What’s your song?

Since 1998 I’ve been fortunate to entertain at some of the coolest social events in Western Canada.  As a professional “life of the party”, I have the best job!  Just give me a piano and a microphone and the party is on.  When I begin planning an event it all comes down to good song choices.  I want to know – what’s your song?

Over my colourful career I have provided solo piano, jazz trio, small dance band, dueling pianos, salsa band and full party orchestra.  We have played countless weddings, clubs and corporate events.  My favourite is always when I get to bring out a horn section.  Gives me the shivers!  But never call me just a piano player or musical director.  There’s an art and science I tap into to keep the party jumping.

Trio_Best_Curtain SM copy TRIM

There is a knack to elevating the spirits of the room.  It’s all about which songs you play when.

Most of my career can be recollected in songs.  I could tell you about the time Mr. T walked up to the piano with his hot first date and asked for “Strangers in the Night”.  I remember the groom who asked to hear “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden while he walked up.  What a kidder.  Oh and there was New Years Eve at the Banff Springs Hotel when the band blasted “You Can Leave Your Hat On” while the elegant Scotsmen and their kilts parted ways.

Celebrations define moments in our lives.  Song choices resonate on the level of the soul, and say a lot about what is important to us.  When you book me to play, I will want to know – What’s your song?


Knowing what song to play at the right time is my true secret power.  And I promise to use my powers for good.  The repertoire has to stay current.  It’s a moving target.  At one time I could not get through the night without getting several demands for “Gangnam Style”.  Have you ever had to learn a song in Korean?  And now clients make me promise I won’t play it.  Times change so quickly!

Get the songs right and the party is a hit.  Life is good and the guests go home happy.

Job one at Big Deal Entertainment is to bring you into the show – by playing your songs.

Bring the Big Band back!  Our 11-piece orchestra “The Distractions” has a full horn section and three lively young singers.  Not just oldies – we rock out on current Top 40s dance medleys.  You’ve never heard Rihanna, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with our horn section.

The Distractions Party Orchestra – YouTube

And our “Rowdy Pianos” dueling piano show is an all-request interactive event.  Can I get a volunteer for this next song?  Get ready for a good time.. it could be you.

Rowdy Pianos – YouTube

Planning Music for a Wedding: Timing, Flow and Magic

November 6th, 2011

I have the best job in the world.  Saturday night we were fortunate enough to be a part of a grand wedding celebration at the Banff Springs Hotel.  Every detail came together to make the day special.  The people, the venue, the flowers, the music and of course the dress.  I wish I had a photo.  You know how some women you don’t think they could possibly look any more beautiful?  Well on her wedding day, of course she did.

They hired the full band 12 piece band.  Yours truly Chance Devlin singing and directing out front on the piano.   With latin percussion, drums, bass, guitar, and four more vocalists: Al, Jess, Shannon and Amanda, and a 3-piece horn section: trumpet, tenor sax and trombone.  We came out in our signature white tuxedoes, and a bandstand featuring silk horn wraparounds instead of plain music stands.  Final touches included accent lights to colour the band’s look, and my grand piano shell front and centre.  Nice touch, right?  The band is seen and heard.  So we take care with our visual presentation as well as the music.

And I got to thinking about the role of music at a wedding.  From my point of view as a performer and musical director there’s many elements that come into play.  All the preparations that go into it.  Booking the players and rehearsals, learning special music, writing arrangements, and maybe most of all creating a thoughtfully prepared set list.

A good set list really carries the night.  A good set list takes everything into consideration and really sums up, encapsulates, symbolizes and embodies all the reasons this celebration is taking place.  Playing the right song at the right time spells out exactly what we’re celebrating, and why it’s important.

It’s funny how much of successful event planning comes down to timing.  Because despite all best plans, when you’re on the stage and it’s time to perform, all your planning gets put aside – and you just roll with it.  There’s a flow that takes over.  On the show it’s all about feeling, connection, execution, timing and a magical flow of energy.  Today what’s on my mind is timing.  What makes good timing?  What is timing?  I just googled “what is timing”, and didn’t get a definition I liked.  The best one I found was: “The choice, judgment, or control of when something should be done: “one of the secrets of golf is good timing”.”

