The bride is aglow. The flowers are freshly cut. The poached salmon is perfect. And the band sounds like a bad night at the local Karoake bar.

Which of these cherished (and, alas, not-so-cherished) memories do you think your guests will take home from the wedding? If you picked the crummy band, you’re sadly on-the-money.

Having the right music at your wedding is an absolute must. Even Classic Catering’s Gail Kaplan admits that if you’re going to splurge on one thing, splurge on the band (although she wouldn’t judge you harshly if you splurged on the food, too).

“The band pretty much sets the mood for the entire event,” agrees Paul Wolman of P.W. Feats Inc., a firm that helps “create amazing events.”

But how do you know what band is right for you? And how much should it cost? And how big a band should you hire? And what the heck is the name of that theme music to “Masterpiece Theatre”? (“Rondeau” by Mouret.)

We contacted some local experts – caterers, wedding consultants, special events directors – for the low-down on wedding entertainment. We established one thing early on: Act fast.

“As soon as you pick the date, start picking the band,” says Lois Stern of Baltimore Entertainment Connection (B.E.C.), a group that provides entertainment for special events. Some wedding bands are so popular that they get booked months, even years, in advance, so the sooner you set a date, the better. You should also consider the following:

The Guests

If you’ve invited 100 guests, a 10-piece band might be a bit overwhelming. Conversely, 250 revelers are going to drown out a three-piece band.

Note the size of your reception room. “At the Harbor Court Hotel, they don’t really have enough room for a large band,” cautions Lois Stern.

Next up: who’s coming? Lots of blue-haired ladies? If so, you might consider hiring a swing band, or a band that does a lot of oldies and standards. Are your guests mostly young professionals? In that case, a top-40 style band could be in order. But our experts caution that the concept of “top-40” is getting harder and harder to define (just ask local radio stations). “No one knows what that means anymore,” says Gail Kaplan, who suggests that it is best to “establish specific songs you want to hear.”

Have you invited a bewildering mix of ages? Here, a band that can give you variety is the key. A lot of wedding bands can effortlessly shift from Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

In fact, Paul Wolman thinks that variety is always the key. “Your band should be able to start with some easy, big-band swing and then gradually turn up the energy level to Motown and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says.

The Sound

Factor in the acoustics of your reception hall (the events director will be able to tell you). If the space is extremely echo-y, you need to let your bandleader know. If the acoustics are relatively dead, that’s important, too. A good band can adjust either way. But not all groups are so conscientious.

“We had a band once that just didn’t give a hoot about our extremely live acoustics,” says Claudia Bismark, the head of special events at The Walters Art Gallery. “The party was a disaster. That band now has a little flag in my Rolodex. Never again.”

Says Greg Groff, leader of the band The Klassix, “The music should never be too loud. People should be able to carry on conversations without shouting at each other.”

If your weddihng is taking place outdoors or on a boat, make sure there’s some way to plug the amps in, or you may end up with an inadvertently “unplugged” event.

The Mood

Party coordinator Sherri Minkin of Party Perfect feels that a wedding band should always be elegant and romantic, to reflect the momentousness of the day.

But what if you want your wedding to be a rockin’ good time, a wild party? What if you want a band that interacts with the crowd, that does the “Electric Slide,” that works overtime to get Aunt Mabel on the dance floor?

“Some people like a lot of fanfare and flash,” says Greg Groff. “Some people want a more low-key party.” His band can accommodate both moods, he adds, but they need to know before the wedding.

Your wedding may have an ethnic or religious tone. Knowing how to play “Hava Negilla” is not always enough. Most ethnic weddings have certain ceremonial rites (lighting of candles, breaking of bread, etc.) that the bandleader must be familiar with.

The Band

If you really dug the group at your best friend’s wedding, that’s ideal. You’ve had a chance to see the musicians in action, and you know exactly what to expect. But that isn’t always an option.

Most bands or entertainment companies can provide a video of the group at work. This is fairly effective, but not fool-proof.

