many wedding venues will give you the form and / or apply on your behalf, but just check that this is happening – you don’t want to find that your wedding isn’t in the Register Office’s diary!
Step 2 – Giving Notice
In the olden days when everyone got married in a church, this was known as ‘Reading the Bans’. The current equivalent is ‘Giving Notice’. You make an appointment at the Register Office, when you both take all of your (hundreds!) of ID documents to prove that you are who you say you are. Often these appointments are only Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, so you may have to factor in taking a day of holiday to get this done!
Once you’ve had this all approved, your names will be displayed in the Register Office for (at least) 28 days, giving the general public the opportunity to tell the registrars if they object to the marriage. This doesn’t ever happen, but this is how some journalists find out about celebrity weddings before they take place!!
Step 3 – Deciding on your ceremony choices
Most registration services will send you a script with various options for your ceremony. These will include:
- Whether you have traditional wording, or a more modern, simple text
- Whether you would like to include any readings or poems to personalise your ceremony
- Whether the bride is being given away
- Whether you are giving and receiving any wedding rings
- Whether you would like to kiss to seal your marriage!
Often these are a tick form, that is then sent back to the Register Office in advance. Once they have sorted out who will be conducting your ceremony, the chosen registrar will telephone you to go through what you have chosen and check that they have understood your wishes correctly. The most important thing to remember is that nothing can have any links or suggestions of anything religious (not even the title of a piece of music with no words), so just remember this when you are making your choices.
On the day – The Preparation
On the day of the wedding itself, several things have to happen, which you wouldn’t necessarily realise. The ceremony room needs to be set up, with one table (or two, depending on which Registration Service it is, as they have difference requirements) at the front. Some also ask for two chairs in front of the table, but most just ask for two behind. Also in the ceremony room should be glasses of water and boxes of tissues (provided by the venue) just in case you need them during the ceremony. If you are not having live music (and why not!!?) the sound system will also need to be set up and sound levels checked.
The two registrars will arrive between 30 minutes and an hour before your chosen ceremony time. There will be one person to lead the ceremony (known as the celebrant) and another who is actually more important, as they are the registrar who records your marriage in the marriage register and writes your certificates. They will both need to see all of the following people, so make sure that they are all on hand during this time, as it always a bit of a rush. If they can’t find these people, you run the risk of being late!
- The couple getting married. Both of you will be interviewed separately before the ceremony, one usually in the ceremony room itself, and the other either in the Bridal Suite where you are getting ready, or in a separate interview room so that you don’t see each other. The purpose of these are for the registrars to check that they have the people that they are expecting to and will check the contact details that you gave at the Office when you Gave Notice. They will also talk you through what will happen during the ceremony.
- The witnesses. For every marriage in the UK there needs to be two adult witnesses. They will need to have a quick chat with the registrar, as sometimes they are asked to stand at the front for part of the ceremony and will then need to be on hand to sign the register. It is usually best to warn your witnesses in advance of what is involved and give them a reserved seat on the end of a row.
- Any person who might be ‘giving away’ one of the happy couple. This is an old tradition in the UK, which does not have to be part of your ceremony, where a member of your family ‘gives’ you away to your betrothed. You do not have to follow this custom, but if you do, the celebrant will want to have a word with whoever has got this job!
- The readers. If you have chosen to have readings as part of your ceremony, the celebrant will want to see the readings (if they haven’t been sent through prior to the day) and chat with the readers to explain where in the ceremony their moment of fame is.
- The photographers / videographers. There are certain parts of the ceremony that cannot be photographed and therefore the registrars will want to talk to your photographers to make them aware of this. If you have chosen a professional photographer, they will already know, but will also be used to the registrars wanting to talk to them and will make enough time.
- The musicians (or person controlling the iPod!) such as …. me! As music will play a key part of the ceremony, including the entrance of the bridal party, during the signing and finally for the exit, the registrars will need to chat to the musicians to make sure that they know their cues.
Right, now we are FINALLY ready to start…!
THE ACTUAL CEREMONY!!