To me the first thing to be clear on is the values and priorities of the event.  You will always need to change the schedule on the fly to make the best of the time you have.  Make those choices in line with what’s most important.  This bride and groom hired me primarily to give them an unforgettable dance party.  They wanted everyone to dance the entire time.  No pressure.  But they wanted our A-game, the biggest dance music, with no filler.

First off, you can really never prepare too much.  Plan for the best and plan for the worst.  Expect and embrace chaos.  And really, the more you plan and prepare, the less that can go wrong.  I went back and forth with vocalist Shannon Paige coming up with a set list that we were confident with.  The last six months she has been a great sounding board for music planning.  Like a hard-edged quality control supervisor, if a tune is out of fashion, it gets cut.

And there’s also something to be said about managing energy too.  The evening needs to start by breaking the ice, then building excitement, and keeping the momentum going.  Moving and changing.  This is a little like surfing a wave.  Respecting the flow.  Sometimes it will ebb and rise, that’s okay too.  You simply can’t be riding high all night long, it’s not possible.  Oddly the song “Unforgettable” packs the dance floor more than several upbeat songs we do.

And I have more sombre examples of high and low tides in the energy at a party.  More than once I was playing a party where someone got taken to hospital for serious health concerns.  Just a few weeks ago I was playing a party where only 20 feet in front of the apartment, someone got shot and died.  For real.  Talk about your party killer.  Literally.

It was a birthday party for two women at a small apartment, oddly in a high-end building, with several buildings built around a courtyard.  The shooting took place at the exit to the courtyard, where everyone could see.  When I heard the shot, I was playing piano at the time.  Knowing the sky was not inclement or overcast in any way, I instantly ruled out thunder.  Funny, I assumed right away it was a gun shot, but wasn’t stressed and didn’t even feel the need to get up and find out what happened.  After all we were in the middle of a song.  What the heck does that say about me.. Am I cold?  I think partly I didn’t believe someone could have been shot.  But partly I just wanted to keep the party going.  Others would hear the noise and run over.  By stopping the performance, it might have increased the panic in the room.  And by continuing the music, I stood a better chance of lowering the fear and stress.  Like the musicians playing while the Titanic sank, the show must go on.

Guests from the party hurried over to find the man collapsed on the pavement and bleeding.  They brought him a blanket and stayed with him until the ambulance came.  One of them was a doctor.  Timing hey.

The police had the entire residence and all buildings on lockdown for a couple hours afterwards, so we all had to stay put.  And I have to tell you.  The celebration took a turn, but it didn’t end.  Remarkably, a man died, but the party didn’t.  One brazen woman gathered us all together in the living room and quieted us down.  She proceeded to tell the story of what she witnessed, complete with colourful language and animated gestures.  She had comforted the dying man in his last moments, and brought her entire heart to the experience.

I’ll never forget, as she stood in front of the fireplace and told us about it, she backed up right into the tea lights over the mantle and we heard the fire singe her long dark hair.  She took a moment to put out her burning hair, and then just kept on addressing us, unflapped and unfazed.  I was impressed.  This woman probably had what it took to be a wedding planner for the biggest celebrity diva bridezilla on planet earth.

But most impressive was how she really “cleared” the space.  Dealt with our thoughts and feelings.  She addressed what had happened just outside our window, and then tied it back to why we were all there.  We toasted the two birthday girls we were all here to celebrate, appreciated the value of life, and the importance of living our dreams while we still have life.

Somehow her life affirming diatribe turned to her Burning Man concept.  She wanted us all to go down to Burning Man as a Calgary contingent with her team who had designed a ‘flying carpet’ art car we could all take turns riding around on in the desert heat.  This chick was radical and empowered.

But what I’ll never forget about that night was how the party didn’t actually die.  Instead it just changed.  We talked it out.  We connected and shared in a more genuine way.  And it was beautiful.

A party is all about that.  Feeling.  Connecting.  Sharing.  Feeling Alive.  And to my mind, the most successful celebration is one where you also walk away transformed.  New.  A meaningful celebration should be a marker in your life.  And I have to say that I was profoundly moved that night.

