Airline Travel with Musical Instruments

So here I am, third day on the cruise. Today, we are tendering in Mykonos, Greece. It doesn’t look like I will be able to get off today; had a long day of training, and the rhythm section is supposed to maybe have a rehearsal (yeah, the musicians here are just as unorganized as anywhere else).

Before I start on my experiences so far, I figure it would be best to talk about traveling with your instrument.

I am a multi-instrumentalist, so I have had experiences with a few different instruments. On this trip, I brought two electric basses and my euphonium — with almost no hitches. If I was inexperienced, I can pretty much guarantee that my euphonium would be sitting in the corner of my cabin right now, completely unusable.

First and foremost, it’s important that you NEVER ask an airline worker what’s best – just do it. Look like you know what you’re doing, and keep a professional look about you. When asked, just speak in a calm, polite tone (and I can’t stress that enough) that you fly on a regular basis due to the nature of your job as a musician, and you are sure it will fit. Say something like “this is a 747, right? Yeah, it will fit.” NEVER get angry or testy. That’s all they need to either not let you on the plane, arrest you, or worse: to doom your baby to an early grave.

On the first leg of my trip, I flew aboard a Canadair CRJ. If you’re a musician, steer clear of this plane at all costs! Most smaller planes still have a standard overhead size. Not this one. Before the stewardess saw me, I had to think quick, since she was trying to find anyone with a bag that was at least half the size of mine, and forcing them to gate check it. I remember a suggestion from some of my friends from UNT and took action. I grabbed a blanket, and put as much of the horn under the seat in front of me. It still stuck out a good 20 inches or so, so I straddled my feet on either side, and put a blanket on my lap. By this time, the stewardess was going around and checking stuff like this out, and marking on a notepad. My heart was racing. The funny thing isn’t that she didn’t notice it. The funny thing is she completely skipped our row by accident! Someone up in the sky was on my side that day.

This is a good suggestion when other ideas don’t work. Only don’t try this with a trombone, it’s too long and you might bend the horn trying to make it fit between the two seats.

As for specific instruments that I know about:

Trumpets: Should have no problem. Dual cases seem to be fine, but for you cats that want to come and work on your classical chops, it’s best to not try to bring a quad case. Alto sax cases are right at the same size, so they should be fine too.

Trombones: This one is still up in the air by many trombonists. I’ve heard horror stories of players having to gate check their horn in its gig bag just before they boarded, only to get on the plane in just enough time to see a baggage worker literally throw it from the tarmac into the baggage hold. There were no survivors.If you really want to take the trombone on the plane, which we would all MUCH rather do, there are a few things:If you want to take it in a gig bag, you gotta be tall. I’m 6’6”, so I can get away with this. What you do is have it on your back with the strap, but make sure it’s parallel to your body; that way, it hides its true length.

If you want to use your standard hard case, you can always ask a stewardess to put it in the first class closet. Especially in the summer, and if you’re from Florida like me, there won’t be much use of the closet, anyway. Even so, the horn would go on the floor, while the coats are hung up. I’ve done this once, and they were very nice about it. I have friends that use it on more than one occasion. But don’t count on it. All you need is one airline worker to be in a bad mood, and you’re screwed.

Some bass trombonists use an SKB brand ATA rated golf club bag flight case. I’m not sure which model for this, but Dougla Yeo doesn’t seem to like it. He also has a trick for checking your horn in its standard hard case.

Euphonium: I play a Willson 2900s model. It has an 11 inch bell. The reason I’m telling you this, is because most openings in overhead compartments are 12 inches. I don’t think a 2950 will work with its 11¾ inch bell, because after you add a gig bag, there’s much more than 12 inches. Who likes to play a 2950, anyway? Corny eupher joking aside, aside from tuba, the euphonium has probably one of the most widely varied standardized look and dimensions, so I don’t know about many other brands. I know the Besson models work too. Steven Mead has never checked his horn.

Tuba: Get a flight case. No way around it. Pay oversize. No way around it.

Violins/violas: Should be fine, as long as you don’t have one worker in a bad mood. Airlines have been known to make players of incredibly expensive ones check them. There were no survivors.

Cello: You are still allowed to buy an extra seat for this instrument. Don’t check it.

Double bass: My best suggestion is to secure a good instrument at your destination before you even leave your hometown. But, if you need to take yours, this will be trouble. You used to be able to buy a seat for it, but airlines have stopped allowing this since 9/11. You’re going to have to buy a trunk. No way around it. Pay oversize. No way around it. Call David Gage, he sells refurbished cases that are a little cheaper.

