10 Effective Strategies When Applying for Cruise Musician Jobs

Proship Entertainment is the world’s largest agency for cruise ship musicians. They administer over 1,000 musician jobs a year, including exclusive positions with Cunard, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, P&O Australia, and Compagnie Des Iles du Ponant. Their head office in Montreal, Quebec employs 21 employees and administers a list of nearly 50,000 musician candidates.

We asked Daniel Thibault, Founder and CEO of Proship Entertainment, if he could give our readers some advice on applying for a job through his agency. Read Daniel’s guestblog below to find out how you can rise to the top of Proship’s list.

With over twenty employees dedicated to creating career opportunities for outstanding individuals, I decided to ask our staff what they would recommend. Here are their thoughts:

  1. Be open, clear and honest. By telling the whole truth about your musical abilities, your musical experience, your medical condition and your legal situation, your agent can guide you towards a position and a cruise line where you can be successfully approved. Omitting to tell us about a change in the band line-up, your ‘realistic’ song list, pre-existing medical conditions, use of medication, or a DUI record can have you refused from a line for life. A good agent can work with some of your musical, medical and legal limitations, but he or she needs to know what the reality is to be effective.
  2. Play conservatively and ‘in-the pocket’. Cruise lines cater to broad passenger demographics and therefore the entertainment offerings are within a conservative musical spectrum. Forget about playing original material on a demo or breaking into wild improvisations or playing material on the fringe of global musical production.
  3. Listen to your agent’s instructions carefully. Your agent understands clearly what each client requires; often this knowledge comes from years of interacting with cruise line representatives. Do not underestimate your recruiter’s requests for repertoire, new videos or other promotional material, as these are the tools required to sell you to the client.
  4. Be quick and deliver on time. Timing is everything. Jobs come and go at a fast pace so every discussion is timely, even if the proposed job is a year ahead. When promising your agent certain material on certain dates, be sure to deliver the goods on time as part of the recruiter’s evaluation of you will be your sense of urgency.
  5. Dress the part. Remember you are applying to be part of the entertainment on a luxury cruise vessel, where passengers might wear tuxedos a couple of nights a week. Grand ballroom, Captain’s cocktails, white glove service are the norm onboard cruise ships. Even if you are applying as a party band, you have to look clean and sharp and that goes for the audition as well. There is no second chance to make a good first impression.
  6. Think quality. Send good quality videos, photos, demo recordings. This doesn’t mean to overproduce your videos with overdubs and expensive camera work. Your agent will prefer hear your ‘live sound’, but hear it well and see you well even with a stationary camera.
  7. Prepare yourself for an audition. Make sure you are warmed-up, in tune, well rested, on top of your form musically and dress the part. Do not underestimate the standard of reading and musical ability required to work on ships, thinking that “sight reading” means you will get an hour to look at the chart or it means just reading chords or guitar tabs.
  8. Be available. Regular cruise contracts range from 3.5 months to yearlong employment with pre-planned vacation. If you are only available for a couple of weeks, take a cruise vacation as a passenger. Occasionally shorter contracts occur with short notice, however those are usually reserved for experienced individuals.
  9. Be open. A cruise ship gig is like no other you’ve ever experienced in the past. Going on a cruise is an adventure in an un-real environment. None of the land life parameters exists at sea, such as buying groceries, washing dishes, cleaning your house, driving to the gig. You are at sea and ultimately your boss is a captain, so it’s very different. Avoid having a preconceived idea about what ship life and applying for such position will be like. This is not a “paid vacation”.
  10. Don’t pay any fees upfront. Either for application and/or coaching and/or auditioning, don’t pay anything to anyone, period. Once you get approved for a job, then you will have to pay for a physical examination, passport and visas, but only then. There are many scams out there, so be careful. Some will sell you a book that gives you our agency’s phone number. Use a reputable agency with decades of experience in the industry, preferably one that will not charge you a commission or fee during your employment.

If you have any other question regarding cruise ship employment for entertainers, feel free to contact myself or any of my colleagues. We are here to help.

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

Have You Worked On a Cruise Ship?

David Cashman, a former showband pianist, is finishing his doctorate at Southern Cross University. His doctoral thesis is on the way music is used on cruise ships and the lives of musicians who work those jobs. Obviously this fits in very well with the Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician, the section of our site that talks about the same topic.

David is collecting research on the topic and needs current and former cruise ship musicians to fill out two short surveys he’s created. If you’ve worked on a cruise ship, can you help him out?

The surveys are on David’s website. They’ll take about 25 minutes to complete. If you’re currently on a ship and have limited access to the internet, then why are you reading this? I kid, I kid – if you have limited access, contact David through his site and ask him to send you a PDF of the survey. You can carrier-pigeon it back to him at your next port-of-call.

Please spread the word to your fellow and former shipmates.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain MusicianWages.com – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at Backstage.com and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to musicresumes@networkstours.com. You can also visit BackStageJobs.com (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • MusicianWages.com Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

Cruise Ship Musicians: The Audition Process

As discussed in my previous post, most cruise lines have an orchestra (aka Show Band) on board.  This 5-10 piece band plays the production shows, headliner shows and big band or top 40 sets on board.  Electric bass, drums, guitar, keys, sax, trombone & trumpet are the most common instrumentation.  The most important requirement in securing one of these jobs is your sight reading ability.

No matter what instrument you play, you’ll need to schedule and pass an audition prior to working on board a cruise ship.  Each company has their own audition process, however; here is the industry standard:

Scheduling an Audition

Regardless of the cruise line, the first step is scheduling an audition.  In order to do so, you’ll need to provide your basic contact information (name, address, phone, email, instrument, age, citizenship, availability).  Often, this can be done by filling out an online form.