In the case of the wedding we played Saturday night, timing was a linch pin that held everything together, and at times the thing that was the thorn in our side.  Time marches on.  Time truly waits for no man, and no bride.

The bride and groom had the night meticulously planned out.  Minute for minute, item by item.  But as in the vast majority of weddings we play, things fell behind.  I believe it’s possible to create a realistic, acheivable schedule for the night.  But it tends to be the exception and not the norm.  Build in time for chaos.  You know, expect the unexpected.  And have good communication between all parties on the day.  Because stuff comes up.

I’d like to look at the night closely.  First off let’s be clear: Every wedding is a smashing success in the end.  I’ve really never been to bad one, and this was no exception.  When a room full of people come together with the intention to celebrate, how can anything but good come of it?

A note here about some of the time constraints built into this event.  From what was explained to me, a jewish wedding cannot happen on Shabbat, which is from Friday evening until “a few minutes after the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night.” (Wikipedia)  So most Jewish weddings happen on Sunday, allowing for use of the afternoon for a ceremony.

But in this case Saturday night was more convenient, since the wedding was in Banff.  Traveling guests could sleep in Sunday, and spend more time together.  The trick was, to respect Jewish traditions, the ceremony could not begin until after sunset on Saturday.  Careful timing was key.  The ceremony could start no sooner than seven by Jewish custom, and the hotel rules required the dance to finish by midnight.

Cocktails were planned for six pm in the Solarium.  My four piece group was fun and lively (piano, sax, bongos and drums).  We played a healthy mix of jazz, swing, pop and upbeat latin music.  Burnis on the bongos with his big grin is the energizer bunny of latin percussion.  We included the old standard “All of Me”, but as a reggae.  Playing with people’s expectations is one of the things we’re known for.  If you want boring, bring an iPod and just press play.

A little boy of maybe four years old was mesmerized by our show.  He wanted to stand close to the action.  So I invited him to fool around on the piano with me.  I love doing anything that brings the audience right in to what we’re doing.  How could I pass up an opportunity like that?  I cued the band to stop playing every four bars, and give him little solo breaks.  And man oh man, that kid just lit up like a Christmas tree.  He was attacking the high notes on the piano like a wild thing.  Of course I was there to keep a lid on things.  But nothing went wrong.  The parents told me their boy probably wouldn’t stop talking about it for days.

The ceremony was in the Cascade ballroom, a lovely old world ballroom with ornate decorations and a blue sky painted on the ceiling.  The ceremony took place under a canopy in the centre of the room, with chairs encircling the shrine.  I played the processional music on the nine foot grand piano just outside the circle.  After moving guests into the room and seating them it was closer to 7:20 before people were seated and the wedding procession could begin.

Now the reception was in another oval ballroom, the Alhambra.  Maybe 300 feet away it took some time before all were in and accounted for.  Always plan enough time to move people.  This delay was fairly reasonable, maybe 20 minutes.  But the cumulative delay by the end of the night would mean we would need to cut over one of the band’s dance sets.  Still, they got nearly 90 minutes of great dance music.

So the first item on the agenda for the reception was the Hora.  The Hora is the dance, and Hava Nagila is the song.  Depending who you talk to, this is probably the most fun part of any Jewish wedding.   And THIS Hora was the best one ever.

We started very slowly, and I remember Doug on the trumpet playing the melody with an old-time warble to his tone.  Sounded so retro.. as if we should have had an accordion player and a monkey joining us.   In my mind I saw old country cobblestone streets, flickering gas lanterns and heard the click of horse hooves pulling rickety milk carts to market well before dawn.

The crowd held hands and spun in a circle, clamouring for us to pick it up.  Hava Nagila got faster at the B section, and then faster again every time we hit that section.  After two or three times through the full song form, the bride and groom were each put in a chair and hoisted up above the dancers, bounced around and celebrated with cheers and claps.  Why doesn’t everybody do this at their weddings?  I love it!