Electric basses and guitars
: If you only bring one, or two with a dual gig bag, there’s a decent chance you can get it on the plane with you. There’s a little trick that I got from Vic Wooten’s site. I think it was Steve Bailey that said it, but, like I said, no internet to back it up. But here’s the suggestion: on most gig bags nowadays, there is a handle at the area where the neck meets the body. Hold the instrument there, and tuck the neck under your arm. If you don’t have a handle, either get a new case, or hold that area TIGHT. Practice this one in the mirror. You can actually make it look like a briefcase! Make sure the axe is on the opposite end of the ticket agent, so there’s less of a chance to be caught. Again, if it doesn’t fit in the overhead, you can sneak it into the first class closet probably. Some players suggest taking the neck off the body and reattaching it when you get to your destination, but I think this is absolutely a bad idea.

If you choose to take two, there was a suggestion from one of the readers of this blog that I now use, and it’s absolutely great. After I found that post, I researched exactly what I need. It’s the SKB ATA golf case 1649W. You can fit two basses in there with clothes for padding. I even put my M-Audio Keystation 49e between the basses. As for guitars, you could probably do the 4814W or something, but I don’t know. All I know is it made it here, and the basses and keyboard were unscathed. There were 3 survivors, four counting the euphonium.I couldn’t gate check the case, because it was too big to go through the ATA x-ray machine. But whenever you get a checked instrument back, look it over ASAP.

Another important thing is, if you plan to go somewhere you’re not used to, plan accordingly. I brought two extra sets of strings, my spare upright strings for the bass on the ship, and a full bottle of valve oil, slide grease, and rosin. The guys say they think there’s a music store in Naples, but they’re not sure. I brought tools to do quick work on my instruments, but make sure you declare it to an officer if it has a blade, and explain why you brought a blade onto the ship. The extra weight is worth being prepared.

Pictures from Working as a Cruise Ship Musician

On day I may organize these into a nice display here on the site, but I wouldn’t hold out for it.  These photos were always popular on the last incarnation of CCSM, so I thought I would include them here as well.

These are photos from working on two different cruise ships – one in Hawaii and another in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.  They are in no particular order and are not necessarily musician-related.  They are all on my Flickr account – click the image to be taken there:

I saw some great things while I worked on ships.  Some 30 countries in all – just from working on a ship.  It’s a great way to see the world if you have the freedom to do so.

Can I Use Sheet Music in the Lounges?

I., a pianist, asks:

Are you allowed to use sheet music when you’re playing in a lounge? I use a MusicPad Pro (digital sheet music viewer thing) which I have packed full with an obscene amount of real books. Would this be allowed?

I’ve seen those MusicPad Pro things, they look pretty cool.  I’d like to check one out someday.  I was saw Harry Connick Jr.’s orchestra using something similar back in the 90’s, which I thought was pretty advanced.

Yes, you can use sheet music when you play in lounges.  I have always used sheet music.  I even see piano bar guys frequently using sheet music even though the piano bar gig is one that is frequently performed without it.

On my last ship one of the piano bar guys had his MacBook right up on the piano with lead sheets in PDF – probably much like your MusicPad Pro.  He also had his iPod plugged into the sound system with mp3 backing tracks.  The guy was a walking advertisement for Steve Jobs.

Recently I heard from one pianist, though, that agents are starting to ask for instrumentalist to have their sets memorized.  The reason, as I understand it, is that they prefer to not have the lounges littered with piles of books that the performers shuffle through as they perform.  If that’s really the reason, though, I would imagine the MusicPad would solve the problem, or at least be a good compromise.

You’ll have to ask your agent or cruise line contact about that to get a more definite answer, but again, I’ve always performed with books during cocktail sets on ships.

How Often Can I Get Off The Ship?

C. is a drummer and asks:

I want to know about port cities. From what I’ve been told, musicians get to go on the port cities just like the passengers do, obviously when we’re not playing, that is. How does it work? Can you plan your day around the port city to make sure you’re back to play a gig, or is it like a doctor, you’re on call on the ship so you can’t go to port?

Visiting foreign countries and cities while working on a cruise ship is probably the #1 reason people take and keep these cruise ship jobs.  I had a good friend once who worked in the gift shop that had traveled to over 120 countries.

