I thought I’d give you an idea of what the working life of a cruise ship musician is like by walking you through my schedule for a typical week. Keep in mind that no two cruises are exactly the same, and every ship in each cruise line will be scheduled differently, but this will give you a general idea of the kind of work I’m doing, and how my working life is scheduled.
This summer, I’m cruising a seven-day Pacific Northwest/ Alaska itinerary that departs every Sunday from the port of Seattle, Washington. After spending the day embarking about 3,000 passengers (and all their luggage!), the ship departs Seattle about 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. We’ll spend the entire day Monday at sea, sailing the Pacific Ocean just off the Canadian coastline, heading northward toward the Inside Passage and our first port, Ketchikan, Alaska.
Just prior to sailing from the home port, passengers and crew are required to participate in a safety drill which will familiarize the passengers with the procedure for responding to an emergency situation at sea. This drill is my first ‘official’ duty of each cruise. On this ship, we musicians and others in the Entertainment Department are designated as Stairway Guides or Muster Personnel. That means in an emergency, we’ll assist with the orderly movement of passengers to their assigned Emergency Muster Stations, and ultimately in a real emergency, to their assigned survival craft. During the drill we demonstrate how to put on a life vest, point out emergency exits, and relay other important safety information. The drill takes only about 45 minutes – then the cruise can actually begin!
Sometime after the drill is completed and the ship has left port, the show band will usually report to the theater for a quick soundcheck of the evening’s performance. The show on this first night is usually a ‘Welcome Aboard”-type show in the ship’s main theater, which seats about 900. The show includes a short performance by the resident cast of singers and dancers (backed by the band), followed by a presentation from the Cruise Director and Cruise Staff, then wrapping up with a short set from a guest entertainer of some sort – usually a comedian. We play some background music behind the Cruise Director’s spiel, and a short play-on and play-off for the guest entertainer. The entire show runs about 45 to 50 minutes in length and will usually be performed twice that evening to accommodate as many passengers as possible. After those two performances, my first workday of the cruise is done.
Monday, our first full day of the cruise is spent entirely at sea, with no stop in port. The passengers spend the day wandering around the ship, shopping in the boutiques onboard, participating in activities organized by the Cruise Staff, or just lounging on deck around one of the swimming pools. On this itinerary, Monday night is designated as Formal Night, which means dressing up in formal wear after 6pm – tuxedoes (or at least, suits and ties) for the men, and fancy dresses for the ladies. The rhythm section from the show band usually plays a one-hour cocktail set of jazz standards at 6 in the evening. After that, we’re joined by the horn section for a set of dance music in one of the lounges. It’s a very easy day of playing – just about two hours in total.
After sailing all day and night Monday, we arrive in Ketchikan on Tuesday morning, where the ship docks for about eight hours. During this time, we’re free to leave the ship and do some sightseeing, shopping, or just take advantage of the opportunity to spend some time away from the ship and the passengers. All-aboard time is 2pm, shortly after which we set sail again.
Our workday Tuesday consists of two performances in one of the smaller lounges, backing the Cruise Staff in a themed cabaret show. On this ship, this particular show’s theme is centered around an evening in a British pub, and consists of corny jokes, lightly choreographed song and dance numbers, audience games and sing-alongs. It lasts about 40-45 minutes, and is usually performed twice. Total playing time on Tuesday is about an hour and a half.
We travel through Tuesday night, and after sailing through the scenic Tracy Arm Fjord area early on Wednesday morning, we finally dock at the Alaskan capital, Juneau, at about noon. The ship is in port in Juneau for about 10 hours, and again we have ample opportunity to go ashore. In the evening hours, I’ll usually play two 45-minute sets with a jazz quartet in the central Piazza area as the passengers start re-boarding the ship. Again, total performance time for the day is about an hour and a half.
Okay we’ve made it just about halfway through the cruise. Since this post is getting a little long, I’ll finish off the week in part two, coming in just a few days.
Any questions about what life is like as a cruise ship musician? Have you worked as a cruise ship musician and have something you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments below, and we’ll talk about it!