Yes, I know, that’s what you thought that you were reading about! But without all of the above, the ceremony itself isn’t possible, so I hope that you found it useful.
Between 15 and 30 minutes before the ceremony is due to start, the guests will be asked by members of the venue staff to take their seats. It is worth considering this if you are thinking about having drinks and / or entertainment beforehand, as this can get cut short. The more guests that you have, the longer the staff will allow to get everyone seated. If I am booked to play for a wedding ceremony, I always ensure that I am set up ready to play in the ceremony area for whenever the guests come through. I do tend to suggest that I don’t play before this point due to having to see the registrars, which can take some time with all of the people that they have to see! The registrars will then disappear to check the bridal (processing) party are ready, then come back, tell everyone to turn off their mobile phones and then…
Here comes the bride! The registrar will ask all of the guests to stand, which is then the cue for the entrance music to start. Once at the front, the music will stop, and the guests will be asked to sit. The legal wedding ceremony is actually incredibly short. All that legally has to happen is that you both say the following in front of the registrar and your two witnesses:
The Declatory Words
I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I [name] may not be joined in matrimony to [name]
The Contracting Words
I call upon these persons here present, to witness that I [name] do take thee [name]to be my lawful wedded wife / wife-husband / husband.
That’s it. All that there is to it! Everything else, such as rings, promises to love each other, etc., is just to make it nice. All that you need to do is say the above and you’re done! Of course, many people find this too brief and impersonal, hence the addition of readings, music, additional promises and the giving of rings. But technically this is all that you have to do!
Once you have got to the end of the spoken ceremony, you and your new husband or wife will need to sign the register. This precise moment cannot be photographed in any way and therefore the registrars will suggest that you choose some music to entertain your guests whilst this is happening. After you and your witnesses have completed the paperwork, the registrars will give you a ‘mock’ register to then pose for photographs with. Due to this extra ‘stage’ this part of your ceremony can take as long as fifteen music, so do chose enough music to cover all of this. I usually suggest choosing four songs, which is often plenty.
Once all of your guests have had the opportunity to come and take your picture, the celebrant will stand you both in front of the register table and present you with your marriage certificates. Once these have been safely stowed away (or given to someone trustworthy to look after), your guests will be asked to stand and greet the happy couple. The music will start and off you go back down the aisle, having made this enormous commitment by saying a few words and signing an old-fashioned book!
I hope that this is in some way helpful to planning your wedding day. Some registration services will provide you with a lot more information than others, and they don’t all quite follow the same process, so do check well in advance to avoid confusion.
21st century living requires proof for everything. We want to know where our cucumbers were grown, down to the farmer who picked them. We trawl social media sites for proof that our friends did have that holiday that they say that they did. We ask for read receipts on our emails to make sure that the person who you sent it to, really has got it so there is no excuse for them not to action it. And, more than ever before, we want to know how well qualified everyone is to do their jobs.
The number of qualifications we all have to have now is incredible. Fifty years ago, 1 in 50 school leavers went to university. Now it’s 1 in 3. That means that more and more, on top of GCSEs, A-Levels and swimming badges, you have to go the extra mile to be ‘qualified’ to do something. Many of my friends have almost collected qualifications; from Masters degrees to accountancy exams, first aid certificates to cake decorating diplomas, just to show that they really can do what they say they can do. But how does this work if you are a musician?
What are music exams?
