Life on a Cruise Ship - My Job
In the first part of my series about living and working on a cruise ship, I touched on some frequently asked questions and also brought up a few ideas people might not initially consider regarding ship life. If you would like to read that post, it is listed as 'Life on a Cruise Ship - Everyday Living' under the blog header on this website. This current post is about my job playing trumpet. The most common questions I receive about my the job aspect of my job can be boiled down to who, what, where, and why. In this post, I’ll discuss these questions as well as a few other 'work' related bits of information.
For starters, I play in a seven piece band called the ‘company that I work for Signature Orchestra’. Fancy, right? Our band has trumpet, saxophone, and trombone in the horn section, and piano, guitar, bass, and drums in the rhythm section. This is the most common instrumentation if a ship has a 7 piece ensemble. Some smaller ships may only have 5 musicians in the band, cutting the trumpet and trombone. Some of bigger ships, however, might have an 11 piece ensemble with 4 extra horn players. It really depends on how the specific boat needs the band and how many other musicians are on board. An interesting note is that the saxophone player is really more of an overall woodwind specialist. They are expected to play not only tenor and alto saxophone, but clarinet and flute as well. Their ability to cover 4+ instruments is why they get to stick around in a 5 piece band.
The bands on ships are a revolving door of personnel. In the first 2 months of my current contract we have had 2 different piano players, bassists, and saxophone/woodwind players. Because musicians are always coming and going, being able to quickly adapt both musically and personally, are essential skills for success. This is especially true given the diversity of the bands on cruise ships. Currently, our band has 3 Ukrainians, 2 Russians, 1 Brit, and 1 American. At the most diverse point on my previous contract, our band had 2 Ukrainians and Americans, a Columbian, Australian, and a Pole (Poland). This aspect of the job requires a certain temperament and patience given the sometimes significant language barriers, as well as different styles of communication on the bandstand and conceptions of essential repertoire.
“Hey band let’s play this tune!”
“Can we not play that tune I’ve never heard it before.”
“ What the hell do you mean you don’t know that tune! you call yourself a musician?!”
That brings us to the questions of what and where my band plays. The simple answer is we play many things all over the ship. My current band functions as the show band in the theater, jazz combo in the bars, party band at night, and the “holy crap we need musicians for this event let’s get the band!’ band.
A common practice among cruise ships is the hiring of guest entertainers. Guest entertainers are artists who come on board for a certain amount of shows or cruises, perform and then leave after a few cozy days or weeks on board. On average, the band plays about 2-3 different guest entertainer shows for a two week cruise. If the ‘guest ent’ needs a band, which most do, we will rehearse for about 1 hour the day of the show and then perform that evening. Guest entertainers almost exclusively perform in the ship’s main theater, which on my current boat seats around 300 people. Obviously the size of the theater depends on the size of the boat.
Most guest entertainers are singers, but comedians, magicians, and violinists are also popular. I’ve only been playing on ships for about 4 months, but already I’ve played with a Juno award winner (Canadian Grammy), an Icelandic Eurovision pop star, a medalist from the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, numerous singers from Broadway and the West End, and a score of other talented artists. Meeting, playing with, and sometimes drinking with these people is one of the most interesting and exciting parts of my job.
There’s also the occasional dud but I won’t go too much into that. It does happen, though.
Most ships also have a production cast of singers and dancers. On my contracts so far, the cast generally has had 4 main production shows and 3 or 4ish other auxiliary pieces. Most or all are performed on a cruisely basis. Again, depending on the company or size of the ship, the band might play the production show or it could be put to prerecorded track. Currently, our band plays 2 of the main production shows and 3 of their 4 auxiliary pieces. We call these auxiliary pieces ‘bumpers’. There’s some lingo for ya.
We play in theater maybe 7 or 8 nights per cruise, but there is a bar we play each day and night. It’s called the Meridian Lounge. This is where we do our sets for cocktail hour in the early evening and our theme night/party band sets after the main show in the theater. Easy listening jazz, aka background music depending on how you look at it, is the name of the game for cocktail hour. I actually really enjoy this set for a few reasons. Mostly, I just like playing jazz standards. It's also a nice way learn new tunes and try different ideas in improvisation.
