How Much Does A Wedding Pianist Charge?

I was asked to play for a wedding ceremony that seemed to be very uncomplicated when I agreed to contract with the bride/groom. Just a simple “Here Comes The Bride” was requested in addition to a few special pieces. This was a very low cost to the couple who insisted they were on a budget yet planning a wedding at a historic home in Oak Park.

With the economy being as unsettled as it currently is and people trying to cut corners, against my better judgment, I agreed to a much lower fee than I usually charge.

The following stories will demonstrate how a wedding with a “low-cost” musician could have resulted in disasters.

how much pianist charge

Sample Wedding #1

Upon my early arrival at the first wedding, I discovered the ceremony was to be held outside in 49-degree weather with very gusty winds. HOWEVER……..

The grand piano was INSIDE this venue overlooking a huge front porch – positioned at the rear – behind the guests where I could only peer out an open “ floor to ceiling” window about two feet wide.

The entire ceremony was on the OTHER side of a solid wall. My hands were so cold I ran hot water over them for 20 minutes prior to the ceremony. This wall separated me from all the guests and bridal party where I could not see OR hear the minister, (50 feet at the other end of the porch), and did not know when the bridal party or bride was entering, making it impossible for me to know when to start/stop playing a particular piece. Special music requested by the bride was flying off the piano and onto the floor. My “lookout” was BEHIND me and did not help me in the least. The other appointed “lookout” was dancing with his baby (flower girl) in the aisle enjoying the festivities while I struggled to figure out what was going on and wondering how I was going to coordinate music for a processional I could not see. To add to the “mix”, I was attempting to read music and turning completely around to determine where the bridal party was.

Would an amateur, music student, relative of the bride, etc, know what to do under these unforeseen circumstances? I think everyone knows the answer to this question. As a professional musician, I took an impossible situation and transformed it into a successful one by being prepared for the unexpected.

Sample Wedding #2

This wedding was held at a venue I perform at quite frequently, so I was very familiar with the layout of the hotel and where the bridal party would be entering. Having completed the prelude, and processional music, and noting the bride standing at the entrance, I proceeded to begin the “Bridal March”. Everything had run smoothly until now. The bride froze in her tracks. I could see her through the window and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t walking! Enough time went by and the “Bridal March” was over. But there was no bride at the altar! All vendors were baffled as to why the bride just stood in the doorway! What would an amateur do? Keep playing the march over and over and over sounding like a broken record? I knew if I stopped playing altogether everyone would know something was wrong. So, I started playing anything that resembled wedding music hoping the guests would believe that I meant to do that! Reverend Jim Rehnberg (the most amazing minister in Chicagoland), said afterward, “GOOD SAVE!!”….. So, what happened to the bride?? The ring bearer had left the wedding rings on the 7th floor of the hotel. No rings?

No wedding! Would an amateur know what to do and be able to figure a way out?

What does a pianist charge?

As a Professional Chicago Pianist for Corporate/Social Events since 1983, this question is often the first and only question I hear when a potential client calls. Unfortunately, we aren’t all priced like a box of cereal but consider a variety of factors that determine our fees.

Ideally, we’d hope our clients would allow us time to explain our charges but often the only information they hear is the “price tag” without giving us the opportunity to explain WHY we charge what we do. Just as prices vary for a thrifty Ford Taurus as opposed to a Mercedes SL-500 with a fine leather interior, musicians vary pricing depending on what the services and their value represent.

What do I base my piano fee on?

1. Experience

My professional experience in both the corporate and social markets, having performed for every function, imaginable, is extensive – Christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, Store Grand Openings, Political Fundraisers, Televised Awards Presentations, performing for a Rose Bowl “Special” on a Santa Fe train bound for California, Chartered Boats, Funerals, Hospitality Suites, Trade Shows, Conventions, high profile “Hollywood VIP Receptions” including one for Robert Redford/Sally Field, and as Lead Pianist for Nordstrom 7 years (Oak Brook / Woodfield locations) as well as Von Maur in Lombard and St. Charles from 1997 to 2009 ( current).

With my experience performing for weddings, I know what to do if the minister is detained, your ceremony gets delayed for any reason, if the processional has to be lengthened or shortened, etc. If a guest approaches the piano during the reception and asks for a favorite piece, I can play it – without music. I am familiar with the logistics of hotels, clubs, and restaurants, and can tell you if the piano is in good shape. There is protocol involved with every event, and I am educated as to the role every person plays at the venue should I have questions or concerns upon arrival before your event has even begun.