Music is one of the few art forms where there are clearly structured sets of qualifications that show how good you really are. These are known as graded examinations and go from beginner level (Grade 1, which you take after playing about 1-2 years), through to graduate level music diplomas. Not everyone who plays professionally has these, as they are not compulsory to become very good, but if you had ‘normal’ lessons on musical instrument as a child, there is a very good chance that at some point you were forced to sit at least one of them! In recent years, the government have included them on their list of official qualifications (some government department called ‘Ofqual’…!), alongside GSCEs, BTECs, degrees, etc., which just goes to show how much work really goes into them. The have now decided the following equivalences:
- Music grades 1, 2 and 3 are ‘Level 1’, which equates to GCSE grades D-F
- Music grades 4 and 5 are ‘Level 2’, equivalent of A*-C at GCSE
- Music grade 6, 7 and 8 are ‘Level 3’ which is the same as an A-Level (and actually carry UCAS points if you want to try to go to university)
- Music Diplomas are ‘Level 6’ which equate to degree level
All of these exams require the applicant to learn several pieces of music, play a piece of music which they have never seen before (called ‘Sight Reading’), play some technical exercises (called ‘Scales’ and which put more people off taking exams than anything else!) and then you have to answer questions about some music that you have to listen to. These all have different numbers of points, but to pass requires a score of 67%, 80% gives you a ‘Merit’ and if you’re incredibly good and get 87% you get a ‘Distinction’. To prepare all of this lot takes months of lessons and daily practice (usually completed under a lot of nagging from one’s mother… well mine certainly was!).
Now that you know what it is all about, you can decide for yourself whether I am qualified enough for my job.…!
The first instrument that I began to learn aged 4, was the piano. I had some lovely teachers, before finally finding Mr Sams, who patiently put me through the piano grades. Under his tutelage I earned 8 qualifications, seven graded exams from Grade 2 to 8, and one advanced diploma by the time that I left school, which said far more about his teaching ability than my piano skills!!
After playing the piano for a while, I took up the flute, where again I rattled through some exams. As I could already read music by the time that I started, I jumped in a Grade 2, skipping Grade 7… but then taking Grade 8 twice (long story!).
Finally we’ve got to the harp! The cost, logistics and general awkwardness of playing the harp meant that I actually started this the latest, and so I took just grades 5, 6, 7, and 8 on this instrument (sounds like a song from my youth!).
Two of my biggest achievements academically, were gaining my musical diplomas. These are given the same weight as a degree, and I have one on the piano and one on the harp, and these are the reason that I can put some extra funny letters (CertGSMD(P) and LTCL) after my name.
Odds and Ends
Along the way, I’ve also managed to collect a Grade 5 Music Theory (like a written music paper… very dull!!), Grade 1 Saxophone (that I took as part of a charity fund-raiser at University – we learned new instruments and were sponsored for charity) and Grade 2 Clarinet… which I seem to have taken for fun!!
The normal stuff
Like a lot of other people, I do have a collection of 11 GCSEs, 3 A-Levels, 2 AS-Levels (which are a sort-of half A-Level, that only existed for a few years!), a degree in Music and a PGCE (Teaching Qualification) also in Music.
That means that I have, in total…
- 1x Grade 1 exams
- 2x Grade 2 exams
- 2x Grade 3 exams
- 2x Grade 4 exams
- 4x Grade 5 exams
- 3x Grade 6 exams
- 2x Grade 7 exams
- 4x Grade 8 exams (although one doesn’t really count, as I retook one to see if I could get a better mark!)
- 2x Performance Diplomas
Ignoring the hours and hours of time slogging through exercises and boring my poor family silly with the same pieces for months on end, in today’s money this lot cost an incredible £1,892 in exam fees alone! And that’s without the cost of lessons and instruments…
But does it matter?
In short, no. What matters is that you like the musicians that you wish to engage for your wedding or function. Listen to them play. Do you enjoy their music? If ‘yes’ is the answer, then does it matter if they have the pieces of paper to prove it? But just in case you wondered what it takes to be a professional musician (or what it takes to be the PARENT of a musician!!), now you know!
PS Thank you mum and dad… sorry that we cost you a fortune (as my sister has just as many!).
Whilst at University and later studying for my advanced performance certificates, no one really sat me down and told me about being a harpist. I could play the harp. I liked playing the harp. I had a harp. They seemed to be the only things that mattered when it came to deciding about what to do with my life. Over a decade later (sob!), it is interesting to look back and see what I’ve learned about being a harpist… and what I should have learned about before I embarked on this career, apart from how fast I could play my scales!