Most of the crew members on a cruise ship work too much to be able to get off the ship and see the destinations consistently.  But the same isn’t true of musicians.  For the most part, the majority of your performing will be when the ship is full of passengers.  When the ship is in port all of the passengers are out seeing the destination – so why would the ship provide entertainment?

This isn’t always the case – I remember on one ship I used to have a 3:00-3:30pm set for their fancy coffee hour while in port.  But that set was only scheduled now and then.  Also – there are regular drills for the crew that the musicians always take part in.  They are usually in the morning and last an hour or so.  How frequently drills happen is up to the captain – sometimes once a week, sometimes once a month.

There is also situations where – much like a doctor – a certain number of crew members must stay on the ship on call. This has to do with regulations and making sure the ship is adequately manned in case of an emergency.  If you are designated as one of those people, you’re not allowed to leave the ship.  This is something I’ve only heard about, though, and I’ve never had to do it personally.  I doubt you’ll have to either.

Aside from these situations – yes!  You can see the world while on a cruise ship.  I saw 29 countries on my first contract.  It was great.  Usually your ship will get into port early in the morning – perhaps 7 am – and leave between 4 pm and 7 pm.  You’ll rarely have sets before the ship leaves port, so you are free to explore your port cities just like a passenger.  But – also like a passenger – make you you get back before the boat leaves!

Here’s one thing though – your schedule can be constantly changing on a ship and you’ll sometimes find out your next day’s schedule only the night before.  It can be hard, then, to plan things ahead.

Creating a Repertoire List

I’ve talked to a few musicians lately about repertoire lists, so I thought I’d write a little about that.

There’s a theory that I recently read about in the book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. The idea is that each musical genre has a prototype song. For example, when you think of “disco”, the first song you might think of is “Stayin’ Alive”. Or you might think “modal jazz” and “Kind of Blue” would directly come to mind.

Building a song repertoire?

Learn the most popular songs on iTunes.

AlternativeBluesChildren’s Music
JazzLatinoSoundtrackMusical Theatre
PopR&B/SoulRap/Hip hopReggae
RockSinger/SingwriterVocal Standards
Workout/FitnessWorld Music

Each person can have a different prototype, and your prototype for each genre can change over time. For instance – you might hear a modal song by Coltrane and suddenly that’s your new prototype for modal jazz.

Now, you may wonder what kind of music you should expect to play on cruise ships. Primarily, you will play prototypes. That means if you have a jazz set it will probably include Satin Doll or Take the A Train or other standards like that. A piano bar guy should play Billy Joel. The guitarist should sing Brown Eyed Girl and Bobby Magee. If you play by the pool you might play light Jobim tunes or “Beach Music” (which seems to somehow be synonymous with 1950’s Top 40s rock).

In other words, cruise ships are not interested in presenting their guests with new music, and they have zero interest in original music. Even the main stage shows will include some combination of popular, one might call it “over-played”, music from one genre or another.

The result is usually a big slice of cheese. This kind of programming completely ignores the nuance of musical genres, and completely omits many of the best “deeper cuts” that most musicians want to play now and then. What also ends up happening is that square playing becomes very valuable – as variations are not as valuable as precision.

But maybe I exaggerate. It’s not that bad. To a certain degree it depends on who’s calling the tunes. If your music director is hip, he’ll throw the musicians a bone now and then and call up a bebop chart, even though it knows the audience may not be into it. And if you are a soloist, you can squeeze in something that lights your fire even more often.

Certainly, nobody on the ship is monitoring the repertoire in your sets. Whether or not you get asked back for another contract (or fired) has more to do with how you get along with other crew members and what the guest say (or don’t say) about you than what songs you play.

I bring this up more for the case of repertoire lists, which agents and cruise lines seem to be asking for these days. As I said, I had a two musicians ask me about repertoire lists this week. What you want to put on your repertoire list are all the hits, or prototypes, of your genre.

For instance, I had a pianist from New Zealand send me his list. I won’t put the whole thing up, but I hope he doesn’t mind if I put a few of his listed songs, because his list was very good. It included:

  • How High The Moon
  • Here’s That Rainy Day
  • Imagine
  • I Could Have Danced All Night
  • I’ll Be Seeing You
  • Jamaican Farewell
  • Jingle Bell Rock
  • Just A Gigolo

And others. Just looking at the list you can tell what kind of pianist he is, where it would fit in on a ship, and because he keeps it consistently within the Light Jazz/Light Pop genre, the agents and cruise line can trust that he’ll give them a consistent product while out at sea.

