Wedding barn dance

I’ve been involved in many a wedding barn dance over the years, having been a musician since the 1970’s, a band leader from the 80’s and an agent in the 90’s. Clients have often commented that this is all new to them, and can be a bit intimidated, confused by, or not aware of all the options available to them.

Hopefully this page should help a bit with the planning of the entertainment for your ‘Big Day’! It has ideas for other styles as well, so hopefully there will be something relevant for you.

As with so many things in life, spending a bit of time in advance can pay dividends later on. Having a clear plan of what you would like, and knowing what is available should help reduce the stress and hassle to a minimum. As they say in the army, P.P.P.P.P.P. or:-

Prior Planning Prevents Pi*s-Poor Performance’

To avoid repetition, please assume the word 'wedding' to also stands for civil partnerships throughout.

General Hints and Tips

Ask your venue

Any regular wedding venue will have ideas on what works well at their location, what they can allow, who they recommend and who you should avoid. Find out what their policy on Health and Safety is. Not all performers comply with the rules, and some venues will quite correctly refuse to allow those without insurance and/or legal equipment to perform. Best to find out if there will be a problem well in advance, rather than on the day.

Always have a written contract

As well as putting everything on a professional footing, a contract should ensure that there is no doubt as to what you require, when, for how long and for how much. You and the performers may have been talking at cross purposes, or have different ideas about what has been agreed. Ask to see details of third party insurance insurance, as well as details of the ‘Health and Safety testing of equipment.

Payment terms, agreement for food and drink for performers and access times/parking should also all be covered. Make sure you have the right to ask for the sound level to be turned down at any time.

Listen to the music first

Many top bands play mainly at private and corporate events, where it will not be possible for you to see them perform. Pub gigs are pretty much at the bottom of the musical food chain. They should however always be willing and able to provide a demonstration tape, CD or download. Ask for a live 'demo', rather than something produced in a studio - hear what you'll get in real life!

Directions

Unless they already know the venue, it is safest to provide your musicians with full and clear directions, and a map if possible. They'll be more relaxed if able to get straight to you, and won't have the excuse to drop into a pub 'just to get directions' on the way! A friend booked my by 'phone to play at his event at a pub in Minster, Kent. 'What, on the island'? I asked. He said 'yes'. Unfortunately, Kent has two places called Minster - both on islands, but at different ends of the County! Don't leave room for doubt!

If you change your venue, don’t forget to let the band know...it has happened!

Safety

Check that any dance floor is safe, without holes or ridges to trip over; some portable wooden dance floors can break up quite rapidly if not put together correctly. An old barn can make a fantastic venue, but do make sure it is brushed out if necessary. Small portable floors are fine for discos, but a hazard for barn dances and ceilidhs.

If you have some fairly energetic dancing planned for the evening, do let your guests know so that they can bring suitable shoes and clothing.

Whose event is it anyway?

You are the boss. If you want something, ask for it. 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. Bands have their own ideas about what to play, and how to play it. That’s not to say that you shouldn't use their experience, or ask their advice, but do make sure you both have the same event in mind for your wedding barn dance.

Marquees

If you are having a marquee, don’t forget to arrange for power for the band, and to make sure that the flooring is suitable for dancing. It is also good to let the band set up on the high ground if it is pitched on a slope, as this prevents them from getting trampled quite so much....

Think about lighting for when everyone leaves. Getting sober people into a large and clearly visible tent in daylight is not the same as playing 'hunt the car in a field at the end of a long and windy path in the dark' several hours (and drinks) later on.

Co-ordination and admin

There are very few experienced best men, and the job is usually given as a 'grace and favour' title to a best friend - regardless of their organising ability. It can be very helpful to have a competent, independent and sober person co-ordinating between the different suppliers and performers; someone who is free to sort out any problems along the way and to keep things running smoothly. After all, you'll have other things on your mind. You may well have a suitable person who would be honoured to be asked. If not, we do have several excellent actor/musicians available who have played this part very well in the past and who are more than happy to dress in costume if you are having a themed wedding.