Says Paul Wolman, “On a videotape, you don’t quite get a sense of the band’s chemistry with the crowd. You don’t really get a sense of the energy.”

If you plan to check out a band at somebody else’s wedding, get permission from the bride and groom first (natch). Hang discreetly in the background. Dress appropriately. And skedaddle as soon asy you’ve seen enough.

If one theme emerged most frequently among our experts it was the need for teamwork and professionalism among all the wedding staff, especially the band. “Make sure that the band is willing to work in conjunction with the caterer, the photographer, and the videographer,” says Gail Kaplan. “Timing is everything.”

Jokes Lois Stern, “You don’t want the band playing ‘Hot! Hot! Hot!’ [a great dance song] while the food is being served.”

Find out if and when the band will be taking its breaks. If the band takes a break at an inopportune time, you could get overcrowding at the buffet table or – horror of horrors – not enough tables and chairs to seat everybody.

Minkin advocates continuous music. “Let band members take separate breaks,” she suggests. “If necessary, hire two bands.”

Depending on your budget, two bands isn’t a bad idea. A classical group can do the ceremony and soft dinner music, while a more lively band can do the rest of the fete.

Some party experts say that a D.J. might be the way to go. “I used to be a bit of a snob about D.J.s,” admits Gail Kaplan. “I didn’t think they had the quality for rites-of-passage events.”

But she’s beginning to come around. In New York, interactive D.J. troupes like Les Masquerade and Les Clique – which combine spinning records with elaborate floor shows – are very hot.

“D.J.s used to be very one-dimensional,” explains Kaplan. “But these days, they can offer a lot of spectacle as well as the music.”

Another bonus? With D.J.s, you have more control over the music. If you and your fiance have a special song, you can rest assured that you’ll be hearing the genuine article, not some singer’s highly personalized interpretation.

Speaking of “your song,” if you opt for a band, you better make sure that your bandleader knows it in advance or is willing to learn it. (In some cases, you may be required to provide the sheet music.) “Sometimes I’ll try to steer a couple clear of a song that I think is a total cliché,” says Groff. “For example, ‘Just You and I’ has been done to death.” So noted.

The Contract

Before the festivities begin, you’ve got to sign on the dotted line. Most of our experts feel that as soon as you’ve chosen the band and set the date, a contract should be drawn up with a down payment (usually between one-third and one-half of the entire fee). In most cases, the down payment is non-refundable, but there should be exceptions. For example, what if the lead singer gets pregnant? What if the band breaks up? Is the original contract null and void or are you still held responsible? Again, better to ask these questions before you sing the contract.

Of course, if you capriciously switch from one band to the next, that’s your responsibility. You’ve broken the contract, and you’ll most likely end up footing the bill. But if you use an entertainment agency like B.E.C. or Starleigh and you move from one band to another within the agency, a portion of your down payment can sometimes be transferred to the other band.

“It depends on how late in the game you made the switch,” says Alana Schor Silverman, of Bandhouse Entertainment. “Obviously, if the band has turned down other jobs because of the contract, it’s your responsibility to compensate them. It’s only fair.”

The Price

“A band doesn’t have to eat up your entire budget,” says Lois Stern, adding that quality and price aren’t always commensurate. “The best groups aren’t always the most expensive ones,” she notes. Bands tend to get more pricey as they grow in popularity. The prices can run anywhere between $800 for a three-piece band, to $6,000-plus for a 15-piece orchestra. A band from out of state will probably cost more. A D.J. can be considerably less.

Most bands quote a price for a four-hour reception. If you think you’ll be wanting a longer party, it’s best to establish that up front and include “a rider” (or amendment) to the contract.

Says The Klassix’s Greg Groff, “Nine times out of 10, the couple asks us to stay longer than the four hours.” He says his band can usually work out some payment beyond the contract, but not all bands can agree to stay on-the-spot. Anyway, Groff doesn’t always recommend a longer party.

“I usually assess the crowd,” he says. “If the party is clearly winding down, if there’s only five drunks clamoring for more, I recommend that we call it quits. You have to leave them wanting more.”

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