In the independent music scene on land you are often told not to pigeon-hole yourself into one genre…not to state your influences to loudly because people might think you are trying to be an imitation. But the opposite is true on cruise ship jobs. Imitation is highly valued – look at all the impersonators on cruise ship for proof of that.

These repertoire lists are silly things. If they asked you to play 150 songs, that would be one thing, but to just ask you for a list of 150 songs that you may or may not play shows no interest in your abilities. It’s just a test that they want you to pass before they can consider hiring you. What they are looking for is music that the average guest will be able to connect to – that is, popular songs. Prototypes.

To a lesser extent, repertoire lists also show an agent or cruise line whether or not you’d be able to handle requests in your genre. Requests are common on cruise ships, and make guests happy. When people make requests, they will often request songs that they feel are prototypes of the genre you’re playing. So if you have a jazz set going, someone might come up and as for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” or “Georgia.”

When you get on a ship, you might want to keep a copy of your repertoire list handy for when guests do come up with requests. If you don’t know their request, you could refer them to your repertoire list and ask if they’d like to hear any of those songs.

Beginning the Gig: Arrival in Rome

On Sunday afternoon, I made it to Rome. I was to meet with my ship in Civitavecchia the next morning.

I was put up by the company in the Airport Hilton, which, what they told me, was only a five minute walk away. Well, yeah, if you don’t have two bags that are fifty pounds each, a euphonium and laptop strapped to your back while dragging your 60 pound bass case behind you! I was soaked, and my feet were bruised by the time I got there. When they say pack as light as possible, you should really take that to heart, because you will most likely have to move all your stuff in one trip. There was no way I was going to be able to leave anything off the ship and come back to it.

By the way, the extra baggage charged was reimbursed by the company. Lufthansa still has a 70 pound limit rather than the standard U.S. weight of 50. I really recommend flying with them overseas, this was my third time, and it was just great. Well, as good as it can be for a nine hour flight.

I don’t recommend flying Delta. My flight with them was really pleasant, but they have a huge track record of destroying instruments, and besides that, their extra bagging charge should be considered a sin. I flew with them from Melbourne, Florida to Atlanta. They used Lufthansa’s rules of two checked bags at 70 pounds, since I am going overseas with that company. However, they charged me their rate for the bass case:


I couldn’t believe that! I’m not sure if they charged me the rate for a second bag or a third bag. If they charged me Delta’s rate for bag three, that was just wrong, since the first two are now free due to my transatlantic flight. If that’s the charge for bag two, that’s robbery. The reimbursement form has already been approved and signed by my MD, and the purser has it in her possession now. I will see that money in a few days.

I went into Rome to try to see the sights. I took for granted the fact that many large cities in central and eastern Europe do speak English, but not in Rome. I was lost in an hour, trying to use my limited knowledge of Italian to communicate. Problem is, I blend in too well as an Italian, since I am Italian-American myself. If a 6’6” guy looked like he knew where he was going suddenly got confused and approached any of us and asked if we spoke their foreign language, I think we would be suspicious, too. Sadly, I didn’t get to see the Vatican or the Coliseum that day, but I did find a hole in the wall pizzeria that was pretty cheap for Rome. The pizza was great, and nothing like the pizza in the States. I used my broken Italian to ask the cook for directions back to the Metro, and just headed back to the Hotel.

The hotel housed about 50 or so new and returning employees for the night, so I met a few. I learned a few things talking to them: I was the only new American to join the ship. And, all the prices were the same as Dave said for his job, but the prices just very recently went up, like beer went from 50 to 75 cents, internet went from 10 to 12 cents a minute, etc.

When I got to the ship on Monday, we got started with training classes right away. I took my luggage to my room and put it all away. Surprisingly, everything fit but the SKB case for my basses. I also realized that in my transfer from one bag to another, I left one pair of black shoes, my bowties and cumberbund at home. The tux stuff I can find, but I have rather large feet, so finding large sizes in small European ports is going to be very difficult. Maybe I can have my parents send the stuff to me, provided I ever log onto the internet.