Do please give performers a contact they can liaise with on the day, someone who has a clear idea of what's going on and who understands the bigger picture.

Timings

Don't try to fit in too much in, friends and family usually like to have time to talk with each other and catch up on all the news. A well-planned timetable will be able to cope with the almost inevitable over-runs.

As well as a flexible timetable, it is best if everyone is working to the same plan! At one wedding between ‘two houses of equal dignity’ there had been some disharmony and it seemed that a ‘turf war’ had occurred as the venue was the Groom’s family’s house. Both mothers had their own, different, timetables. Although not talking to each other, they each sought to impress their variations on us. As these conflicted by an hour we had to split the difference and keep explaining to both separately why everything was running thirty minutes late/early!

Speeches - It is not unusual nowadays to have these before, rather than after the meal, so that those who don’t enjoy public speaking don’t have to worry all the way through, and can enjoy themselves along with everyone else. This tends to keep the times shorter as well, not usually a bad thing.

The normal delay is about 20 to 30 minutes by the time the speeches finish, although an hour is not that unusual. This is not a bad sign at all, it just happens when people relax. An organiser once said that moving guests was as easy as 'herding cats'! Too relaxed however can be a bad thing though, our current record is a three hour delay in finishing the meal and speeches due to the extremely lavish liquid refreshments served to the guests at lunchtime...

How to slim down your entertainment budget without cutting corners

Very few of us have unlimited budgets, so here are a few ideas to help you keep down the cost for a wedding barn dance – please contact us to discuss other options. You don't need to spend a fortune - our wedding cost about 500 pounds all in. Okay, so we used friends to provide pretty much everything, and it was back in 1982, but it was still an absolute hoot.

The strength of a relationship cannot be judged from the size of the budget, and simply throwing cash at an event won't guarantee success anyway. It is much more important to think things through and achieve a balance between the different parts of the day. For one bride in 1996 the venue was all important. Most of the money went on booking the castle - for part of the day only! The evening dance had to be held outside, and the band was stripped down to the absolute minimum in size and equipment. It was not really a happy event.

Can friends help? Do you know a band or D.J.? But a word of caution. There is nothing so unreliable as an un-renumerated musician! If your wedding is on a Saturday, there is a fair chance that your contact will have to turn down paid work to help you. Often, friends who were going to do spots have pulled out at the last minute, for 'health' reasons. If guests are going to perform a spot as a favour, make life easy for them. Rather than asking them to hump around a sound system, if you have another band there as well, can you arrange for them to share?

If you would like to have a wedding barn dance for a short part of the evening only - perhaps as a warm-up before a disco - we can offer a caller and sound system only to keep costs to a minimum. As a compromise for 'folk' weddings, I've twice been covertly booked to bring along a sound system, stay on stage and always be ready to play the lead when one of the guest caller (they take turns) started a dance. Cheaper than booking a full band, all those who wanted to play got a chance, no one particular band was engaged (so no rivals were put out) and it all worked rather well. A very pragmatic solution.

Does it have to be a Saturday? Fridays and Sundays are less popular, weekdays even more so. You may be able to book your venue, performers and suppliers for less on these days. Watch out for Fridays in the summer however, particularly at holiday time if guests and performers will be using the busier roads and motorways.

Use one versatile group for longer, rather than two or more different ones. Once a performer has a booking for a day, they will probably be happy to stay on for longer and do more. The more experienced have probably learned that it is prudent and certainly financially more stable to be able to cover more than one type of event as some work is seasonal, other quite sporadic. If you are not sure how this could work for you, send me a rough timetable and I'll make some suggestions.

Are you trying to do too much? Sometimes ‘less is more', we have played at some very simple weddings that have had a lovely relaxed atmosphere, as well as those where too much had been crammed in.

With the wide range of ages often found at weddings, you may not want to have a disco all night, but would still like to hear some of your favourite tracks. Ask your band if they will play your own compilation CD (easy to make on a modern computer) through their sound system. This also prevents others hijacking your evening by bombarding the DJ with their requests.

