Musicians are employed in many different capacities on board cruise ships. While the number and type of musicians will vary from cruise line to cruise line, and even from ship to ship, here are the typical cruise ship musician positions you’ll find on board…
In form and function, the Showband (sometimes called the house band) is descended from the large big bands and dance orchestras found on board in the early days of ocean-going passenger liners, and is somewhat related to today’s modern musical theatre pit orchestra. Economic considerations, changing musical tastes, and the evolution of music production technology have led to the continued reduction of the number of musicians utilized in the Showband. Long gone are the days of every ocean liner boasting a 16-piece (or larger) orchestra in it’s main showroom.
The current make-up of the Showband varies from cruise line to cruise line, but is usually made up of a 4-piece rhythm section (piano/keyboard, electric guitar, electric bass and drums), and anywhere from one to six horns. A three piece section of trumpet, trombone and saxophone is fairly typical, but some lines use just a single saxophonist, where others will use a larger section of perhaps 2 trumpets, a trombone, and 2 or 3 saxes. Cruise lines are constantly experimenting and adapting the instrumentation of the Showband to reflect current trends in contemporary music, and wherever possible, cut costs.
The Showband usually performs in the main theater, backing both the lavish production shows and guest entertainers. The Showband will also perform as a dance band for ballroom-type dancing, and smaller groups made up of musicians from the Showband will perform light-jazz sets for cocktail hour, or other special events around the ship.
Showband musicians must be excellent sight-readers and be familiar with a wide variety of musical styles from jazz to rock and pop, as well as various Latin and European styles and traditions.
The Party Band
The Party Band is a self-contained group of usually from 2 to 5 players/vocalists, who may or may not augment their performance with pre-recorded tracks or MIDI sequences. They function as the primary dance band on board, and will usually perform in one of the ship’s lounges, or poolside. The Party Band will most usually play popular music from the 1950s through the most current contemporary hits for dancing.
The Party Band is hired as a self-contained unit, and in some cases the personnel have played together for many years, both onboard ship as well as in hotel lounges and other venues on land. Instrumentation can vary, but will usually consist of a basic rhythm section with two or more of the members doubling on vocals.
A strong, high-energy personality and the ability to attract and entertain an audience is important to the Party Band. One of their primary goals is to create an up-beat atmosphere, keep the dance floor filled and the audience buying drinks from the bar. Just like performing in a bar or lounge on land, the Party band’s success is largely determined by the amount of business the lounge does on a given night.
Some cruise lines will employ specialized groups on some itineraries. For example, ships cruising the Caribbean will usually have a Caribbean-themed or steel-drum band onboard that specializes in soca, Reggae and other island-themed music. A cruise line visiting Mexican or Latin American ports for instance, may employ a Mariachi group or small Tango band. A more upscale cruise line may employ a string trio or quartet to play light classical and specially-arranged popular music to add an air of sophistication to the ship.
Like the Party Band, these groups are almost always hired as self-contained units, and vary widely in size and instrumentation.
Solo pianists and guitarists (both with and without vocals) are used throughout the ship to provide background ambience for cocktail lounges, wine-tastings and other special events and parties. They usually perform a wide range of popular music that will be familiar to most the passengers.
Solo piano-vocalists are sometimes used in a dedicated “Piano Bar”, where they are expected to entertain and hold a crowd of passengers with their music and personality; interacting directly with the audience, leading sing-a-longs, and generally providing an evening’s entertainment, with the goal of helping the bar sell drinks.
Each of these types of cruise ship musicians and ensembles provide a different function, and each require unique skills and abilities. I’ll talk more about all of that in a later installment. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions about working on board a cruise ship, leave me a comment here, and I’ll do my best to answer you!