That night, we had our first show. The music is pretty cheesy, but I think my ship is a little less of that. We had one click track tune for that show, the “Welcome Aboard” number, which the A/V guys screwed up on the countoff, and the click was speeding up and slowing down, which led to a nice little train wreck. That chart is tough for me; it’s in the style of Earth, Wind, and Fire, and the bassline is a little technical. I am going to need to work on it for next embarkation day. We played Chameleon for background music, and they let me toy with the bassline. The freedom to actually improvise a little helps with my accepting this gig.

Later on, I went to check out this Argentinean latin-jazz quartet. The bass player was sick, so they asked me to sit in. Man, these guys were absolutely KILLIN! I haven’t had such an amazing performance experience in literally years. I went back to my cabin that night, smiling all the way from one end of the ship to the other. Come to find out the bass player from that group knows all of the Latino greats personally, and has them crash at his house in Cuba (he was just hired to replace their old Argentinean bassist). And I didn’t know that electric bass has a tumbao style all its own in Salsa. There’s a special way to play it that’s not like the typical bajistas that play an Ampeg Baby Bass. He’s going to be showing me how, and I am more than excited about that. (Edit: A week after typing this, the bassist went home with some stomach problems. The four of them were in tears, and I have been asked to fill in until they get it straightened out. So, I get to play poorly written basslines for the guest performers in the early evenings, then go to the bar and play straight ahead hardbop and Latin jazz for the rest of the night. Absolutely no complaints there.)

On Tuesday, I had more training at 9 in the morning. I figured I’d wake up at 8 and eat some breakfast. The thing I didn’t think about until my roommate told me the night before, is I have to set my watch forward an hour because of the time change. I just lost an hour’s sleep. At least the ship has a wake up call service. The other problem: Breakfast for ship employees is over at 8:30, which is about the time I got out of the shower. No breakfast.

I had training until about noon, then I went to the crew deck at 7 forward, and shed my electric bass a little bit, had some lunch and got to know my roommate a little better. Then, we played for the captain’s welcome aboard toast at 7:15 and again at 9:15, each for about 20 minutes. Piece of cake.
I then took off my tux, changed into a nice shirt and slacks, and headed out to the Rendezvous club to jam with the quartet again. When they finished their set, I went to talk to Arturo, the bassist, and set up my bass. The Cruise Director called me over with a very displeased look on his face, and told me it’s formal night, and I have to be in my tux. I apologized and told him I didn’t know, and was told politely to read over my documents again. He told me to just go back to my cabin and put my tux back on.

On my way back, I got stopped by the production manager. I had put my SKB case in the costume room, right by the music equipment. She told me that’s a safety hazard, and I would have to move it.

Then I realized something: I’m getting called out for a rule I broke at least a few times a day! I was talking to my roommate about this, and he said I’m still ahead of the game, because most staff and crew members get a written warning on the ship within the first week. I can see there’s a standard to uphold, but at least a few days to get used to the inner workings would be a little fair. I then remembered how I was told this particular line is loaded with rules.

Later that night, I went to the staff mess to give my roommate and his girl some alone time, where I was lectured by my musical director. He told me I signed an agreement that I had read the handbook and all the enclosed documents emailed to me, and I had better get to know them again real quick. He then told me he’s going to deliver the dress code to my room again. I felt like I was in a scene from Office Space. I just got the document. Now, I did read over everything handed to me before I signed anything, and I can honestly say I never received this document. I guess people who adhere to strict rules CAN make mistakes.

Today is Wednesday. I had four hours of sleep last night because I stayed up with the roommate talking and got up this time at 7 so I could eat breakfast and then shed in the Savoy Night Club, where the first training session of the day was at 9. I’m loathe to go to sleep or take the tender to Mykonos right now, because I’m supposed to maybe have a rhythm section rehearsal. You see, we got this guest violin performer this week, and she handed us charts. They are poorly written, and from a music engravist’s point-of-view, the engraving was absolutely horrible, and the music is hard. Stupid hard. It includes rhythms that I should have been looking at last week, and needs to line up with the guys. The rhythm section wants to rehearse, but the MD doesn’t want us to until tomorrow. I think he’s afraid of stepping over feet if we take a space that isn’t scheduled for us. Just coming back from dinner, we agreed to get together at 9 tonight and listen to the CD while looking over our parts. In other words, this is the reason the sight reading is held to such a high standard for the show band.

The rest of the week looks to be the same. I have training almost every day for this first cruise, then I get to have the easy life of a cruise ship musician. I brought along about 10 books to read, I have three instruments to practice, and I have two large works to get ready for publishing for two of my clients. I don’t think I’m really going to get bored.