Once I was playing an hour long CD of the couple’s favourite, and carefully selected tunes. One of the Fathers, rather ‘tired and emotional’ at the end of the day kept coming up to insist in more and more forceful terms that I “took that f*****g rubbish off and played some Frank Sinatra”. Because there was no formal DJ or disco booked, I was able to explain each time that there was no other option available - just the Bride and Grooms’ choices,on their CD.

But please don't be tempted to cut back too far. Entertainment is often given a fairly low priority, yet often couples have told me afterwards that it was the second best bit of the day, after the ceremony.

We can't add a bit extra in afterwards, and small cuts and savings can have a disproportionaly negative effect overall. bands tend to know what they are worth, and charge accordingly. The cheapest option may well give you a day to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.

Past experiences, what has worked, what hasn't!

The 'worst' wedding we have ever played at was one where no expense had been spared – it was almost as if a competition was being held to see just how much could be packed into one day. As is normal, the timetable started to ‘slide’, but there were no gaps left – the string quartet was playing still when we were supposed to be setting up and sound checking; the D.J. was due to come on pretty much when we started our first number. There were two best men, both of who were out of action by the time the evening started; confusion reigned supreme!

A good evening will include and mix together both families and friends. We have been told in the past to include complicated Scottish dances that just concentrate on the wishes of one of the families, who already know how to dance them. Not surprisingly, the other family and the friends felt excluded, lost interest and wandered off to the bar. And stayed there for the rest of the evening.

It is helpful to think about what will go down well with your guests; book a loud rock band if that’s what you would really like, but don’t be surprised if every single guest in an older audience remains in another room, and won’t join you. Again, this has happened.

As a general rule, the most successful weddings have been those where the couple thought carefully about what would work, the best use of their budget and how to make the day as inclusive as possible for all. And then they just relaxed on the day and went with the flow. The overall feeling as one of a happy joining together.

The most...errr...'challenging' ones have been very formal and regimented, with the timetable and different elements of the day taking precedence over everything else. Where it was hard to remember that the day was actually about two families coming together, two people starting a new chapter of their lives. Often one of the couple (usually, but not always the Groom) seemed to be largely ignored, and the theme of the day was 'me, me, me'.

Themed events

It all started with Gyles Brandreth and his idea to allow almost anywhere to be licenced as a wedding venue. Couples were now able to go to town on distinctive and personalised themed weddings, to have a day that was truly special to them.

A friend in catering was talking about 'Bernies' one day. These are customers who never vary from the same fixed menu - prawn cocktail, steak, Black Forest gateau. The wedding equivalent would be a string quartet and a disco. When I was working as an agent, some couples would go for these simply because that was the standard option, they felt it was the accepted norm and that no deviation was permitted.

Please, on this day above all others, go for what YOU both want. Take the opportunity to confirm that a wedding is about the start of your life together, express your own style.

We have been asked about, and performed for many themed weddings, including ,Medieval, Star Wars, Goth, Four Musketeers, Commedia Dell Arte, Midsummer's Night Dream, Murder Mystery and Dickensian Christmas. The medieval ones in particular are very popular, and we can bend a unique mix of jesters, minstrels, jugglers, fire eaters, falconry and fortune tellers!

Do please contact me if you would like to discuss any ideas for a theme of your own. These highly personalised celebrations tend to work so well. The more thought and effort a couple put into the planning, the better they tend to be - and the more enjoyable for all.

The different parts of the day:

Here are some impressions about how the day unfolds, what tends to work where, when to leave guests alone and when to crank up the entertainment.

The night before

Do you have friends and family coming from a distance? For an Anglo-French wedding we organised an impromptu jazz session in a pub for the night before. As the guests arrived in small groups and pretty much worn out by the journey, they came into a fun, lively and upbeat party. So much better than checking into individual rooms and being left alone.

