Choose music that speaks to your heart and soul

It has been said that only one thing exists both in heaven and on earth and that is music.

So it's no mystery that music plays such a central role in the rites of passage in our lives and the celebrations that accompany them. What is mysterious, at least to many people, is how to make the musical choices that are most appropriate for them, and how to fully utilize the power of music to enhance these most precious moments.

As a musician and bandleader I've provided music for Jewish celebrations for nearly 25 years. I've witnessed thousands of horas, hundreds of brides carried in chairs, hundreds of bar and bat mitzvah kids chasing their friends around the room. And I've gone through it myself — choosing a band for my own wedding a few years back. I've seen a lot and learned a lot and I'm delighted to share the fruits of my experience.

It's important to consider how many different ways music can enhance a celebration. Think of a wedding, for instance. A wedding is so much more than just a big party. It's better to think of it as a number of different kinds of parties and events under a single umbrella. In the case of the most traditional celebrations, the tisch (or pre-wedding groom's and bride's gatherings) and bedeken (the veiling of the bride) will be the first of these events. Then comes the wedding ceremony itself, then perhaps a cocktail reception, then a formal meal and finally, a dance party.

In the case of weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, music is the vehicle that connects us both to our traditions and to the moment we live in. It can allow us to be both haimish and hip, to be both stylish in the most contemporary sense and fully within the Jewish traditions that nourish our spirit and affirm our connection to the past and future of our tribe.

My personal philosophy is that celebrations are like snowflakes. They all have similar features, but each is unique. Being able to convey that uniqueness is what makes for a truly memorable party.

With rare exceptions, we usually embark on the pursuit of music for our celebrations without very much experience. This immediately sets us at a disadvantage. Most people buy music very rarely in their lives, a few times at most. It's not like buying a pair of pants.

Regardless of their affection for music, most people are not able to communicate specifically what their musical desires are beyond vague preferences of genre and feel. They may know that they want classical music, but they can identify only a few melodies that they've heard before. And so we hear the Pachelbel Canon — I've actually heard it called "The Taco Bell Canon" — played over and over at wedding ceremonies. People want music that will bring joy and beauty to their celebration, but they usually cannot say exactly what the nature of that music is, beyond a few generalities or reference to current pop songs. As a result, the responsibility comes to rest on the bandleader, who may or may not be able to represent the needs and desires of the celebrants.

Among my colleagues are many wonderful musicians, sensitive to the subtlest aspects of providing a joyful, beautiful musical accompaniment to a celebration. The best way to find them is to ask your friends if they've heard any wonderful party music lately. Word of mouth is not only the best indication of the potential for musical success, in my opinion it's really the only reliable indicator. Regardless of what you may have read, do not rely on demo tapes to get an accurate sense of a band you may be considering.

The reasons for this are many: First, there's no way of knowing if the musicians on the tape are the same ones who will be playing at your party. The number of musicians on the tape may be larger than the band you're being sold. The recordings may have been "cleaned up" with extensive use of studio technology to correct mistakes and polish the sound. Or there may not be any musicians at all on the demo tape — just sophisticated music sequences and samples that sound just like the radio.

The most important indicator of a band's suitability for your celebration is its reputation and references. Talk extensively to your friends who have had successful parties, and friends of friends, and check out the references provided by your prospective musicians. Ask for the phone numbers of the last six or seven parties they played, and make a note of when those parties occurred. A bandleader of quality should be playing at least three to five parties a month on average, so if you've got references that are more than a few months' old, that could be a problem.

Make sure you get a chance to meet in person with the bandleader you're considering. Nothing substitutes for the experience of getting to know each other and establishing a level of comfort. You'll talk business at this point and a sensitive bandleader will begin to take note of how to structure an appropriate musical experience in harmony with the plans that are being made.

Beware of prices quoted that are significantly lower than average. This is a good indication that the musicians you are considering are probably making their living doing something other than playing music. Talented amateurs, perhaps but not what you want for your special day.

Beware also of party planners and consultants who steer you hard in a particular band's direction. In these cases, there is often a significant kickback involved. The band may in fact be perfectly appropriate for you. But the ethics of this situation is questionable.

Consultants and party planners can be quite useful. Just make sure that it's your tastes that are driving the creative decisions, and not the hidden financial arrangements between vendors and consultants. Conversely, an excellent source of references may be the other party professionals you've hired. Your caterer, photographer, videographer, rabbi and even your florist will have had a lot of experience in this arena and may well be able to point you in the right direction.

It's important that you choose musicians who are sufficiently sensitive and intuitive to be able to interpret your desires accurately and effectively. It's a tall order, requiring a combination of social gracefulness, musical breadth and depth, and extensive experience. So it's not surprising that the calendars of the better musicians and bandleaders fill up quickly. The moral of the story: Start looking for the music as soon as you get the date.