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September 25, 2015  TAGS:  MUSIC  RESOURCES  CEREMONY

The Wedding Ceremony Procession: Traditions and Trends

Wedding Ceremony Procession Traditions | Vermont Bride Magazine

The wedding processional music is the introduction of the “big moment” – the first announcement of the life-altering commitment you’ll be making! And the specific music you choose for your processional is one of the most significant choices you’ll make in coloring the back-drop of the emotion of your ceremony. For some couples, the processional choices are clear from the start, but for most, there are several factors to consider before confirming those choices, and many couples don’t even know where to begin. Even if you know exactly what piece you’d like for your processional, let’s take a quick look at some of the particulars of applying those choices to your big day.

In particular, let’s take a look at 1) how many processionals will need to be chosen? 2) do some processional choices work better than others and will that limit options? And 3) what types of variations on traditional processional format do other couples choose? 

  1. In my experience, most couples choose 2 processionals, one for the wedding party (bridesmaids – sometimes accompanied by groomsmen, maid of honor, and ring bearer and/or flower girl) and one for the bride. But there are certainly variations on this – so see #4 below for additional options! 
  2. Do some processional choices work better than others? The quick answer is yes. I’ve detailed a longer answer below, with particular things to look for in a “perfect processional.” An alternate answer is that if it’s special to you it will probably work out just fine, and be better suited to your wedding than another piece that perfectly fits the list below! But even if you have a piece in mind, do check the list below – with planning and communication with your musician, there may be more possibilities of ways of making your special piece work perfectly than you realize!
  • First, if you’re having a religious ceremony, you’ll want to speak with your priest/rabbi/minister – there may be limitations that are best clarified up front. For example, often Catholic ceremonies require either classical or sacred music. 
  • You’ll also want to check with your musicians. They may have limitations regarding repertoire, or may charge extra for special arrangements for their combination of instruments. Or depending on what instruments you’ve chosen, some selections may sound better than others.
  • One factor that makes some processional choices work better is the tempo – or speed – of the piece. You probably won’t want to be running down the aisle, unless you’re planning a race-themed wedding! So a stately tempo is generally a good idea, but then again, if you’re going a truly alternative route, there’s no reason your steps are required to be measured exactly with the beat of the music – and you could always take a step every 4 beats instead of every beat, or dance down the aisle if that’s your style and you don’t mind startling people! But most commonly couples choose a piece with a slow, stately tempo – if in doubt, try walking to the music you’re thinking of and see if it feels right to you. (Or in some cases you could check with your musicians to see if it works at a slower tempo).
  • Another factor: does the music allow for graceful endings at regular intervals throughout the music? In general, the musicians will try to end the music gracefully at the time you reach the altar. The Pachelbel Canon in D is a perfect example of a piece that is easy to end gracefully, since there’s a good stopping spot every 8 beats, where the piece can end and still feel complete – one reason it’s such a popular processional. But some music seems to drift from one incomplete feeling to another, without resolving until the very end. If you choose one of these pieces, you can either 1) recognize that the music might not end as gracefully at the altar as it would with a different selection, or 2) let your musicians know that you’d like them to finish the piece after you arrive at the altar, so you can have a moment to collect yourself while waiting for the music to end gracefully.
  • Also consider: the length of time that elapses from the beginning of the piece until you’ve heard the part you really want to hear. A bride’s processional is most commonly very short – shorter than you may imagine for such a momentous event! It’s very common to hear the first phrase or two of the Pachelbel Canon, and never reach the point where the most beautiful part begins. This is fine for many couples who just want the feel of the beginning of the piece. But you may either want to 1) choose a piece that works just right even if you only hear a little of the beginning; 2) delay your entrance until the piece is getting close to the high point; or 3) let the musicians know ahead of time that you’d like for them to continue the piece briefly after you arrive at the altar.
  • And you’ll also want to keep in mind the specific musicians you’ve chosen for your ceremony – would your piece work well for their instrument combination? Will they charge extra for a special arrangement for their instruments? You’ll want to check in to confirm with them what your options are, either before you book them or after.