Tomorrow, we get into Rhodes, so I think I can upload this document and the travel suggestions then. I’m trying to keep from paying for too much; my roommate’s girlfriend just said she got a bill from the crew bar for last month, and it was $200. I guess if you keep charging to your account like that, it will catch up to you pretty fast. Tonight, I think I’m going to visit the crew bar for the first time. There are a few of the production dancers that keep trying to get me down there, and I don’t want to disappoint my fans.

Power Outlets on Cruise Ships

Steve asks:

What type of power outlets are in a crew cabin on an international ship? Are they US, EU, UK or does it depend on where the ship is registered? I am wondering whether to get an international converter for my laptop and phone.

Both passenger and crew rooms are typically equipped with both 115V and 230V outlets. Here are 2 pictures of two of the outlets in my current passenger cabin.

Since cruise ships are often moved from one part of the world to another several times within the same year, and can even change their port registry several times over their years of use, I think this dual-outlet thing is probably normal on all ships. I’ve seen it on both ships that I’ve been on.

I would recommend bringing, or planning to buy, a power strip on the gig.  Cabins usually only have a few outlets in each cabin, and they need to be shared by all roommates.  I don’t know what ship fire code dictates, but I know if you look at the pictures of my old crew cabin, you’ll see we had a power strip under the desk.

Drug and Alcohol Testing

Today’s question is from Ed:

Most musicians I know smoke [marijuana] once and awhile. Even Louis Armstrong did. Do [cruise lines] do drug tests…before, during, randomly?

Yes, Louis Armstrong hit the front page of the Chicago newspapers when he was arrested for smoking marijuana in 1930. The authorities let him go with a suspended sentence.

Cruise lines, however, maintain a strict no tolerance policy toward drugs. Before you even step foot on a cruise ship you have to pass a full drug test (that you usually have to pay for yourself), and there are frequent random drug tests once you get on the ship.

I’ve never had to do a random drug test. In fact, no one I know has ever been called in for a drug test. But they happen, and merely for that reason, everybody I’ve ever worked with has stayed clear of drugs while on the ship. If you test positive for drugs, you not only lose your job, but you also have to pay for the plane ticket home.

You may also be surprised to hear that there is also alcohol-testing on ships. Yes, it’s true. If you are too drunk, you can be fired from your job on a cruise ship. But don’t get too excited – let me explain.

Crew members are (technically) expected to remain sober enough to react to an emergency at any time. That means (technically) that you can never be drunk. But a beer in the crew bar costs $.60…so what gives?

If you show up half-naked in the officer mess at 3 am searching for sugar packets or something (for that story, read this post), there’s really no way around getting in trouble. Another story I remember is a girl that fell asleep in her underwear in the officers hallway. Her clothes were neatly folded next to her, oddly enough. In both of those situations, it was pretty clear that these two crew members had been drinking. They were both alcohol tested, found to be above the limit, and fired the next day.

Also, if you have an accident while working and you hurt yourself or others, it’s standard to be tested for alcohol and drugs. This is actually standard on land as well and relates to workers comp liability, so that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

The point is, at least on an international ship, if you don’t cause any trouble, nobody cares much about how much you drink. I saw more drinking on ships than I did in college, and that’s saying something.

American-flagged ships are different. There are only a handful of those, and I’m on one of them now. Every crew members on these ships has to be a member of the Merchant Marine (an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy), and the legal limit for alcohol is .08. You can never be over the limit, even when you’re not working. The coast guard regulates this, and can board the ship at any time and test anyone they want.

In fact, on my current ship, crew members are only allowed 2 drinks an hour, and can only buy drinks for themselves (so that the ship can keep track of how many drinks they’ve bought).

Which is pretty l-a-m-e. Personally, I can pretty much take it or leave it, so it doesn’t much impact me. If you are that way as well, there’s nothing wrong with American ships.

While the lax rules on international ships sound like more fun, the dark side is that they also tend to attract more alcoholics. I thought that I knew what an alcoholic was when I left college, but when I met a few on ships, I realized that I had never met one before. Guys that shake and sweat without it, or buy a few beers before they leave the bar to drink when they wake up…those are alcoholics. And I met a few musicians that met that criteria while I was on an international ship. Playing with alcoholics can be a frustrating thing, as they tend to lack consistency and don’t play as well without their fix. These kinds of frustrations can sometimes be frequent complaints of musicians on international ships.