We played the form maybe twice more with the chairs in the air.  You don’t want that song to go on for too long, but it has to be long enough.   The Hora length is always an agenda item in planning for Jewish weddings.  Too short and the crowd is disappointed.  Too long and they will get annoyed.  Here’s how this one went, and how I chose the moment to end.

First a little background on the piece.  Hava Nagila is an AA1B song form.  Let me show you what I mean:

A: Hava nagila, Hava nagila, Hava nagila, Ve’ nismecha.
Hava nagila, Hava nagila, Hava nagila, Ve’ nismecha.
A1: Hava neranena, Hava neranena, Hava neranena, Ve’ nismecha.
Hava neranena, Hava neranena, Hava neranena, Ve’ nismecha.
B: Uru, uru achim,
Uru achim belev sameach, Uru achim belev sameach,
Uru achim belev sameach, Uru achim, Uru achim, Belev sameach.

We probably played AA1B about five or six times.  I kept a careful eye on the dancers holding hands and spinning, and then watched the chairs get lifted in the air.  When the bride and groom were let down from their chairs, we were somewhere in the middle of the B section.  There seemed to be a pause in the dancing, a break in the flow.  And I wanted to let the music go on for about another 30 seconds to feel right, but that would have meant we’d have to play the full form again, and that would have been too much.  So in this case ‘good timing’ meant a compromise.  We ended the song there, almost as soon as they came down from their chairs.

And I looked out on the dance floor to get a sense whether the audience consented to this timing, and I felt they did.  Too short, and they would all look up at the stage in confusion.  Too long and people would have filtered off the dance floor, the song ending with a whimper.  Instead it finished with a bang, and we went on to the next song.  Phew.

We went straight into a medium-tempo swing number, Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”, and then a Michael Buble swing number from his new record, “All I do is dream of you”.  Since their energy wasn’t spent overplaying the Hora, the audience immediately partnered up and kept right on dancing.  Double Phew.  Perhaps part of timing is also managing energy flow.  Maintaining momentum once it’s started.  Space between songs has to be kept to a minimum.  This is another reason I like having a well thought out set list.

After the Hora and a couple social dances, it was time to seat everyone.  I knew how tight the timelines were tonight, so I asked everyone to take a seat.  But this was the wrong thing to do.  What I DIDN’T know is that there was a dress emergency, and the bride had to go and pin up her dress before the prayer and toasts could begin.   There was some silence and confusion for a few minutes.  I was clueless as to what had happened.  Good communication with the band here would have been helpful.  Understandably the wedding planner was tied up, so we just kind of ‘noodled’ something soft in the key of G until the situation was resolved.

Prayers and toasts and dinner service each took longer than intended, and the band’s start time was delayed from 10:20 to nearly 11:00 pm, allowing only an hour for dancing to the band before the hotel would have to shut us down.

For this wedding the decision was made to alternate toasts and music, and to keep the band onstage for the entire dinner, with one offstage break before the dance.  Toasts were planned at 5 minutes each, with each one followed by ten minutes of music.  I had told the bride and groom in advance that if speeches were much longer than 5 minutes each we would take an offstage break.  We did end up taking one when two toasts became ten minutes each, and happened back to back, by mistake.  With twelve players onstage waiting, I decided to let them get offstage to stretch their legs.

Another element of timing is to never give guests exactly what they expect.  A perfectly timed event risks being boring.  Pleasantly surprise people.  To me the most interesting story about timing from Saturday night was a small detail.  Amanda sang a powerhouse version of “At Last”, just full of personality and Chutzpah.  There is this moment at the end of the song with a vocal cadenza: “..and you are mine.. At Last!”  A cadenza is an ending to a song where the entire group pauses and allows the soloist to shine for a few seconds.  We stopped for her, then on my cue, the band came back in strong.

Over breakfast the next morning, the band reflected on how that ending went down.  I chose to allow a short space after she sang, and went to TOTAL SILENCE – for just a second – before we played the last notes of the song.  I played with people’s expectations there.  A more typical way to direct a cadenza would be to bring the band in WHILE the singer’s last note is being held.  But instead I chose a space, a beautifully reflective pause, a ‘breath’ in the arrangement.  On discussing that choice over pancakes in the morning, the band loved that expression, and it felt right in that moment.  Timing.  Choice.  Control.  Reflection.  Space.  Timing became a part of the musical expression itself.

