An Interview with Sarah Balfour
From Session Musician to Celebrated Wedding & Event Planner
Music has been the signature tune of Sarah Balfour’s life. Born in Stanmore, north-west London, this gifted musician decided she wanted to be a pianist from an early age. At 14 she won the prestigious Young Musician of the Year competition (Three Rivers). She went on to read music at Leeds University – having won three scholarships to study there. She also won the Mozart prize at the Watford Music Festival.
Following graduation, Sarah began working as a session musician, releasing an album of classical piano solos, called Keyed In. She also landed jobs across London, performing at many of London’s most prestigious venues and hotels, including The Grosvenor House Hotel, Claridge’s, The Dorchester, Harrods, The London Palladium and Wembley Stadium. Sarah has also performed with world renowned musicians, including Charlotte Church, Louise, Seal and Mandy Moore. But after seeing first-hand the shoddy behaviour, understanding of music, and work ethic of certain agents, she decided to do something about it. So with just a laptop in her bedroom-cum-office, Sarah spent more than a year auditioning and recruiting musicians as she carefully established her own agency, Music by Arrangement. She found that many other musicians had endured the same type of treatment from agents and managers. They flocked to be represented by her.
One of her early contracts involved performing at the then Renaissance Chancery Court in Holborn (now Rosewood London). Sarah was soon inundated with offers from other hotels as well as musicians looking for representation. As the agency flourished, Sarah, who continued to work as a performer, found her opinion was also sought on staging, decoration and indeed the overall look and feel of an event. Realising that her knowledge was a huge commodity, she was inspired to expand to events and have the artists she had signed, play at the ceremonies or functions that came her way.
Sarah was soon organising spectacular weddings, parties and events all over the country and now all over the world from Dubai, Spain, Italy, Portugal and beyond. LTG reached out to Sarah to find out how she made this successful transition from musician to highly sought after wedding & event planner and discover what it means to offer clients that special ‘Balfour touch’.
What was the eureka moment that led you to set up Orchid Events?
It was the Bridget Jones’ Diary film premiere after-party. I was playing a seven-hour Cole Porter and George Gershwin set on a white baby grand piano, at Piccadilly’s In and Out Club, I was dressed in a white forties dress, sporting a blonde bobbed wig.
The room was entirely white and decorated with dramatic pieces of art deco furniture and enormous bouquets of flowers. It was like being in a theatre production. I was trying to concentrate on Gershwin, but started thinking about all the ways that I'd have styled the party. That’s when I thought “I can do this”.
How does that special ‘Balfour touch’ set you apart?
It's all about keeping calm and knowing where to find the best people as well as paying meticulous attention to detail; that and always looking for the most imaginative way to make an event utterly memorable.
A relationship with the client that is built on trust is crucial. We can then raise their vision of the event to a reality, and devise ideas and personal touches around knowing what our client would love. Each event is as unique as the individual hosting it, and this is Orchid’s signature. This symbiosis, and my drive to always exceed expectations, has seen clients return time and again to Orchid.
What also helps is the fact that I have amazing and long-standing relationships with suppliers and musicians. My little black book is not so little!
How do you create an atmosphere in a place or venue that just doesn't seem to have one?
It's all about imagination, about projecting your vision onto a virgin space.
The first event I arranged in 2004 was a Moulin Rouge extravaganza for more than 200 guests. The venue was an empty studio with white wall strip lighting and no furniture. It all looked terribly depressing.
But by keeping images of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor from the movie in my head I transformed it into a Parisian nightclub, complete with can-can dancers, champagne fountains, candelabras, Drayton feather boas and tables piled with gorgeous food. The party was a great success, everything looked amazing and I’m still contacted and spoken to about it.
What was the secret of your most successful party?
I like to think all the parties are a success because I pour my heart and soul into them. One stand out event was a Mozart street party in London. All the musicians were dressed in elaborate, powdered wigs and I went for a dramatically camp theme with a purple and pink colour scheme as well as lavishly dressed footmen, Mozart themed cocktails and canapés served on violin shaped trays. It was an extraordinary street party with over 50,000 people celebrating Mozart.