You will also need to attach your resume/performance bio.  Key things to include: related educational background (ex. major in bass performance), commercial/professional experience (ex. wedding band, studio work), big band/jazz band experience, most recent sight reading experience.

Because sight reading is such a huge part of the audition (and ultimately the contract), your resume should show off this ability.  If your gut tells you that your sight reading isn’t quite up to par, I strongly recommend practicing first THEN auditioning.  Although auditions are free, its better to start a relationship strong, confident and on a good note than vice-versa.

Phone Conference

Once your information has been received, you’ll be contacted to discuss your background and the details of the job.  We like to talk with each musician and go through the job details (contract length, pay, cabin, etc.) before scheduling an audition.  This ensures that you understand and are ok with the job specifics if/when hired.  Again, better to audition for something you can actually do than vis versa.

The Audition

There are three types of auditions: Phone, Video & Live.

*Phone Audition – Email Access, Printer, Phone (land line preferred), Instrument

We’ll coordinate a specific time for the audition. (ex. 3PM EST).  You’ll receive an email 30 minutes prior to the audition (ex. 2:30PM EST). Upon receipt, you’ll print out these charts and have them ready to go.  You’ll receive a phone call at the scheduled time (ex. 3PM EST) and you’ll be asked to sight read/play the printed charts over the phone.

*Video Audition – CD Player, Digital Video Camera, Instrument

We’ll mail you a sealed envelope with sheet music and CD enclosed.  You video record yourself opening the packet and sight reading the charts along with the CD.  Often, we ask you to do a second take after 30 minutes of rehearsal.  You then post the video footage online (www.youtube.com) or mail us music back along with your DVD.

*Live Audition – Instrument

We hold live auditions at Universities around the USA (East Coast, Midwest, West Coast).  You’ll have a specific audition time and place to audition.  At the live audition, we simply ask you to sight read a selection of music for us along with a CD or click track.

The audition type is usually assigned to you depending on your geographical location, availability to do a contract and what openings are available.  Each audition type focus on your sight reading (charts and notation).  Most of the orchestra positions on ships require big band/jazz band experience.  Therefore, reading chord progressions and being able to improvise are definitely a plus!

The Offer

Passing the audition is the hard part.  Once that’s accomplished, its just a matter of finding an opening that matches your availability.  Because most contracts are 3-6 months in length, the more open your availability; the better your chance of landing a job.  We get calls all the time asking for 1-2 week contracts.  While these are sometimes possible, they go to the “re-hires” or musicians that have already successfully completed a contract.  These fill-in contracts also come with 24-48 hours notice.  They are often a result of an unexpected opening.  Bottom line, if you want to work as an orchestra musician on board a cruise ship, the more open your schedule the better.

The Gig

Orchestra contracts are a great way to play music professionally, see the world and get paid for it!  As an orchestra musician, you’ll play production shows, headliner shows and big band or top 40 sets on board.  You’ll mostly perform at night and have an opportunity to get of the ship in several ports of call.  Room/Food/Travel are all covered, so definitely a good opportunity to save money.

I hope this entry helped you to understand orchestra contracts on board 5-Star Cruise Ships and how to go about auditioning for them.  Feel free to call/email/post any questions.

Different Types of Cruise Ship Musician Jobs

If you’re interested in working as a musician on a cruise ship, the first thing to know is the different types of entertainment offered.  Each cruise line has their own entertainment on board; however, generally, these positions are very similar industry-wide.

Show Band Musicians

Most lines have an orchestra (aka Show Band) on board.  This 5-10 piece band plays the production shows, headliner shows and big band or top 40 sets on board.  Bass, drums, guitar, keys, sax, trombone & trumpet are the most common instrumentation.

Cruise Ships Docked at St. ThomasThe most important requirement in landing one of these jobs is strong sight reading ability (both jazz charts & notation).  Working on board a ship as an orchestra musician, you’ll find yourself playing new shows daily in front of thousands, and having little to no time at all to prepare.

In order to assure that you’ll be comfortable in that setting, we want to see/hear you sight read similar charts prior to hiring.  We do live auditions around the country as well as auditions over the phone and via video.

In each case, you’ll be handed several charts and be asked to read them without any preparation.  These charts will range from big band to top 40 to Broadway selections.  Depending on the audition, you might also be asked to play a jazz head and solo over it in order to get a feel for your improvisational skills.

Needless to say, at the end of an orchestra musician contract, you’re sight reading and chops in general will definitely be strong as ever.


If sight reading isn’t your thing, you can also be hired as an entertainer on board.

Lines hire the following entertainers to perform on their ships:  solo pianist/vocalist (aka Piano Bar Entertainer) , cocktail pianist (aka Intermissionist), solo guitarist/vocalist (aka Pub Guitarist), classical guitarist, duo, standards trio/quartet & party band.  These entertainers perform four to five 45 minute sets a night in lounges on board.

Entertainers must entertain!  You would think this would be a given; however, I’m always surprised at how many people don’t get this concept.  Connecting with guests is key.  Taking requests, sing-a-longs, theme nights, talking to guests before and after sets are all essential in a) being hired and b) being a successful entertainer on board.

In order to be hired as an entertainer on board a ship, you must have the following: promo video, song list, performance history & availability to do a contract.  My next blog entry will talk about the top 10 things we look for in a promo video.

Specialty Acts

Some cruise lines hire specialty or variety acts such as comedians, steel pan musicians or a cappella quartets.  The actual job description for these musicians varies, however a promo video is required for all in order to secure employment.

Singers and Dancers

Finally, each cruise ship has their own production cast on board.  This cast is composed of singers and dancers often hired by a separate production company.  The production cast performs Broadway revues, top 40 and classical shows on board and sometimes even have aerialists or flyers included.

These positions are usually secured at live auditions held by the different production companies around the world.