For our late night sets we preform a schmorgasboard of different themes. Some examples are Dancing Through the Decades, Stevie Wonder, Hits of Motown, Dixieland, Nothin’ but the Blues, and the band’s favorite, Latin Night. There was definitely a learning curve for me when I started playing some of these famous rock and motown tunes. I usually put most of my practice time into learning and practicing jazz music, but I learned pretty quickly there are just certain tunes, regardless of style, you just have to know. Take it from, but you never want to be ‘that guy’.
Our shows in the theater and Meridian Lounge are the main gigs, but our band also functions as the previously mentioned "holy crap we need musicians for this event let’s get the band!” band. The trumpet player isn’t usually needed for these special events, but it is not unusual that certain more critical members perform for a ceremony, group travel meeting, or private party. My only experience thus far in these extra events has been playing Taps for an Anzac Day Ceremony. Anzac Day is the Australian’s and New Zealander's version of Memorial or Veteran’s Day, originally celebrated to commemorate those 2 countrie's first engagement in World War 1. I was actually very honored to be a part of this ceremony - I think it meant a great deal to those present and I was happy to lend my skills for a short time.
One interesting development on this contract has been the opportunity for me to play the piano. I did a few semesters of jazz piano in college and took lessons growing up, but I never really had played in an ensemble setting. Due to a scheduling conflict at the beginning of my contract, I got play one jazz set and since then, I’ve had the good fortune of playing a few different sets in a variety of settings. So far I’ve done jazz septet, quartet, and trios, duos with guitar and bass, as well 1 solo set. I’ve had my ‘even grandma could tell that wasn’t right’ moments, but I’ve been getting better and thankful for that unique opportunity.
Another thing people are generally curious about is how I practice on board. I plan to write a separate, more detailed post about how I structure my practice time, but I’ll give a brief description here. The biggest thing I have discovered about onboard practicing is that I need to be creative and flexible. Because my schedule can change drastically each day and most spaces on board are shared, it is difficult to rely on a certain times of day and specific locations. Early mornings and late night are generally open, but even then it can challenging to find a space.
My usual practice rooms are the dressing rooms backstage or the storage wings on either side of the theater. I usually try to do 2-3 sessions a day, depending on my playing schedule and the availability of my usual rooms. Sometimes I’ll use a mute if I absolutely have to, but I try do it as little as possible. I’ve also had to develop a thick skin about my practicing. Because spaces are shared, sometimes it’s either I practice with people working and moving things around me or I don’t practice at all. I was sheepish at first but now it’s just part of the routine.
Because I know some of you are curious, I’ll say I generally play/work 2-3 hours per day. Days off are extremely rare, but they do occasionally happen. On the flip side, the most I’ve ever played in a single day has been upwards of 5 or 6 hours. That amount of playing is also rare. My schedule is pretty consistent day to day, but heavy playing and strings of heavy days are not out of the ordinary. That was a large adjustment for me when I started working on ships and forced me to rethink how I practice.
If I’m trying to give a truly accurate description of my job, I also need to include my non-musical duties. My current duties include mandatory safety trainings and a role during our cruisely 😉 passenger drills and weekly crew drills. My current role during drill is to direct passengers to their seats in the unlikely case of an emergency. We practice this with passengers at the beginning of each cruise and for me, the most difficult part of this duty is not the actual directing of passengers, but using what our company calls 'premium language’. Tried and true classics such as ‘whats up man’, ‘umm, could you guys move over there’ and ‘hey folks!’ don’t really cut it.
I’m workin on em...
To bring it all back, the final question, why, doesn’t need much explanation. I work on cruise ships because I love playing music and traveling. Also, working on cruise ship is one of the rare salaried positions left for performing musicians. It seemed like a perfect fit when I was auditioning last May and still is 1 year later.
I hope I answered some questions that you might’ve had about my job on board as a trumpet player. If there is anything else you might’ve been wondering about or if something came to you while reading, please post it below or send me an email and I will get back to you as quickly as possible! My next post in this series will be about the unique type of traveling one does while working on a cruise ship. Thank you for reading and I hope you found this post informative and worthwhile. Until next time!