Does success always mean extravagance?
Success means a great party and everyone having an incredible time. I like to stimulate all of the senses in our events but this need not be extravagant.
I stress to clients that I don’t like to lose sight of what the occasion is – and I encourage them towards balance. Good, organised event planning ensures a successful and seamless flow of events on the day. Each of our clients has a status report which is regularly updated and therefore leaves no stone unturned. It’s my bible!
Of course we always want the venue to look fabulous but this need not be extravagant. It is totally up to the client. We come up with plenty of ideas and options that adhere to the client’s budget, taste and style. The same applies to all other aspects of the event. With the right balance you can create the perfect vibe and atmosphere.
The crowd is also a huge contributing factor in making the party a success. I have done plenty of events where the room has been bursting with love. This is something money can’t buy!
Is the best way to plan a wedding to let the host just leave you to it?
It doesn't matter who the host is – anyone can worry about whether people will have a good time at their party. I promise to lift the stress and encourage my clients to enjoy every stage of the planning process. I am always available to my clients and keep them up to speed by showing them checklists and constantly reassuring them, but essentially they trust me to get on and deliver a fantastic event.
Does being a musician give you the edge?
Well it definitely has its benefits! I understand how the industry works and my contacts mean I can always get the very best music for a party and what's a party without music? I constantly monitor emerging talent and keep up with shifting themes, trends and tastes whilst remaining respectful of those who love tradition.
My two jobs work hand in hand. I have applied myself to the piano for more than 30 years with joy, persistence and determination. These traits are a part of me and I pour all of them in to Orchd.
How does it work being a performer too?
I sometimes play the piano at really key moments at my clients’ weddings such as when a bride walks down the aisle. I like to make this moment as poignant and special as possible. I encourage the bride to choose a piece of music that is meaningful to her and then I play it for her on her big day.
As musicians, we learn how to relate to people – how to speak with emotional intelligence. Furthermore, as a pianist, you learn how to engage your audience and hold their attention, and it's the same thing when presenting ideas to clients. I develop extremely strong relationships with my clients. They trust me and believe in me and my ideas.
You do a lot of work in other countries especially Israel and Italy. How did that come about?
Whilst holidaying in Israel as a pre-graduate, I was invited to play at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem. From there I was spotted and asked to perform at concerts all over the country and in the process I developed an affinity with Israel and so wanted to do some work there too. Most of our clients in Israel are from overseas. But being abroad means you can bring together an intoxicating mix of different cultures and traditions to create an unforgettable event.
10 years ago, we planned the wedding for a UK couple who adored Italy and had been to Ravello together on holiday. It was such a special place for them, they had to get married there. We too fell in love with Ravello; its romance, weather, amazing food and history. We found a venue called Villa Cimbrone, where Gretta Garbo used to holiday, and the wedding was magical.
We love working in Italy; it offers so much, especially for weddings. You have incredible venues from historical 15th century Venetian Palazzi to hidden gem Masserias in the south. It’s bursting with romance and magic, not to mention the phenomenal entertainment and exquisite food. We have organised weddings and parties all over Italy, and we have built a fantastic portfolio of contacts there.
We are currently working on another Asian wedding in Puglia – a four day event – where we get to enjoy four different Masserias each with their own charm and steeped in history. We are also planning a small intimate wedding in Spoleto, Umbria. It will feature a week of events. It’s a current trend for people to make a weekend or week of an event, especially if it’s far away. In Umbria we have embraced the incredible nature and food from this region and its fantastic local music scene.
Who are your biggest influences?
My great grandfather, Al Tabor was a renowned violinist and bandleader. He was the original composer of the Hokey Cokey – so it must be in my genes. However, he sold the rights for very little and didn’t make much money out of it! I think that this has influenced my determination never to be exploited as a musician.