Length of Contracts

No matter what the position, cruise ship musician contracts are generally 3-8 months long in length.  These are continuous contracts where you live on board the ship for the entirety of the contract.  Often food, room, travel and health coverage are included, so there’s definitely an opportunity to save money.  It’s a great way to travel the world, play music and get paid for it!

Thanks for reading and I hope it helped you better understand the different options for working as a musician on board a cruise ship.  Expect another blog entry next month!

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 3

This article is part 3 of a 3-part series by Nathan Whitney, who spent 6 years working on cruise ships all over the world. Please also visit parts 1 & 2 of this series, which discuss the choice of guitar and amplifier/effects for the gig:

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 1
Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 2

After my last article, I had quite a few questions regarding mulit-effect units vs. individual pedals. There are many advantages and disadvantages to both of these systems. Let me list a few:



  • One unit contains all effects, no extra cables/power needed
  • Individual patches can be customized and saved
  • If required, it is possible to go direct to the board
  • Quick set up/tear down time


  • If unit breaks, no access to any effects
  • Tone’s must be programmed for each room/situation and deep editing of patches on the fly may not be quick
  • Quality of individual effects sometimes not equal to that of individual pedal

Individual Pedals


  • One pedal = one job = no confusion of that pedals function
  • Quality of effects usual fairly high (depending on brand/pedal design)
  • Quick set up/tear down time (if mounted on pedal board)
  • Easy access to changes, one knob affects one aspect of tone


  • Can be time consuming when resolving issues (having to trouble-shoot all pedals/patch cords)
  • If required to go direct, tone may not be very good.
  • Requires individual power supplies to each pedal (can be avoided with the use of a dedicated multi power supply)

Although not a full list of advantages and disadvantages, you can see that each option has their own strengths and weaknesses. No matter which route you choose to take, always, always have a back up plan. It could be as simple as an extra overdrive pedal available to use with an amp in case your multi-effects unit goes down. Or in the case of individual pedals, having extra patch cords and power supplies available.

One pedal that either group could use as a back up is an amp-modeling pedal, such as the SansAmp GT2 or one of SansAmp Character Series pedals, like the Liverpool or Blonde. These pedals emulate an amp type response and could be used to go direct to the PA system, in case a multi-effect unit goes down or an amplifier is not available.

Use what you are comfortable with and within your budget. Always have a backup for your backup plan. As long as you have the basics covered one way or another, most ship gigs are fairly flexible tone wise and you can always build your arsenal of effects and gear while on board the ship if you really need to.

Additional Accessories

A list of some essentials that any professional guitarist should have with them:

Strings – Bring extra. Extra’s for your extra’s. You’re going to use them up at some point so it’s better to have extra left at the end of the contract then to have to search for them when you have time off the ship. Bring a string winder/cutter combination tool as well. Wiping down your strings with a cloth or using a string cleaner, such as GHS Fast Fret, will also help extend the life and sound of your strings.

Picks – While as guitarists we tend to gravitate to one type of pick that fits our playing style, often the easiest (and cheapest) tonal change we can make is by using a different pick. I myself am a religious user of the Dunlop Jazz III picks, but for jazz I would use an even thicker, rounded pick like the Dunlop 208. For funk, R’n’B and faux-acoustic sounds, I use Fender Medium style picks. You can purchase picks by the bag and have the bags last for years.

Capos – While I’ve only used a capo once on a ship gig, you should have one available to you. You never know when someone is going to want to transpose “Honky-Tonk Woman” up a minor third and want the open string licks played exactly the same as the original.

Slides – Slides come in all different shapes and materials. I recommend a metal slide, not for tone so much as for functionality. I broke two glass slides while on one ship (I brought one for backup) then I wised up and purchased two brass slides. Brass gives you a slightly different sound, not that noticeable to anyone in the audience, and if you drop them, they won’t break.

Cables – Instrument cables and the small individual cables that you will use for effect pedals have a habit of breaking at the worst possible moment. Always have at least one instrument cable and a few small pedal patch cables available.

Multi-Head screwdriver and Jeweler’s screwdrivers – You never know when you’re going to need to take your guitar apart. Or adjust your glasses.

Power Strip /Extension Cord – Bring your own to plug your gear into. Make sure it’s a dark color and waterproof. Label it!

Flashlight – Stages can be dark. A small LED type is all you need.

Headphones – As most ships are heading towards in-ear monitoring and many shows you will play use click track, make sure you bring your own headphones. Bring ones that fit well and are not obvious looking (don’t wear your iPod headphones on stage). Make sure to bring an extension for your headphone cable and a few of the various headphone adaptor combinations, as the ship will not usually have extras.

Hearing Protection – Your ears are your greatest assets so protect them! Whether custom molds or the standard foam type, make sure you have them available. You never know when you are going to be the guy positioned directly next to the drummers crash cymbal. If you are using foam earplugs, try to find a bag of the flesh/skin tone color variety (not the florescent green type) so that they blend a little more. As with headphones, you don’t want to be a distraction for the audience. And you would be surprised at what audiences will notice.

Practice amplifier/mp3 player – One of the main complaints of musicians on board ships is the lack of space to practice. As electric guitarists we have an advantage of having an instrument that does not generate a lot of sound. This is great for practicing, as we can go pretty much anywhere available, but at the same time makes it difficult if we are in a noisy environment.

I have been using the Tascam MP-GT1 for the last few years. Not only does it allow me to hear myself, but it also has a built in MP3 player and can slow down (in pitch) and loop MP3’s. It also has a metronome and effects built in. The Korg PX5D Pandora is another similar device. Batteries can be expensive and unreliable, so make sure you have the appropriate power adapter for your unit. If you are still using CD’s, there are units that do the same job, but use audio CD’s rather than MP3 files.