    Wedding Ceremony Procession Traditions | Vermont Bride Magazine

  • Here are some thoughts regarding variations on the processional:
    • Sometimes the officiant and parents and/or grandparents enter when the processional music begins and are thus part of the procession at the beginning of the ceremony, rather than being part of the prelude, prior to the ceremony; there may be an extra processional for the parents, or they may be the beginning of the processional that ends with the bridesmaids, ring bearer, and/or flower girl.
    • Often the groomsmen enter from the side just prior to the ceremony, but it’s also very common for the groomsmen to escort the bridesmaids down the aisle during the wedding party processional
    • A surprising trend I’ve experience several times over the past couple of years – one single processional for everyone including the bride! In one case, this was to minimize the bride’s stress regarding the “Look at me!” moment; in others it was to ensure that the beloved musical selection would be heard in its’ entirety; in another it simply made the planning easier!
    • Some couples choose a special musical selection for a particular person’s entrance – here are some examples I’ve experienced: 
      • a special hymn that mom or grandma loves, to accompany her walk specifically
      • a special tune for a child of the bride or groom who is a ring bearer, flower girl, junior bridesmaid, etc.
      • a special piece for a very dear maid-of-honor (or other person) who shares a special association with a particular musical selection with the bride, the family, or the couple
      • a separate processional for each member of the couple 
      • both members of the couple enter together to one special piece (popular for same sex weddings and sometimes for second marriages)

    One key element in varying traditions regarding processionals is to speak with your officiant – some religions have specific protocol regarding processionals, so if you’re having a religious ceremony you’ll want to be sure you communicate fully and early on with your officiant. The other key point is to communicate with your musicians – they may have thoughts or experiences that may help you to clarify what is likely to work smoothly, and what options are available for the specific instrumentation you have chosen. 

    Finally, please note that there will never be a complete list of alternatives. As long as there are couples seeking to do things a little differently, there will always be more possibilities than any one person can think of! This article may clarify your plan perfectly, or it may give you a jumping-off spot to explore something no one has tried before.

    Be on the lookout for a future article listing some specific favorite processional options, as well as some unusual variations in options. Whether you make traditional, trendy, or totally unique choices, those choices will color your day and your memories for your lifetime together. 

    Here are some thoughts regarding variations on the processional: Sometimes the officiant and parents and/or grandparents enter when the processional music begins and are thus part of the procession at the beginning of the ceremony, rather than being part of the prelude, prior to the ceremony; there may be an extra processional for the parents, or they may be the beginning of the processional that ends with the bridesmaids, ring bearer, and/or flower girl. Often the groomsmen enter from the side just prior to the ceremony, but it’s also very common for the groomsmen to escort the bridesmaids down the aisle during the wedding party processional A surprising trend I’ve experience several times over the past couple of years – one single processional for everyone including the bride! In one case, this was to minimize the bride’s stress regarding the “Look at me!” moment; in others it was to ensure that the beloved musical selection would be heard in its’ entirety; in another it simply made the planning easier! Some couples choose a special musical selection for a particular person’s entrance – here are some examples I’ve experienced:  a special hymn that mom or grandma loves, to accompany her walk specifically a special tune for a child of the bride or groom who is a ring bearer, flower girl, junior bridesmaid, etc. a special piece for a very dear maid-of-honor (or other person) who shares a special association with a particular musical selection with the bride, the family, or the couple a separate processional for each member of the couple  both members of the couple enter together to one special piece (popular for same sex weddings and sometimes for second marriages) One key element in varying traditions regarding processionals is to speak with your officiant – some religions have specific protocol regarding processionals, so if you’re having a religious ceremony you’ll want to be sure you communicate fully and early on with your officiant. The other key point is to communicate with your musicians – they may have thoughts or experiences that may help you to clarify what is likely to work smoothly, and what options are available for the specific instrumentation you have chosen.  Finally, please note that there will never be a complete list of alternatives. As long as there are couples seeking to do things a little differently, there will always be more possibilities than any one person can think of! This article may clarify your plan perfectly, or it may give you a jumping-off spot to explore something no one has tried before. Be on the lookout for a future article listing some specific favorite processional options, as well as some unusual variations in options. Whether you make traditional, trendy, or totally unique choices, those choices will color your day and your memories for your lifetime together.

    Photos courtesy of Kathleen “North” Porter at North Photography.

    Lisa Carlson is a flutist offering ensembles for weddings and other occasions in duos, trios, quartets in a variety of instrumental combinations, and staff wedding music writer for Vermont Bride Magazine. She also maintains a private flute  studio in Montpelier, Vermont, in addition to teaching flute at Upper Valley Music Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and online.