1. How to blow my own trumpet
Ego is everything. If you meekly arrive at a venue, do your thing and go home, however well you have played, no one will remember you. Without people knowing who you were, they won’t recommend you and you won’t get any work out of that venue. What it took me several years to realise, was that some of my competitors (and friends, so this is no slight on them!) had the guts to rock up to a venue, business cards in hand and start handing them out to anyone that they laid eyes on, venue managers, caterers, photographs, car park attendants, etc., and in this way create networks of wedding professionals. I still feel very uncomfortable at doing this, which is rather frustrating as I know full well that by not being as forceful I am missing out on making contacts. Whilst I know that I can play a mean Pachelbel’s Canon in D, I am actually quite shy at heart, and don’t find it easy to bowl up to a complete stranger and tell them who I am and why I’m great. I’m not sure that this will ever change, but I have been surprised how much it is all about personality, rather than necessarily how well you can play…!
2. How to be an accountant
Naturally, as any sole trader or business person needs to, I have to keep a record of my finances. I am rather lucky that all the other members of my family are accountants and therefore I have been able to have free advice and my tax returns are done over a glass of wine, but even so, a knowledge of how to keep clear records, both of income and more importantly expenses (which are often tax-deductible and therefore rather useful to keep a record of!) for each financial year is so important. What I also didn’t really process, was having to set aside money from each payment that I receive so that I can then pay my tax bill twice a year. This is very strange for anyone who has a ‘normal’ job, as your income will be yours to spend. Mine, however, has to be first cut in half, so that I can put aside enough to cover my expenses and then my tax bill. Rather disappointing really…!
3. How to be a car salesman
Yes, you read that correctly! Without my car, I wouldn’t be able to be a harpist. ‘The tank’ as it is affectionately know, gets Baby and I around to gigs across the south of England and therefore it is important that I have something that is both reliable and practical. One would therefore be surprised at how differently designed estate cars are. What you need when you are a harpist is something that has a wide, flat loading boot (or trunk, if you are reading this from the west of the Pond), with, most importantly, widely set wheel arches. This means that you can slide the harp in without having to try to lift it over the wheel arches. Yes. How boring. When car shopping, it became apparent very quickly that many of the smarter car brands have stupidly wide wheels, which means that the gap between them on the inside of the car isn’t then wide enough to get the harp into the car. I can now smoothly make conversation about the differences between the wheel arches of a range car manufacturers, perhaps I should suggest it as a feature on the new series of Top Gear…?
4. How to use social media (!)
Ok, ok, I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur, but this is a really mad one. I get work from the pictures that I post on line. Yes, that’s right, not the sound of my music, but the pictures that I post. Back in 2005, I was one of the first batch of people in the UK to use Facebook, as I was at Nottingham University when it was launched. Back then you could only sign up with an academic email address and it was a relatively ‘safe’ environment, as there were so few people using it. What a lot has changed. I am not very ‘good’ at social media, to be honest I don’t have time, all of the reading, commenting, liking, etc., and without a boring train commute every day, I don’t really have an opportunity. A good friend, however, pointed out that I was potentially missing a gap in the market by not using these things for my work. I now have an Instagram account, alongside a Facebook page, but have drawn the line at Twitter, as I really can’t see what I can say about the harp that people would want to read in 150 characters!
5. How to build a website
The world revolves through Google. Only about ten years ago, as a harpist you spent time and money producing beautiful glossy brochures. Now you pay for an ‘adaptable’ website (I now know that this is something that can be viewed on any size of screen, from Smart Phone to laptop!) that can easily be found on search engines. My first website I had built by a computer engineering friend at university and simply had a biography and pictures taken by my mum. When that then got outdated, I found a brilliant web designer to build one for me. But only a few years later, this too was out of date. This time, I decided to take matters into my own hands: I will always need an up-to-date website and if I continue to pay someone else to build it for me, it will cost me thousands of pounds with all of the changes that will inevitably happen over the next few years. A year ago, therefore, I taught myself! The website you are now looking at, I am rather proud to say, I built! Yes, I use a very helpful site called WordPress as a starting point, but I can now add videos, links, buttons, widgets (no, I didn’t know what these were either!) and all mention of formatting, so that I can keep my site current and interesting (and, more importantly, without spending a fortune!).