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How to Choose a Wedding Band: 8 Tips From a Top Bandleader

Your wedding band will ensure that every special moment happens on schedule and will moderate the mood of your gathering, from introducing the happy couple to filling the dance floor with your friends and family. It’s an important job, but we’ve got tips to help you navigate the selection process to choose the wedding band that’s right for you.

We interviewed Ken Arlen, Owner of Arlen Music Productions, one of the best wedding bands in Chicago, for insight into how to choose a wedding band. Arlen Music is home to five dance bands, five more creative music ensembles, and options galore for smaller groupings — meaning that Ken Arlen is perfectly poised to offer advice on wedding band selection. Read on for his 8 tips for how to choose a wedding band.

As a sought-after orchestra leader and saxophonist, Ken Arlen has been a featured entertainer for numerous celebrities and dignitaries, from the President of the United States to Hollywood stars. Ken is also the founder of Arlen Music Productions, a Chicago-based entertainment company that specializes in providing live customized music for special events. He has led the transformation of the event music in Chicago and, over the last decade, has brought this force to the national event scene through his performances with the Ken Arlen Evolution Orchestra.

Arlen Music Productions

Arlen Music Productions

Chicago, IL

Providing music for a wedding is a fully customized production. Just like a florist or décor company will create a unique environment for your wedding, entertainment should do the same: create an experience. No two weddings are identical. It is my belief that this important truth gets overlooked by many couples. 

Some bands may sound great but are not versatile or flexible in their approach. They pretty much deliver the same show at every wedding. A great wedding band will tune into the vision of the couple who is marrying, ask the right questions, and deliver a fully customized event from the ceremony through cocktails, dinner, and dancing.   

Great music and performance are hugely important but only account for 50% of what makes wedding entertainment successful. The other 50% is production, preparation, customization, timing, reading the crowd, emceeing, and creating flow during the evening to integrate their performance with other vendors. 

You want a band who can succeed in all of these roles, which can make choosing a wedding band complicated. We have advice to make the process easier — and your wedding an especially memorable celebration.

1. What are most couples looking for in a wedding band?

All of our clients want the same thing. They want: a packed dance floor; their family and friends to comment that this was the most fun they have ever had at a wedding; and to hear that this was the best band they have ever heard at a wedding. With all five of our dance bands, that’s the response we get from every client.

2. How do I begin looking for my perfect wedding band?

Ask your venue or catering team for referrals

If you are starting from scratch when shopping for a band, ask for referrals from your venue catering managers. They’ve likely seen almost every band in town coming to perform night in and night out and they really know the good ones from the bad. If the band doesn’t do all the right things from when they first arrive at the venue until they depart at the end of the night, the venue will notice.

Check with your photographer for recommendations

Also ask photographers for recommendations. They are usually in the room the entire night capturing the energy, spirit, and soul of the evening. The more animated your guests are on the dance floor, the better the photos. Your carefully-selected photographer will be able to make suggestions for your carefully-chosen band

Seek out online reviews

Read the reviews online. Reputation cannot be bought or engineered by the band. It is created by what clients say about the band. If a bandleader has hundreds of 5-star reviews, you know they are doing something right. 

Listen to your intuition

Finally, and most importantly, trust your instincts. If you suspect something is not right about a band, I can assure you that you’re probably correct.  

Check PartySlate

PartySlate’s vendor listings feature the top wedding entertainers near you, as well as insights and recommendations from our editorial team. For example, see our newest list of the Best Wedding Bands in Chicago, on which Arlen Music Productions appears.

3. What is the difference between a “music production company” and a wedding band?

A “music production company” is able to fill all of the roles noted above, with a focus on customization for every single couple they work with. As executive coach and my good friend Dan Sullivan is fond of saying, “Frank Sinatra didn’t move pianos.” Meaning, generally talent doesn’t do the heavy lifting; yet, when you’re a sole proprietor and bandleader, you have to do everything. 

A music production company, on the other hand, has a full staff to ensure that no detail is missed and that the band is able to focus on making their performance meaningful and memorable. As a music production company, Arlen Music Productions (AMP) produces music at the highest level. I always ask myself the question, what would Quincy Jones (who in my opinion is the greatest music producer of all time) do if he were producing this wedding music? 

At AMP, every song is charted out with parts for every instrument and rehearsed so the performance is “off book” and delivered from the heart. If we have 4 vocalists on stage, we have 4-part harmonies. If we have a horn section, each instrument is playing a thoughtfully arranged horn part that sounds fantastic.  My goal is to perform music so to the audience it feels like all the energy and nuance of a live performance of the original artist. 

4. How can you ensure that you are hiring a music production company?

Look at their website, call the company or bandleader, and ask the right questions. Here are some suggested questions to ask:

  1. What is your unique process? Specifically, how do you take a client from the beginning of the process to a fully-customized, unique experience?
  2. What type of infrastructure and support does your company have that will allow my band to fully focus on their performance at my wedding?
  3. Are you willing to prepare and perform our special requests?
  4. Are you capable of bringing in innovative or special musician elements if requested? 

5. What should I look for when watching a band’s video?

When checking out a band, make sure you hear sound captured at a live performance. Some bands offer a video montage which is a collection of images edited over a studio recording. You really want to know what this band sounds like live without the ability to edit the soundtrack in the studio.

