Playing the Piano at Weddings

I think I’ve mentioned before that in high school and college I earned money as a pianist and organist at our local Disciples of Christ church. (Occasionally I would also fill in at the Methodist church, which would sometimes mean playing two services in one day.)

This meant I sometimes played funerals. My first funeral, I went in to warm up at the organ and it was just me and the open casket in the room, so I went over and looked at the guest of honor and then said to myself “okay, now I know I can see a dead body and it’ll be okay.”

It also meant I played weddings. I feel like I must have played more than one wedding, but I only specifically remember one, because the bride asked me to accompany her as she sang “A Whole New World” to her groom.

Now, when my sister and I used to play wedding as little girls, we knew there were only two acceptable choices for wedding music: Wagner’s Bridal Chorus (aka “Here Comes the Bride”) for the processional, and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March for the recessional.

So whenever Barbie or Midge married Ken or Other Ken, we’d loudly sing “Here comes the bride… dah da da dahhhh” as we marched them up and down the aisle. (Does that song have lyrics beyond the first four words? We knew that some people sang “big, fat, and wide” for the second phrase, but that seemed tasteless.)

Later, when I found a book of Wedding Music For Organ inside the organ bench at the Disciples of Christ church, I got secretly excited to learn that “Wedding Theme From The Sound of Music” was on the list. (Ask me how many times I’ve seen The Sound of Music.)

But the context bothered me: like, you’d be walking down the aisle, and suddenly the A theme would shift into the B theme, and everyone in the room would start humming “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria.” What would that processional say about what you thought of yourself, at your own wedding? (I was heteronormative enough to assume that the bride would be making all of the choices here.)

And what did “A Whole New World” say about what this bride thought of her groom? “I can open your eyes?” This seemed like a really weird sentiment to share at a wedding. I mean, sure, the chorus was all about two people sharing a whole new world together — specifically, one person introducing another person to a whole new world, but we don’t need to get that nitpicky — but the verses were problematic. (Tumblr wasn’t around then so I hadn’t picked up on the term “problematic” as it is currently used, but I understood it instinctively.)

But what do you do? It wasn’t my job to discuss feminism and marriage equality with a bride-to-be, or comment on the idea that she was reclaiming a male voice — and a stereotypically male narrative, because “I can show you the world” is about as stereotypically male as it comes — as her own. It was my job to learn the song and get paid.

It was also my job, though I didn’t realize it yet, to let go of what I thought adulthood should be, what I thought weddings should sound like, and what I thought people should do or say during the ceremony. I’ve written before that I don’t have a fantasy wedding that I’ve carried around for myself since childhood, but I definitely had some pretty prescriptive ideas about weddings in general. Since that wedding, let’s just say that life — and people–opened my eyes. (Maybe there’s some merit to that lyric after all.)

I think I made $100 for that wedding. (I usually made $30 per church service, or $1,560 a year, but weddings were special and they also weren’t paid out of the church budget.) I also learned over time that, at weddings, context is less important than melody and emotion. As with married life, you look at your beloved and sing the “whole new world” part, while the lyrics you’d rather not focus on fade away.

But if I ever get married, you know exactly what music I’m going to propose for the ceremony.

This story is part of our Wedding Season series.