First impressions

If you have an imposing venue, make the most of it! We play at many castles and stately homes round the UK, and they all look pretty stunning when you first see them. But imagine how much more impressive they are when guests are met by a juggler on stilts, welcomed by a jester and escorted through the building by minstrels.

It can take some time for everyone to turn up. Rather than leaving your guests to shuffle and cough nervously whilst they wait, why not have musicians turn up in time to entertain them? At one wedding in the winter, the bride was severely delayed so we put on an impromptu concert. Rather better than sitting in silence for three quarters of an hour. It all helps to set the scene and break the ice. And you never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Arrival of the Bride

Instead of the default option of string quartet or CD track, It can be rather a nice touch to have a musician waiting to meet and greet the bride, then play her into the service. We've arranged this quite a few times with pipers - either with medieval bagpipes or the modern Scottish ones.

If you are having a classical piece for your entrance, please remember that it is not compulsory to have Pachelbel's Canon in D major! As always, have what you want. One bride chose the theme from Star Wars, played by a brass quintet. Very nice, though I still think that the Imperial March would have been better...

During the ceremony

At a humanist celebration set in woodland, the couple passed both rings round amongst their friends and family, asking them to wish them all the best when holding them. A very personal touch that fitted the relaxed, friendly and open style of the day perfectly. 

As well as the more normal readings, we have been asked to play tunes or sing during the main part of the service. There is a rather wonderful traditional English wedding song we've performed on a couple of occasions, and many styles work well here, and it is a great way to include friends and family who are singers and/or musicians. They can even slide off later to a paid gig...

The main opportunity is during the signing of the register. This can take some time, especially if friends and family are invited to take pictures after the pro has finished. As well as the usual classical guitar, harp and strings, you can put in something a bit different here. For example, the hurdy gurdy is a medieval instrument with three sets of strings. These provide the melody, a drone accompaniment and rhythm to give it a unique sound. Either on its own, or blended with another instrument it is a stunning choice to that guests may well never have seen 'live' before.

The husband and wife leave the ceremony

Another chance to use a piper, especially if you want the wedding party led to a different part of the building. If your musicians are playing for the photographs, you may want to use a CD here so they can have a head start to scuttle off and set up elsewhere.

During the photographs

It can be hard to strike the right balance for this part of the day – it is good to have some interesting background music when the photographs are being taken, whilst avoiding anything too loud or intrusive. Your photographer will want to whisk away different guests for particular shots, so won't appreciate anything too intrusive or dominant.

A trad jazz band (the kind of jazz that has a tune!) can set a happy, upbeat tone - especially during the summer, and instead of the traditional string quartet, we have sometimes used a brass quintet with a very wide repertoire. I remember once, both Dads were bopping away to 'The Bear Necessities'!

As it is important to use the opportunity to mix together friends and families, and to get people relaxed, we do a lot of 'show and tell' with interesting and unusual instruments during this part of the day. It doesn't matter if they are genuinely interested, or just want someone to talk to, we can help put guests at their ease as well as entertaining them. Close-up magicians can be good at this. As well as some 'heavyweight' specialists, we also have two minstrel/magicians who can switch between skills as appropriate to go with the flow.

Before the meal

Especially for themed historical events, we have two minstrels who can also play a trumpet fanfare to announce the breakfast/banquet and then play the Bride and Groom to the top table. Our jester can then read the Rules of the Banquet if you would like.

During the meal

From a conventional toastmaster to a Lord Chamberlain or other historical character, you can select your choice of Master of Ceremonies. Musicians can sing or play between courses and a magician can delight all by working their way round the tables if there will be a delay as guests wait for a buffet.

Will it be prudent to arrange something to entertain the children in another room during the speeches? We've put on magic shows, Punch and Judy and puppets. But remember, you'll need to provide a handler/warden/tamer to look after the children. They can get a bit 'hyper', and the performer(s) will have other concerns.

After the meal

Games: Here are a couple of Ideas for wedding games we saw when playing over in France for a wedding. They were great fun to do, and a good way of mixing together the French and English guests. 