“Do You Know The Difference Between An Amateur And A Professional Musician And Why One Is Such A Bargain?”

2. Knowledge of my craft

Beyond the education required (many of us have spent our entire lives studying music), I offer you a huge library of music to choose from, a polished repertoire of a great variety of selections that are personally arranged for your special occasion. Memorizing all music allows the freedom of expression to perform with sensitivity and creativity – as opposed to relying on sheet music – which can be messy and not very professional. Every professional solo pianist who has performed in concert is required to memorize every single piece performed in public. I offer you 5 hours of professional, appropriate, memorized repertoire. You want your professional to interact with your guests, be inviting, and approachable, and ensure your guests feel welcome! (For weddings/events that may require special music, there would be sheet music on the piano as the only exception.)

Do not be surprised to learn that many brides have asked friends/relatives to perform at their wedding only to be disappointed the week before when this “special guest artist” backs out and gets nervous. Professionals protect you from any last-minute “disasters”. Your legal contract is binding. You can rely on a pro to be where he/she is supposed to be – on time – preferably – early! If for any reason, your musician becomes ill (in 26 years, I have missed only two performances), I had professional networking of substitutes who were comparable in expertise and available at a moment’s notice to fill in – Qualified professionals were sent in my place, unlike an amateur who would simply not have resources for a replacement!

The relative you adore who may only know four piano pieces is not qualified to perform for an hour (typical cocktail reception), most likely cannot take requests from anyone, cannot have a conversation while performing, is not in professional musician attire, and may decide to quit 15 minutes before your reception is over because fatigue is setting in ~ or they have just run out of things to play! PLEASE – Let them be guests!! Remember….. You WILL get what you pay for!! Your peace of mind on this day you’ve planned for a lifetime is so important. We play for hundreds of parties, yearly. Aunt Mary may be a wonderful pianist in the confines of her living room but not for 150 of your guests who expect to be entertained and want to hear something besides “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.

“I Only Want You To Play The Wedding March ~ That Won’t Tale More Than 15 minutes! Why Do I Have To Pay For An Hour?”

3. Ability to assist my clients in planning their successful event

Most people don’t realize that a wedding consists of 15-30 minutes of prelude music (music as guests are seated before the actual ceremony). Sometimes, a musician must research certain requests. That special music/CD must be obtained. We must know how to locate it, learn it, and make it sound like we’ve been playing it for ten years. We must also be knowledgeable about the ceremony, itself. When is music supposed to be played? Not only for the prelude but for your bridesmaids, (processional music), the bride’s entrance, the Unity candle (where applicable), recessional, and postlude (where guests exit the ceremony location). If your ceremony is delayed, the prelude is prolonged until the officiate is ready to begin. Your “15-Minute Ceremony” may have turned into an hour. We learn to expect the unexpected – and that can only come with the experience of having done hundreds of ceremonies.

Before you hire your wedding ceremony musician, I suggest asking some of the following questions:

  • Do you know how to end the music very suddenly without it sounding choppy and awkward when the bride reaches the altar before the piece is over?
  • Do you know where to find a vocalist if requested by the bride?
  • Do you know how to extend a piece without sounding like a broken record if the processional lasts longer than you thought?
  • Do you know how long an interlude should be when accompanying a Unity Candle?
  • Do you know where to obtain special music, how long it takes to obtain it after ordering, or that you might have to change the key for a vocalist but the piece you have received is not written in his/her favorite key?
  • Do you know how many pieces to play for a Prelude or how long one is supposed to last?
  • Do you have enough pieces to play if the five you learned aren’t enough when Grandma/Grandpa hasn’t even arrived at the church yet because they were detained in traffic?
  • If your bride needs a consultation, do you have any idea what music to recommend?
  • How many weddings have you performed?
  • I’d like additional musicians to play with you. Do you know any? Do you do ensemble work? Do you need a rehearsal?
  • the list goes on.

We must know what to do in a situation where not all is going as planned on the planner’s itinerary! Do you know that most Catholic churches require you use their musicians as part of the Musical Director’s agreement with the church to you are being married?

“I Am Having A Video Presentation For 15 Minutes. You Don’t Have To Play Music Then. Do I Have To Pay You Anyway?”

