First off, although some would beg to differ, I’m not really on vacation – I’m just working at something different. For the past few months, I haven’t been doing what I would typically be doing this time of year – which is, touring as drummer / percussionist with a musical theatre production. Instead, I’ve taken the skills I’ve honed over the years working onstage and in the pits and applied them in a somewhat different venue – I’m spending some time working as a cruise ship musician.
“Why a cruise ship?”, I hear you ask. The short answer is – I needed a gig, it’s as simple as that. The only slightly longer explanation is; I had a tour on my schedule which ended up falling off my schedule, and suddenly I found myself with about nine months of empty calendar to fill. I figured I could work for a cruise line for a few months while at the same time, beat the bushes to try to pick up a tour for the following season. I’d still be performing, and the bills would still get paid. Besides, I figured working on a ship is almost the same thing as being on a tour anyway – you travel around and perform shows for an audience – it’s just in this case, you’re at sea and the audiences come to you, right?
Well, I’ve found that’s mostly true, with maybe just a few differences.
I’ve already completed one four-month contract onboard a ship, and I’m partway through my second contract. At the end of this contract, I’ll start my next (land-based) tour with a pretty cool show – which I’ll get to in a later installment. But first, a little more about how I’m spending this so-called “vacation”…
For the next few months, I’ll be traveling on a seven day itinerary that takes me from Seattle, Washington to Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway in Alaska, and then to Victoria, British Columbia, before returning to Seattle to reload passengers and repeat the trip all over again. During the contract I completed prior to this one, I was sailing a series of 10-day itineraries throughout the Caribbean, departing and returning to Ft Lauderdale, Florida.
I’m working as what the cruise industry calls a “showband musician”. I perform with a seven-piece band for the production shows (glitzy Las Vegas-style revue shows produced by the cruise line with a cast of vocalists and dancers) in the main theater, and guest entertainer shows (cabaret-type acts, ranging from vocalists to instrumentalists, comedians, magicians, and so on). The band also plays occasional big-band sets for dancing, and jazz combo sets for ambiance in various venues throughout the ship.
To successfully navigate the cruise ship gig, you need many of the same skills you need to have to be successful working in musical theatre – I’ve found many similarities. For instance, you need a good knowledge of (and be comfortable playing) a wide range of musical styles; you need to be an excellent sight-reader; you need to be able to live and work in close proximity with a group of people with very diverse backgrounds and personalities; and you need to be able and willing to travel away from home for an extended period of time.
Aside from the musical demands of the job, you’re also going to need to be willing to learn about the unique safety and security aspects of working on a ship, and you’ll be required to participate in various activities related to that. It will also come in handy to learn about seafaring culture in general and the sometimes baffling bureaucracy that comes with living and working onboard what amounts to a small, autonomous community drifting out at sea.
Over the next several posts, I’ll break all of this down into more detail to try to give you an idea of what this cruise ship gig is really about. Who knows? Maybe a cruise ship job is something you might want to experience for yourself. If you have any particular questions you’d like answered, let me know!