Emotions: Ask the bride and groom sit back to back, they each have a set of 'emotion' cards, and hold them up to express their feelings on such things as:

Partner’s underwear

The honeymoon

Their relations

How the proposal went

 

What's the link? Put together a numbered list of descriptions as below - don't let the couple see them. Guests who fit each category stand up when asked by number, and the couple have to guess what the common thing is linking them all. Here are some generic examples, I'm sure you can find loads of your own:

1) Those wearing glasses

2) All those who have retired

3) People who have known the bridge before she was 18

4) People with a cat

5) Anyone who is married

6) Anyone over 6’ tall

7) All those who wish much happiness to the bride and groom (a good cue for the toast)


You may move to another room whilst the main one is cleared and prepared for the evening. If you would like some entertainment now, options could include a performance by some ‘strolling players' – anything from the bawdy ‘Miller's Tale' by Chaucer, or a comedy ‘murder mystery' play written especially for you. Punch and Judy shows and tarot card fortune telling have worked very well. Or just some background music whilst you relax with coffee.

If you have evening guests, it can be a thoughtful touch to provide some background entertainment for them. If you run late (normal), it can be a bit disheartening for them to wait on their own, possibly listening to the rest of you enjoying yourselves in another room. It's just a thought, but if you are running late then you probably have some 'spare' musicians who can't set up yet anyway...

If you have the space available outside, falconry displays can be stunning and very unusual; a good group will provide a whole show for up to an hour or so. If it will be too dark to allow that, how about fireworks?

The evening

At venues where the evening event will be taking place in a different room, we offer to process back with pipes and drums. It provides a great photo opportunity, and moving people as was said earlier can be a bit like herding cats. This provides a fairly good way to achieve relocation without needing to resort to a sheepdog and cattle prod.

The first dance

This is optional, whatever others may tell you. If you don't want to do one, then don't! About half of the weddings we attend go straight into the main part of the evening.

Band or disco?

Fortunately not an either/or choice these days. Because of the wide range of ages often found at any family gathering, it can be an impossible choice for the DJ to find music that will appeal to all, and no matter how good they are as a presenter, nothing can match the ambience and excitement of having your own musicians for the evening.

We are often asked to kick off an evening with some barn dancing to get things going with dancing suitable for all, regardless of age or ability.

As a musician since the 70's, I've found that few forms of entertainment can match a barn dance or ceilidh in breaking the ice and getting guests up and dancing quickly – even if it is only for an hour or two before a disco, or ‘covers' band. There is more information available here.

We also have band members who are D.J.s, so you can swap over when ever you want during the evening. With only the one sound and lighting system to set up, and everyone knowing each other, the changeover can be quick and hassle-free, with no 'pulling of pigtails'. We arrived with a seven piece band at one venue to find the DJ had 'bagged' the whole stage, and was not going to let us on without serious a pitched battle. Parking him and his gear in the moat outside would not perhaps have enhanced the overall flow of the evening, and although satisfying would not have been professional. We had to squeeze into the main hall and do the best we could.

You could enjoy a jazz/blues group, or else a ‘covers' band playing anything from the 60's to modern day music, and many bands can play a compilation CD, or plug in an ipod or similar if you would like to play some music of your own. This tends to work well for up to about an hour at the end, anything longer than an hour and a half though is probably best covered by a DJ.

The Bride and Groom Leave

Options include leading a last dance, or going up the middle of an arch formed by your guests, saying goodnight to them all.

Don't be tempted to stretch the night out for too long. I once watched guests evaporate through different exits until just the Bride, Groom, band and staff were left at the end. Aim to go out on a high.

The next day

Okay, so not the most obvious part of a wedding, but if you have friends and family who have come a long way, why not make the most of the opportunity? We have provided an acoustic group to play background music for an afternoon tea party - guests had a chance to recover and socialise in a really relaxed way before pottering off in the afternoon. All very civilized.

Whatever you decide to do, please have a great day! Please contact me if you would like to discuss options for your

wedding barn dance.