4. Time investment/travel (weather delays), preparation, practice, consultations

Many events require downtown/hotel parking. Fees can be as great as $30.00 for one hour. Gas costs are high. For me, it is a 70-mile round trip to downtown Chicago. Fees are usually based, on hourly. If you choose to have a slide presentation but prefer your musician to take a break, we are compensated for our time. We also take time to dress, professionally. We are “working” for two hours just in preparation for your party. We also type/send contracts, make phone calls, conduct consultations (planning music), additional practice for special requests, arrange for piano rentals/technicians, and microphones, and make sure pianos are in proper tune. I offer recommendations at no charge for additional performers/vendors as a service to her clients needing DJs, Bands, Orchestras, etc. In 26 years, I have worked with the best musicians and can recommend the best to YOU. There is much that is involved when providing great customer service –resulting in a fee quoted to you based on great value! You may only see the musician at the piano – Keep in mind what goes on “behind the scenes” in preparation for your successful event. You may only plan one wedding in a lifetime but we perform for hundreds in our careers. Most musicians will break on the hour for ten minutes. I take one fifteen break in 3 hours – adding to the value of my service and a bonus to you!

When Chicago weather is not the best, we must allow even more time to arrive at the exact time stated in your contract. We do not want your event delayed because the musician is stuck in traffic due to a major snowstorm and did not allow enough travel time. This is how a contract protects you. An amateur will not have a contract but may have lots of excuses for you instead.

“Do You Ever Give Discounts?”

5. Time of day / day of week you plan your event

Most Chicago musicians have a “minimum” on Saturday nights they will play for (typically, 3 hrs for cocktail/dinner receptions) or a fee equivalent to 3 hours of playtime. This is standard practice. I offer a $50 discount for Friday evenings, Sundays, and Saturday events ending before 4:00 pm. Should you provide a parking voucher – your parking fee will be reduced or eliminated. (If you have a cocktail hour immediately following your wedding ceremony at the same location, your cocktail reception (l hour) is free.

My fees are competitive. They are not the highest nor are they the lowest! Should you choose to hire a musical entertainment agency/ contractor, you will pay a much higher fee in order for that agent to receive a commission as high as 60%. When you contract with me, you are contracting with the artist, directly. There are no additional/hidden fees. Further discounts may apply if the event is a fundraiser/political event/non-profit organization where advertising space may be offered in lieu of monetary compensation. I perform gratis for many groups where funds are raised to benefit children.

There are so many factors to consider when I set my fee. You are paying for my experience, professionalism, and talent.

You may find a pianist who you feel is a true “bargain” but what kind of value are you getting if your pianist decides not to show up on THE most important day of your life? Be sure you ask for a contract to avoid misunderstandings, and miscommunications, and to ensure your pianist will be there on time – preferably…. EARLY!!

Just as you search to purchase a new car, you have the option of buying an economical, compact car or you may have the option to purchase a luxury, deluxe, sedan. Your budget is definitely a consideration! However, you would not skimp on food or flowers so why would you decide to “cut” on entertainment when music will set the tone for your entire event? Your music should be a perfect addition to your perfect day.

When your guests are still talking about the music at your party years later ~ make sure they aren’t talking about the lady in the purple polka dot dress who only knew how to play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” —– or worse yet – that really good friend of yours who got “stage fright” at the last minute and never showed up at all. Guests will always remember the music and how much fun they had! They will not remember the food or what color the flowers were.

What do you remember about the last party you attended?

Trust a professional by taking advantage of their talent, years of experience, and their knowledge of their craft. Spend a few extra dollars for your peace of mind. You will never be sorry.

Copyright © 2021 Kathie L. Nicolet, All Rights Reserved. This material cannot be reproduced in part or in its entirety without the written consent of Kathie L. Nicolet.

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Joyce Wilcox
Joyce Wilcox
4 years ago

I, too, have had a Bride freeze at the door because of rings. And many other delays along the way . . . Had one Bride ask for half price because only 8 people were going to be there! Nowadays, I just tell folks upfront they can’t afford me.

My Wedding Songs
My Wedding Songs
4 years ago
Reply to  Joyce Wilcox

Thanks Joyce for sharing.

John Mahoney
John Mahoney
6 years ago

I appreciate you talking about how experience can define how much a wedding pianist charges for their services. My daughter is getting married and wants to have live music for their guests so she is considering hiring a pianist to help. As I see it, taking the time to consult with several people that have experience with this types of circumstances can help anyone find the best person to provide the best vibes for their event.

My Wedding Songs
My Wedding Songs
6 years ago
Reply to  John Mahoney

Hi John. Thanks for the comment. Yes, if you have the option to get multiple quotes is preferred. A recommendation would be even better.