9 volt batteries – Bring a few along.

Footstool – Depending on your practice position and the height at which you wear your guitar strap, I would bring along a footstool for my practice sessions.

Pencils, Erasers, Manuscript, Notepaper – Always bring a pencil to rehearsals. You will need to make notes about the show and there will always be corrections to be made on the score. Make sure your notes are in pencil and ask the act if they would like your notes erased after the show is finished. Manuscript and notepaper is for your own personal use. You never know when a hit song idea will strike or when you need to write down some settings or reminders for yourself.

This brings us to the end of this series. I hope it has been informative and helped in making the transition from ship to shore easier. Above all, remember to bring your positive attitude and your willingness to learn. Cruise ship gigs are a great experience that will push you as a musician and in other non-musical ways. Keep that smile on your face and enjoy your time at sea!

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 2

This article is part 2 of a series by Nathan Whitney, who spent 6 years working on cruise ships all over the world.  Please also visit part 1 of this series, which discusses the choice of guitar to bring on a cruise gig:

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 1
Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 3

Welcome back to part two of this series. I hope the information about guitars was helpful. Thanks for all your of your kind comments and thoughtful emails.

In this article I’m going to begin to layout the basics of which amplifiers you’re likely to come across when you join a ship, as well as some of the effects that I found to be useful.


Cruise ships do provide a backline (amps) for the rhythm section.  I have seen everything from a full-blown Marshall stack to a Peavey practice amplifier. While we have to be open and willing to work with whatever is provided, there are a few standard amps that seem to be on ships.

Though as guitar players the consensus (however subjective that may be) seems to be that tube amplifiers are the best tonally, you will usually find a solid-state amplifier on board. In my experience, these amps are popular on cruise ships as they are usually low maintenance and lightweight, which the technical staff is thankful for. Solid-state amps also tend to cost less, so if one breaks or needs to be off-loaded the ship for repair, they are easier to replace.

An industry standard in the solid-state arena is the Roland Jazz Chorus 120 (JC 120). This amplifier has an excellent clean channel with an equalizer that is fairly responsive and will allow you to tailor the amp to the venue.  Though the JC 120 is a two-channel amplifier (clean and overdrive/distortion) I have found that it is better to depend on external effects for overdrive, as the built in overdrive is somewhat lacking.  I’ve also seen a few different Peavey 1×12 (One twelve inch speaker) style amplifiers on ships and found that Peavey’s are reliable amplifiers. The recent technology advances that Peavey has released (“TransTube”) have greatly increased the tonal quality of these solid-state amplifiers.

The Fender Twin Reverb is a tube amplifier that I have had the pleasure of using on some ships.  This amplifier has a great clean channel and excellent reverb.  Something to remember with tube amps is that you will often find that the tone improves as the tubes warm up. So for optimal tone, I would make sure that before a show or rehearsal, you give the amp a bit of time to do just that. And  be aware not to touch those glowing embers of tone good-ness, lest you want to find yourself in the infirmary with 1st degree tube burns.

Digital modeling amplifiers, by manufacturers like Line 6 and Vox, can be found on ships.  Some of these digital amplifiers even include a tube preamp section to add some sought after “warmth” to the equation. These amplifiers are especially interesting as they often have built in digital effects that can be switched on and off with a dedicated foot controller during performance. Foot controllers, for any amplifier on board, have a habit of being abused and misplaced, so do not depend on having one. This all being said, I have found that the best use of a ships amplifier is to find the settings for one good clean tone and then to build off of that tone with effect pedals.

Effect Pedals

For the non guitar players reading this article, effect pedals are those multi colored, tone shaping/modifying boxes that you’ll see a guitar player step on and off through out a performance.  Effect pedals (“stomp boxes”) come in all shapes and sizes, from individual pedals that do only one thing, to giant multi-effect boards that contain nearly ever effect known to man. There are many ways to use effects, but there are definitely a few basics that every cruise ship guitarist (or any guitarist) should have in their equipment arsenal.

Here is a list of some of the stomp boxes that I would bring on a contract:

Tuner – A tuner, while not an “effect”, is essential to your rig.  I would recommend a pedal style tuner such as the Boss TU-2 or Korg Pitchblack.  These pedals will mute your output for silent tuning.  You could also use a “hand held” tuner like the Boss TU-12 if it is connected to volume pedal that has a tuner output, or an a/b switch that will send your signal only to the tuner. You will find that unplugging your guitar from the amplifier to tune is not only time consuming but can also result in loud pops when reconnecting to the amp.  Be aware, some volume pedals do not interact well when a tuner is attached to their “Tuner” output (strange isn’t it?). You will have to test and see if there is a tonal difference when using this set up.

Wah – Though use of a wah pedal may be infrequent during your contract, I would always recommend having one available so that when you’re playing a show of disco classics, you’ll fit right in.  Wah’s can also be used as tonal shaping devices if set in one position, or swept slowly from top to bottom of it’s tonal spectrum.

Overdrive/Distortion/Clean Boost – For various styles of rhythm and lead guitar you will need an overdrive. Please note there is a tonal and gain difference between an overdrive and distortion. Overdrive pedals tend to be lower gain, with more pronounced mid range, while distortion pedals are higher gain and tend to have a more scooped mid range.

While possible to use just one overdrive, I would recommend bringing two.  Start with a common overdrive such as the Ibanez TS-9, TS-808Boss SD-1 or Boss BD-2 and then either add a second overdrive (same or different as the first, but with different settings) or a distortion like the classic Boss DS-1 or an Ibanez SD-9 for your higher gain tones. One way to use your second overdrive is with the gain turned down and volume turned up as a clean boost.  This would allow you to increase the gain of your main overdrive or boost the volume of your main overdrive, depending on the order in which you use them.