My parents were hugely supportive; they gave me the freedom to choose and follow music. They worked hard and made sacrifices so they could afford extra music lessons. I was taught by the best teacher that money could buy. I remember my dad listening to me practice my pieces day and night. They have a great work ethic, which I inherited, and they always believed in me and knew that I would achieve my goals.
Another huge inspiration in my life is my piano teacher Jean Anderson. She was awarded the British Empire Medal from the Queen last year. Jean not only taught me how to play and perform, but I also learnt from her, vital life lessons. All of her teachings will stay with me forever. She towers with strength and wisdom, and is truly inspirational. She handles the turbulence and challenges of life with dignity, poise and composure. She has given me the confidence to succeed and I am indebted to her.
What do you look for in a wedding venue?
The venue needs to strike the right tone for the event. You have to take the vision, wishes and individual requirements of the couple and find something that will complement their style and make their special day unique and enduring.
With any venue you have to assess a vast array of features. Among many others, you have to make sure that it ticks all the boxes in terms of size, location, look and feel. This includes the exterior and interior spaces, accessibility and time restrictions. We spend time scouting great venues, and with Orchid’s magic, our events are unforgettable and stress free.
When offering such an extensive portfolio of musicians and bands, how do you ensure quality?
All the musicians and bands that are signed up to Music by Arrangement are handpicked by me. Being a musician and performer means I’ve learnt on the job and know what to look for. Alongside technical skills, I think being a musician means you also have an instinct for picking out the very best in those who perform and play.
What do clients typically look for in a wedding band?
High energy and lots of personality from the front line to ensure the dance floor is pumping all night! The singers should also be charismatic for that extra magic. A band that can read the crowd and know how to ensure the dance floor is full is absolutely essential.
For those with a larger budget, is it ever possible to get their favourite musician to perform?
Yes absolutely! Subject to touring dates of the artist.
Can you give examples of some of the talented bands you work with?
I manage the wonderful band Xtatic (www.xtatic.co.uk ). They are a collective group of the best session musicians around. They were put together by my dear friend and talented musician, Paul Carmichael.
There's also The Hat Pack – three incredibly talented and charismatic singers in hats, who sing everything swing style. Vocally they are exceptional, and the connection between them is unique and very special.
To be honest, all the musicians I work with just have that edge. They are so wonderfully talented. That’s why I sign them up. When the musicians arrive at a job I feel elated.
What do you do outside of your event planning and music life?
I run several times a week. I also box but it’s not reflected in my biceps and I also love baking.
I also do some TV presenting, hand modelling and have appeared in some commercials. More recently, I have started meditating which really helps me to relax and be more mindful.
Do you still get the chance to play?
When I am in Israel I regularly perform voluntary concerts at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. It’s very uplifting to play for people who might be going through difficult times. I feel humbled and appreciate how fortunate I am to be in this position. I have played at incredible venues over the years, but Ichilov gives me the most pleasure.
I don’t get a chance to play as much as I used to, but I take consolation in the fact that there’s a huge amount of creativity in what I do now. I do miss playing because I love music and performing, but I get a huge buzz out of putting on a fabulous event. I love the creative element of having an idea in my mind and bringing it to fruition. Party planning has become my stage!
Based in London (UK) and with offices in Israel, Orchid Events is the creative powerhouse behind many spectacular international weddings and parties. Combining meticulous attention to detail with inspirational ideas, this award winning organisation offers an unrivalled service in bespoke party planning for every type of occasion. From Royal wedding celebrations in London’s Trafalgar Square to private birthday celebrations in Florence, Orchid produces stylish and imaginative events that dazzle and live in the memory forever.
Music by Arrangement was established in 2003. With over 700 entertainers, musicians, and bands for hire throughout the UK, the agency has organised everything from orchestras in period dress to electronic string quartets sailing in custom made gondolas!
Both sides of the business continue to flourish and this year Orchid Events was crowned bespoke Wedding Company of the Year at the Luxury Travel Guide Awards.
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