Okay that’s just a tiny detail, but I enjoyed that moment.  Other timing choices were bigger and required compromise.  We had to cut several songs from our set when our start time was pushed back.  We struck every song that was not essential.  Maybe the set got even tighter.

I’ll summarize the night with a few highlights.  Shannon rocked “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys during dinner.  I don’t like to pick favourites, but Shannon is probably my favourite female vocalist to work with anywhere.  She has a soulful R&B alto voice that reflects a depth of soul, character and life experience.  Right away when the audience heard her sing the piece there were a small group of dancers who rushed the dance floor.  If they’d rather dance than eat, you know you’re a good band.

Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” was our dance set opener.  The dance floor was packed, and the tempo and feel really came together.  Thank God for that because we almost didn’t get it despite repeated rehearsal.  It can’t be too slow.  And the drums have to keep it really simple, not groovy and not subdivided.  Strangely, the energy is carried mostly by the tambourine.

The groom wanted funk.  If it was up to him we would do all James Brown, George Clinton, Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins Funkadelic stuff from beginning to end.  So after the Jackie Wilson opener, Al & Jess took the stage with “Brick House”, in a slow, funky tempo with a playful horn line.  That number set the tone for the party.  And when you start off with a song that reflects the client’s priorities and values, you put them at ease right away.

Al Ahh:

Now remember we had to end the night at midnight or risk the ire of the Hotel staff and management.   But you can’t just stop playing.  I planned for about 20 minutes of encores.  For an encore to work, the audience needs to really believe the show is over.  And if they don’t demand more music, there just won’t be any.

So only about forty minutes into the dance set, I announced we were finished.  This statement was met with stares and stunned silence.  “But who wants to hear one more song?”  When we felt confident the crowd had sufficiently earned the encore, I brought out our secret weapon: A new medley.  A 90’s medley that goes on for about 15 minutes, and covers more than a dozen MUST-DANCE-TO songs.  It was a huge hit.  And it would hopefully satisfy everyone.  Here’s the 90‘s Dance Medley list:

Groove is in the Heart
Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)
I like to move it
Pump up the Jam
Now that we found love
One More Time (Daft Punk)
Show me love
This is how we do it
Crazy in Love
Who let the dogs out
Whoomp there it is
Everyday people

The beauty of a medley is, you just play the best part of each song, and if you don’t like a song, stay put!  It’s almost time for the next melody to start.  And the next, and the next.  You overwhelm people with great familiar music.  And in this case we extended the encore into a 15 minute dance party to end the night.

One final story, about our second encore.  Sometimes when things go wrong the party actually gets better.  In the planning meeting, the bride and groom made me promise we would NOT play Journey.  They told me it was just not that kind of party.  And I agreed.  I wanted to respect their wishes, I really did.  But at the end of the night, someone shouted out: “Just a smalltown girl!”, and a buzz went through the crowd.  Suddenly everyone just HAD to hear 80‘s rock anthem “Don’t Stop Believing”.

So we broke the rule.  We gave the ravenous horde what they wanted.  This is a tricky line to walk, and I didn’t do it lightly.  Al, Jess, Shannon and Amanda and myself sang the song, and Carl rocked the guitar solo while guests air guitared along.  Musically and energetically that song was probably my personal favourite piece of the night.  We really rocked it.  Afterwards I went right up to the couple and told them I was sorry!  But they understood it was the right thing to do.  In that moment.  To perfectly end the night, we needed to play that song at that time.

And now in the interest of time, I need to get preparing for my next show.  I’ve enjoyed reflecting on the importance of timing at an event.  If there’s any moral to the story it’s this: Timing is not everything.  Magical choices in timing and artfully steering the flow of energy are a dance.  A dance set in motion by good planning.  Account for all the barriers to that magic and flow.  Plan for fun.  The most fun you’ve ever had.  And then love it when the plan comes together.

Chance Devlin