You want to know that what you see is what you get; this means that the performers you are sampling on a video are the ones who will actually play at your wedding. Many bands are revolving doors of musicians and vocalists. You want the benefit of a group that has the chemistry that comes from performing together on a regular basis, with all their arrangements rehearsed and polished for performance. You definitely don’t want any weak links on your wedding stage.

6. What questions should I ask a potential wedding band/bandleader?

Does the band have access to an extensive library of arrangements?

At AMP, we have built one of the largest libraries of special event music in the world.  We have over 6 arrangers writing for the company on a weekly basis; and if there is a new song that hits the airwaves, we will add it to our repertoire that week.  

Do the vocalists memorize their lyrics?

You don’t want vocalists to stand in front of a music stand reading lyrics while they are singing.  There is no way to do that and connect with the audience while delivering a genuine performance.

How many vocalists are in the band?

You want a variety of vocalists. Vocalists interpret and deliver the emotion of the lyric and melody. Every dance song since the 1940s is driven by a vocal. You want vocalists that sound stylistically correct. Again, we are not trying to make a song sound different from the original artist; we are trying to interpret the music so it sounds like a live concert of the original artist.  

Tell me about the bandleader’s experience.

You want an experienced bandleader that can read your crowd and can switch gears quickly. Reading a crowd and making decisions in the moment is essential to the success of keeping your dance floor full.  If something is not working, your bandleader should be able to shift gears and segue into another song, tempo, or style that will keep people on the dance floor. 

Personally, this is my absolute favorite part of bandleading. It is truly an artform and something that I believe I have perfected to the highest level. My dance floors are always full, all night long. I know every nuance to keep guests engaged and excited. And if you build the energy of an evening correctly, you will mesmerize the audience and create a world class experience.   

Will I have a dedicated sound engineer?

Make sure your band has a dedicated sound engineer. These days, we have digital settings for different rooms; you want an engineer who can mix from an iPad standing in his tux in the back of your room. 

One who can put his ears where your guests are to make sure the music is equalized correctly and properly mixed at a comfortable volume level. The vocalists should be heard clearly, and the bass should not be “boomy” and drown everything else out (this is not only annoying, but will destroy your investment in your band). On the same note, you want a band that invests in the very best audio equipment on the market. Cheap will sound bad.  

Will all of the music be performed live (i.e., without replacement tracks)?

I’m a big believer that all the music should be performed live. Some bands like to perform with tracks replacing live instruments which, to me, takes the living soul out of the music. In my opinion, you will really start to notice that something is missing throughout your celebration. I also believe that tracks lock in a tempo and form and do not allow a band to be flexible with the changes necessary to keep people dancing; it inhibits performers from interacting and reacting with guests. 

How does the band adapt to the mood of the room?

The differentiating factor between bands is the sheer quality of the production of musicians and vocalists. You want a band that doesn’t just play the right song selections, but also has a sense of order and of building momentum. It’s not easy to be a great wedding band, and experience pays off. For these reasons, your favorite bar band will probably be a disaster performing at a wedding; it is just a different beast.    

What does the band wear while performing at weddings?

Ask your band about wardrobe. You put so much thought into your dress, tux, and the look of the room; you don’t want any unpleasant surprises when the musicians show up too casually dressed for a black-tie wedding. If you want an elegant wedding, the band should be dressed elegantly. On the other hand, if you want a more casual affair, the band should be able to dress appropriately for that as well.

Does the band provide an experienced MC?

Absolutely, yes. Your bandleader should be a very experienced MC and be able to create or implement the timeline and flow for the evening, filling in all the portions of the evening with the correct music. It is important for your MC/bandleader to coordinate with all of your other vendors, and if you have a wedding planner, the teamwork should be smooth and effortless. This coordination is hugely important to the success of a wedding.

An MC will set the tone of your celebration; that tone should be a reflection of you as a couple.

7. What if I also want additional entertainment or different options for different parts of my wedding celebration?

Your production company should be able to offer you plenty of combinations for the perfect entertainment throughout your wedding For example, at some weddings, we present rock violins (our “Sirens”) performing on pedestals for cocktail music. In fact, one recent father-of-the-bride said it was a huge hit with his guests and that everyone is still talking about the uniqueness and energy. 

Sometimes, we provide jamming acoustic guitars (triple fret) or virtuoso instrumental musicians or specialty musicians like flamenco guitar. Often, we create something we have never done before at a wedding. My favorite client is one that says, “Ken, what new and innovative music production do you have up your sleeve?” I become a kid in a candy store; we have no shortage of creativity.

8. What are popular entertainment options for a wedding ceremony?

Again, your only limit for the performance at your ceremony is imagination. For ceremony music, we can go from an elegant pianist and violin to a small chamber orchestra with operatic vocalists. 

Probably the most popular presentation is piano, woodwinds, and three violins or a string quartet. But even in this context, we are incredibly creative with repertoire and perform not just classical music but hundreds of arrangements of popular rock tunes featuring groups like Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Leon Bridges, or classics from the Beatles and more. Performed on violins, this music can be mixed with traditional classical music for a processional and will work perfectly. 

Arlen’s last piece of sage advice: “When it comes to your wedding entertainment, invest in great music with a reputable company and it will be the very best investment you make for the fun and energy of your wedding. The dance floor will be packed all night!!”