Indpendent clean boost pedals, such as the Keeley Katana or BBE Bosta Grande, are great options as your second “gain” pedal. Another overdrive option are pedals like the Fulltone Fulldrive or Z.Vex Box of Rock, which have an overdrive sound and a semi or completely independent clean boost.

With so many gain pedal options available today that it can be overwhelming to find one that is right for you and your playing style.  Take your time, do some research online, listen to sound samples and take them for test drives, if possible, at your local music store before you get on the ship.

Modulation – Modulation effects are the ones that give you a swooshing or shimmering sound, depending upon which adjective you like to use. Chorus, Phase, Flange, and Univibe type units are in this category. Chorus is a standard sound that can be found on a lot of pop music, but more recently I have been using a Uni-Vibe type pedal to give me my “shimmer and swoosh” at the same time. I would start off with a chorus initially and then build my modulation arsenal from there.

Ambient – Ambient effects include delay and reverb.  I would start off with a delay to add atmosphere as most amps have a reverb effect built in.  I would also recommend a delay that has a “tap” function that allows your delays to line up with the tempo of the song that you are playing.

As with guitars, bring the effects that you feel most comfortable with and are within your budget.  While possible to survive a contract with just an overdrive pedal, but I always found that having the right effect not only enhances the song, but makes the gig more fun. And music is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?


All of your effect pedals require power, whether from a battery or “wal-wart” power supply. While batteries are great and reduce cable clutter, they can wear out at the wrong time and also can be expensive. I have used the Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 in the past when I had a lot of pedals, but for cost and convenience, I would suggest the Visual Sound One Spot or Godlyke Power-All. These inexpensive adapters allow you to “daisy chain” all your pedals together from one power source. It is so inexpensive that you should make sure you bring a second, incase your first is misplaced or damaged.

Pedal Boards

The above basic list of pedals should be attached or fitted to your pedal board.  Pedal board you say? That’s right. Whether it’s store bought or home made, I would always recommend a pedal board. Pedal boards allow for easy set up and tear down, reduces wear and tear on your pedals and also (if small enough) can be brought on a plane as a carry-on. Make sure you bring some extra small patch cords (always back up your back up plan) so that if one on your pedal board isn’t working (which will happen, likely more than once), it won’t take you long to get things up and running again.

I hope this article has shed some light in the area of effects and amplifiers.  If you have any questions, please feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to respond.

In the next article of this series I’ll be continuing to expand on some other types of effects, multi-effect pedals, gear and tools I found essential for the ship. Until next time…

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 1

This article is part 1 of a series by Nathan Whitney, who spent 6 years working on cruise ships all over the world.  Please also visit part 1 of this series, which discusses the choice of guitar to bring on a cruise gig:

Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 2
Equipment for the Cruise Ship Guitarist, Part 3

Congratulations! Welcome to the satisfying/un-nerving/enjoyable and hopefully profitable world of cruise ship entertainment. If you’re reading this you’re probably wondering which guitar and equipment you’re expected to bring with you in order to meet all the tonal options that you may be required to fill.  These articles have been written with the showband guitarist in mind.

Part 1: Your Guitar

Looking at the job description supplied to you by an agent and knowing exactly what to bring is quite difficult for guitarist compared to other instruments. As a guitarist, you have to be sure you know what type of job you are showing up for. And then be prepared for every-other possible option.

The basic showband gig requires the guitar player to be able to perform and have the appropriate tones to back up guest entertainer acts as well as play occasional cocktail (aka: jazz/fakebook) sets. Some lines also require the guitarist to perform solo guitar sets (ala Joe Pass or with appropriate backing tracks if you have them) for private parties, cocktail hours and tea times.

The cruise line that I have been employed by for the majority of my contracts has, over the last few years, had the showband playing Top 40 dance sets at various venues through out the ship when not backing up guest entertainers.

In general, the job of showband guitarist requires you to cover the tones of:

  • 20’s, 30’s and 40’s swing era
  • 50’s rock and country
  • 60’s pop, rock and “Motown”
  • 70’s funk, soul and disco
  • 80’s pop, rock and power ballads
  • Occasional acoustic guitar, nylon string guitar, banjo and mandolin sounds

Sounds easy enough, right?

Which Guitar Should I Bring?

When choosing your equipment, please take into consideration what you are most comfortable with guitar-wise. 99% of your audience will not have a clue if you are playing a Squier or a Suhr, so know what you like and need, both playing wise and financially.  You’ll want to have an instrument that is set up well and allows you to easily execute the material that is placed in front of you.  Having the skills to set up and maintain an instrument is extremely valuable as well, as your local guitar tech is usually about 250 nautical miles away at any given time.

I have worked on ships for over 6 years and have come up with my opinions after many years of trying different things. The guitar and gear that you bring to the ship allows you to perform the job to the best of your abilities but also helps have fun with the job.

Your main guitar will be an electric and should be able to coax a:

  • Single coil sound most associated with a Stratocaster and Telecaster
  • Humbucker sound that could be used for rock as well as jazzier type sounds.

With so many guitar options and pick up configurations available it is easy to be a little overwhelmed when trying to decide which guitar to bring. While it is possible to do the gig with nothing but an archtop, you’ll come across a lot of situations where you’ll be wishing you had something more versatile. I have found that a “superstrat” type guitar gives the most options for your tonal palette.

For those not familiar with the term “superstrat”, usually this is in reference to Stratocaster style guitars with the the HSH pickup configuration (humbucker in neck position, single coil in middle position, humbucker in bridge position) originally played by 80’s shredders Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and a multitude of ‘Hair’ metal bands.  The HSH or SSH pickup configutarion has always given me the greatest tonal palette to work with. If the strat body style isn’t your cup of tea, there are many body options available with a similar pickup configuration.

Some examples of how I use these various pickup configurations:

  • Neck pickup with the tone control rolled down for a nice mellow “Freddy Green” jazz tone, tone control almost or all the way open for a standard “rock” guitar clean
  • Neck + Middle pickup gives you that Hendrix-y sound as well as a pretty standard clean pop type sound perfect for disco and funk.
  • Until recently, I was underutilizing my middle pickup. On its own it fits into a neat sonic frequency that sits just nicely when playing a rock/pop Top 40 tune. It also can help emulate an acoustic guitar with some help from your tone controls and your amps EQ.
  • Bridge + Middle pickup for a country twang. Palm muting on this setting is great for rock rhythm and some nice Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry type tones can be pulled out of this setting.
  • Neck pickup for a slightly more aggressive rhythm guitar tone and with some overdrive/distortion for a head cutting lead tones.

When choosing which instrument to bring, make sure you consider the weight/balance of the guitar. Some cruise lines are moving towards having the showband stand for shows and sets.  While this can be a more engaging for the audience, if you are standing anywhere from 3-5 hours with an extremely heavy or imbalanced instrument hanging around your neck, your next trip in port may be to the chiropractor or massage therapist rather than the beach. Make sure you have a guitar that plays comfortably seated or standing and, if possible, bring a strap that is well padded.

Once again, no one in the audience really knows what you’re playing, so pick something that suits the gig, you and your budget.

Bringing a couple of guitars for the contract can be a wise decision. Your second guitar is your back up (always back up and have a back up plan for your back up plan) and can give you more tonal freedom. A strat/tele and a Les Paul will give you the ability to try different things. On some contracts, it would be nice to have a strat and an archtop with humbuckers. Hollow body electrics also offer you a great amount of tonal variation. Your main guitar, and second guitar if you choose to bring one, should reflect you as a guitarist as well as having the sounds to cover a lot of ground.

If you are on a ship that is not porting in North America it can be difficult (ie: possible but expensive) to find strings, picks and patch cords. This difficulty can be exacerbated if you are trying to find an instrument to purchase in case yours needs repairs or is completely out of commission.  On such itineraries, I would highly recommend bringing a second guitar with you. The last thing you need to worry about is trying to get your instrument fixed or purchasing a new one when in an unfamiliar European or Asian port.

You want me to play where?

In addition to having more tonal freedom, in many ship situations over the last few years I have been required to go from a rehearsal in an air-conditioned theater directly to an outdoor deck set in the hot Caribbean sun then immediately back inside to play at another venue.

I’ve also played on the bow of a ship as it was docking in Shanghai, China.
In February.
While it was “gently” raining from an overcast sky.
With all that being said, extreme temperature variations as well as humidity changes can affect the guitar in negative ways.

Besides affecting the action and intonation of your guitar, strings will get dirtier and corrode much quicker. Having a spare guitar to use specifically outside and as back up for your main guitar may save you money and time in the long run if you don’t have to change your strings more than necessary or if your main guitar were damaged due to weather.

As part of your essential guitar items, bring a second strap. Not just in case your original breaks or is lost, but also if you need to replace your first once it has become sweat soaked from playing in the sun for two hours a day and smells quite bad.


An acoustic guitar is a nice addition to your shipboard arsenal, but every extra guitar that you bring is another piece of luggage that you have to pay for when you fly. Some companies are giving musicians baggage stipends, but before you haul your effects rack and 3 guitars to the ship, you’ll want to confirm if you’ll be reimbursed for your expenses.

If you’re on a ship that docks regularly in a major North American port and want to have an acoustic, I would recommend looking into purchasing a well made, good sounding, CHEAP acoustic guitar from a local shop. Bring a sound-hole pickup and you’ll be flying. You’ll find opportunities to sell your acoustic when you leave the ship. You could also donate the guitar to the crew welfare committee or even “pay it forward” by leaving it for the next guitar player.  Buying a second electric as a back up once you reach the ship can also be a more cost effective solution.

As with any job as a musician, you’ll have to be prepared for the unexpected and especially on a ship, you’ll have to make it work. Keep a smile on your face and remind yourself that this is (hopefully) better than flipping burgers. I hope this article has given you an idea of what to expect on the ship and what guitar you may consider brining for the job. Part 2 will be deal with guitar effects and amplifiers.

See you next time!

Top 10 Gigs You May Not Have Thought Of

1. Transcribing songs

There are a few different ways to get paid for this.

I once worked with a singer-songwriter who didn’t read or write music, but worked with musicians who did.  His situation called for written lead sheets, so we would sit down together once or twice a week and write down his songs.  He’d play them (slowly), and I’d input them (quickly) to Finale.  In the end he’d have professional lead sheets and I’d charge my hourly rate.  It was a good gig – one of those odd jobs for musicians.

Another thing I’ve done is transcribe and arrange songs for musical theatre singers.  Sometimes singers really want to audition with a particular song that they’ve heard on the radio or YouTube, but either they can’t find the sheet music, or the sheet music is totally lame.  Arranging singers’ “books” for auditions can be good jobs for musicians with great ears and notation chops.

Is there a similar gig you can think of in your scene?

2. Applying for grants from local arts councils

A few years ago I received a $1,000 grant from my home town’s arts council to play a recital at the library.  I had to come up with a theme for the recital, fill out a one-page form, and the check came a few months later.  I hired two guys and made it a trio event – it was a great gig!  That particular arts council gives away grants each year to a number of local artists.

Check out this article on grants for musicians.  There is some really great advice in there.

3. Church gigs

When I first showed up in NYC, I had some ideas of what I thought I’d do here.  I planned to hustle theatre and other contracted musician jobs, and if that didn’t work out I’d temp or teach.  Good plan; good back-up plan.

A job I certainly hadn’t thought of was playing organ for a primarily Spanish-speaking Catholic church in the Bronx, but that’s what happened.  It turns out that New York church-goers take their music very seriously, and pay much better than the churches I’d known in my home town.  At the going rate of $100/service (and sometimes 7 services a weekend at larger churches), the Catholic church pays better than some off-Broadway shows.  Organist gigs and some worship band jobs are worth looking into if you haven’t considered them before.

4. Hotel gigs in Dubai

I promise you that I have never heard of this one either.  Check out the info from Natalie, one of our readers, who was good enough to explain the job in our forums.

5. Accompanying at schools

Sorry if this particular one is piano-centric, but that’s what I know best.  In fact, before I’d starting touring and traveling with theatre, I’d made a lot of my bread as a piano accompanist at the high schools, middle schools and 2-year colleges near where I was living.

There are countless music programs in cities across the country that are lead by teachers that either don’t play piano themselves, or have the budget to hire separate accompanists. These gigs can be great jobs for musicians that can play piano well, and working with kids (but not having to be the teacher!) can be a very rewarding experience.

In my experience, the best school accompanying jobs are college-level (even community colleges) because they have the budgets to pay you what you’re worth.  I have also seen some full-time high school positions with benefits, which could be great for someone looking for stable work.

6. Clinics/master classes/assemblies/business seminars

I’ve lumped all these things together, not necessarily because they are all the same, but because they all involve a similar hustle.

I know of a conductor in NYC that gives business seminars on leadership by bringing in a full orchestra and showing how a performing orchestra is a model of teamwork.  I have a friend in Chicago that is an inspirational saxophonist that is frequently hired for clinics and master classes at middle and high schools.  Schools look for educational and inspirational programs to perform at school assemblies.

What knowledge do you have that you can share?

7. Transposing music & various other copyist work

This is the younger cousin of #1 on this list, and also includes computer notation skills.  Key changes most often happen for singers (not to single y’all out, sorry), but also for those times that your music director wants the oboe part re-written for the clarinet, etc.  It takes some quick inputting to Finale or Sibelius, a few clever mouse clicks, and BAM, you’ve got an easy job for a musician.  There are a lot of people out there that never have the opportunity, time, or whatever to get past the learning curve of Finale or Sibelius.  They are often happy to pay you to do it for them.

There are often other, miscellaneous copyist jobs here and there if you have notation skills (and obviously there are great big, successful copyist jobs too, but you’ve probably thought of those).  I used to do some work for a choir near Chicago that wanted a jazz bassist to play with their group.  They hired me to write out (and transpose up 8va) the bass notes from the piano part.  Now there’s a gig you didn’t expect, right?

8. Page turner

I’m serious.  It’s a job.  NPR wrote a story about it. According to the report it pays $50-100 per concert in Minnesota (where the story was done).

9. Recitals for local social groups

I was hired once by a women’s league that wanted a jazz musician to play a recital at their luncheon.  The year before they’d hired a inspirational speaker, and apparently the guy had been a perfect bore.  Feeling some pressure to come up with something a little livelier, they’d found me on a recommendation.

There are lots of social groups (leagues, committees, sci fi conventions, who knows?) that have periodic meetings that need interesting entertainment for their membership.  See if you can find some in your area and ask them if they’d like to hire your group for a recital.

10. Teaching lessons on a secondary instrument

This idea is so widespread that I maybe shouldn’t include it here, but for those of you that haven’t thought of this yet – you don’t have to teach lessons on only your primarily instrument.  If you had to, don’t you think you could teach beginner piano lessons?  Or guitar?  Or whatever instrument you know a little about?  If you have a firm foundation in the fundamentals of music and a familiarity with a second instrument, I bet you can keep a few lessons ahead of your beginner students.

I don’t mean to advocate teaching something you don’t know anything about, I’m just saying that a beginning pianist doesn’t need their first lessons from Glenn Gould.  You should give it a shot.

What do you think?  Do you have any unexpected musician jobs to add to the list?

A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman

There are many levels of sideman work, from playing in a small-town cover band to backing up Sting, and lots in between. Regardless of the size of the gig, the skills needed are mostly the same. Musicians who master these skills are among the most sought-after working sidemen and women in the business.

Here are some pieces of advice that can apply to just about any sideman gig, big or small, and help you become an in-demand working musician.

1.) Become a Stylist

The best way to ensure that you can get work as a sideman is to be competent in several musical styles or genres. The short list is: rock, pop, jazz, blues, R&B. You can also choose to build on that list with some specialties, like country, classical or funk.

Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer. Keep in mind, however, that having a long list of styles on your resume doesn’t amount to anything on the bandstand if you aren’t competent in them. It’s better to play 3 styles well than to claim to play 7 styles but play them poorly.

This leads us to our next topic…

2.) Know Your Abilities

From the moment you get the call, make sure you understand your ability to play the gig. For instance, if you’ve never played country before and someone calls you to do a country cover band for a 4 hour casual, be honest with the contractor and tell them your limitations. If you show up for a gig you don’t have the chops to do and make it a drag for everyone else involved, you tarnish your reputation and your chances to be hired in the future. The music world is a VERY small world – the drummer on that country gig might play in a slammin’ pop band that you would be perfect for, but he will recommend against you after a poor showing at the country gig. So be honest with yourself and your ability to play the gig.

I was called once to play solo classical guitar for a wedding that paid really well, but I had to be honest and tell the contractor that I hadn’t played classical in several years and was not the best choice. He respected my honesty and then asked where my musical strengths were – I didn’t get the gig, but mission accomplished: I’m still on his list, and in good graces.

3.) Do Your Homework

Once you book the gig, it’s time to start preparing. Depending upon the gig, there will be material of some sort to learn. Sometimes it’s easy and they give you a CD or a website to download mp3’s from. Sometimes you have to track the music down yourself and buy it. Sometimes there are charts, and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes the charts they give you are good, and sometimes they are terrible and you either need to fix them or make your own. Sometimes there is a rehearsal, and sometimes there isn’t. Whatever the case, the bottom line is this: it is up to you to learn the material backwards and forwards so that you can nail the gig when it comes time to play.

Like I mentioned in #2, your performance at the gig plays a big part in your continued success. If you only lightly prepare and only sort-of know the tunes, faking the rest, it will show and you run the risk of losing future work. Similarly, if you do your homework and learn the gig inside and out, it will show, and you will portray yourself as a professional who can be counted on in a sideman situation.

Learn the music. Period.

4.) Learn to Memorize

This goes along with #3, but is so important I felt it necessary to give it its own section.

There are so many things that happen on stage (both musical and non-musical) that can make having your eyes glued to the page a real disadvantage. Granted, there will be some gigs where memorizing the charts is unrealistic (i.e. big band jazz or classical gigs), but the lion’s share of gigs as a sideman will be situations where you will be playing basic songs or parts that can be memorized with a little effort.

I was fortunate enough to have the importance of this tool instilled upon me by a mentor of mine at the University of North Texas, Dan Haerle. When you memorize the music, you not only know what to play without looking at the chart, you also know what’s going on musically. Yes, there are those gifted few who can read charts with incredible musicality, but for the rest of us, looking at little black dots has a tendency to take us away from the meaning of whatever music we’re making. If you know a song from memory, understanding the different sections and transitions, you can play dynamically with the flow of the song as well as react to possible changes that may happen in the moment (i.e. the singer wants to do another chorus).

Taking your eyes off the page also has the incredible side effect of opening your ears.

5.) Learn to Sing

This may seem a bit silly, or maybe you feel uncomfortable with the idea, but adding “vocals” to your musical resume is massive when working as a sideman. I can’t tell you how many times contractors, musical directors and other peers have asked me if I sing when inquiring about gigs. Being able to provide background vocals (and/or the occasional lead) in addition to your instrument is very attractive. When choosing between the keyboardist who can sing and the keyboardist who can’t sing, guess who the contractor/musical director/client is going to hire? This is especially relevant when auditioning for higher profile pop or rock gigs, but is equally beneficial in the cover band scenario.

If you feel uncomfortable or inadequate as a singer, guess what always works… practice! Sit down with your instrument or at a piano and sing scales every day. Sing along with music in the car. Sing along while on a gig where there isn’t a mic in front of you. It isn’t a must, but it is definitely a huge plus in the sideman game.

Oh, and if you are already a vocalist as your primary instrument, the same applies to you but in reverse: learn an instrument! Singers who can play some auxiliary guitar or keyboards are primed for work as background vocalists.

6.) Be Professional

Okay, the word “professional” can have several connotations attached to it, so let’s clarify. Again, I have to cite my mentor Dan Haerle for this one, and in fact I’ll quote him:

“There will always be another musician who will show up on time, has the right attitude, wears the right clothes, brings the right gear, knows the music better than you do, and plays better than you.”

It sounds a bit harsh, but it’s true. A large part of your success as a sideman is based on your ability to do a lot of things that have nothing to do with music! Showing up on time (which means 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled time), having a positive attitude, wearing the appropriate clothes for the gig, bringing the right kind of gear (that works!), returning phone calls and emails promptly, being respectful of your musical director or band leader as well as the rest of the band, and acting appropriately on stage are all part of being a professional musician.

Again, this is another example of a facet of being a sideman that can set you apart from the rest. If a musical director has a choice between two guitarists, and one has the reputation of being very professional and the other doesn’t, who do you think will get hired? I guarantee that professionalism always wins. In fact, I know of situations where a lesser musician was hired because they were more professional than their more musically skilled counterparts. That’s the difference between a musician with a bunch of chops, and a sideman.

A sideman is a talented musician who also understands his or her role in the band/gig/situation, and acts accordingly. A good example of this is guitarist Dominic Miller, who has been playing for Sting since 1991. Dominic is an incredible player, but if he was a drag to be around, do you think Sting would still be using him?

7.) Auditions

In every level of sideman work, you will encounter the requirement to audition at some time or another. The good news is that everything you’ve read so far about being a sideman applies directly to auditions.

Treat the audition like a gig and apply everything you’ve read so far to it. One thing to remember about auditions: don’t take it personally. Many auditions are in “cattle call” format, which means there will be upwards of 20 or more musicians auditioning in addition to you. If they don’t pick you, don’t take it personally.

I’ve come to realize that in every audition I do, everyone there is capable of doing the gig – they wouldn’t be there if they weren’t musically capable. Often times, especially in higher profile auditions, they’re after a certain look/image/personality, and you’re either it or you’re not. But don’t be discouraged – you may not have the right look for one gig, but be perfect for another. Do your best – prepare, be professional, and you won’t go wrong.


With all that said, here’s a bit of closing general advice that I’ve picked up over the years: things always change, and you will never be able to predict everything that can and will happen. So pay attention and learn from every situation you find yourself in. I’ve given you an overview of what I’ve learned from being a sideman, but your situations will be different. Be prepared to adjust, and learn from it.

Every gig, even the ones that are a real drag, presents an opportunity to hone your skills as a sideman, both musically and non-musically. Take all the experiences you accumulate and put them in your proverbial backpack that you will keep with you throughout your musical career as well as your life in general. There is a reason why the older working musicians who have been around for a while have…well, been around for a while. Experience is an incredible teacher, so never miss out on an opportunity to learn from what you are doing. The best musicians that you and I admire have a lot of life experience in addition to musical experience. Sure, you’re playing music to make a living, but don’t forget about the connection between life and music that made you pick up the instrument in the first place.