We performed a show last night while the ship sailed through some very rough seas. This is the first time I’ve encountered rough seas out here in Hawaii.

Often times, and this is especially true of last night, the rocking of the ship has more to do with how fast the ship is going than the size of the swells. Last night, for instance, we had to sail from the island of Kauai to the island of Oahu – a short distance that should take about 2 hours. We had to do it in 13 hours, so you can imagine how slowly we were going.

When these big cruise ships get going, there are all kinds of automatic systems that keep their sailing smooth. There are automatic pilot systems, and underwater stabilizers that react to the movement of the ship to a tenth of a second. It’s a pretty amazing system, but the ship has to be moving to get it to work. Hence all the bobbing and moving last night.

I suffer from motion sickness now and then. When I read in a car, or going out on a small, bobbing dive boat – I get sick. I’ve never gotten sick on cruise ships. I find that after a few weeks I get used to the movement and I stop noticing it. As I said, these big ships are usually pretty solid.

There are several spots in the world that are notorious for bad seas, though. Every crew member seems to have a story about a night somewhere in open seas that nearly knocked the piano off the stage. The worst cruises in the world for rough seas are trans-atlantic re-positioning cruises, Alaska, the pacific in winter…and others – again, typically in open seas.

Although this isn’t always so. I did a trans-Atlantic cruise a few years back and it was smooth as a mirror. The Mediterranean in September had been much choppier.

The most common remedies I hear for seasickness are eating green apples, drinking ginger ale, motion-sickness pills and the behind-the-ear patch. (There’s a popular story on ships that once a passenger used the behind-the-ear patch and it caused hallucinations. Security found her stark naked at 3 am dancing in the chapel. Her husband and three kids were mortified. Who knows if that’s true.)

Which Cruise Lines are Best?

I don’t talk much here about specific cruise lines. I’m still working this gig, so I try not to type myself out of a job, if you know what I mean.

On my last ship I was written up, as in bona fide disciplinary action, for writing something the cruise line didn’t like. The cruise director told me that the head office had been monitoring my website content and he’d been told to write me up by the head of entertainment. How’s that for a kick in the pants?

I work for a different company now. I won’t name names, but that last company’s name started with “Holland” and ended with “America”. And that head of entertainment can stick his “disciplinary action” where the “sun” don’t “shine”.

Anyway – I found another site that does talk specifically about cruise lines. It not a very long article, and here’s the good part:

“Be careful what ship you work for. I have nothing but good things to say about working for Princess Cruise Lines. I have also heard good things about Royal Caribbean and Crystal and the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. Carnival, Norwegian, and Holland America got mediocre reviews and the pay and hours are not good. The one ship that I have heard nothing but bad things about is Celebrity.” ~ Source

I don’t know about that last sentence. I haven’t heard that myself. We’ve got a reader that’s about to depart for a Celebrity ship, so for his sake I hope it’s wrong.

How Good Should Your Sight Reading Be?

We have a new question today – this time all the way from Germany and concerning sight reading.

I´m not a great sight-reader. You wrote the sight-reading part of the audition is quite difficult but the music on the ship is cheesy and not so challenging. Do you think you can cope the job as a bass player if you are not a great reader? What´s your opinion?

(Gruess dich Lea! Wo wohnst du in Deutschland? Ich war ein Austauschstudent im Munchen 10 Jahre vor. And clearly, my German has not improved since then!)

This is a follow-up question to a previous post, How Good Do You Have To Be?, where I discuss the skill level needed to be a cruise ship musician. Sight reading is a major concern for many players, and I’m sure this is a question many people would like to know.

If you are in the house band or the show band (they are called different things on different lines), you should be a good sight reader. Probably the most frequent complaint I hear from cruise ship musicians about other cruise ship musicians is that “so-and-so couldn’t read the chart!” The show bands end up playing a lot of different music every day, and they rehearse as infrequently as possible. Basically, you need to be able to play anything that is put in front of you.

So if you are a lousy sight reader, the show band is not the gig for you. But there are other jobs that don’t require as much sight reading that might be a better fit.

For instance, I met a piano bar entertainer a few months ago that couldn’t read music at all. He had tons of books with him, but he read the chords and the words and the little black dots are more or less wasted ink. That’s possible in the piano bar lounge where you decide what you’ll play and nobody ever brings you any music to read.

Also, the solo cocktail pianist could get away with poor sight reading. This is another gig where the set-lists are determined by the performer and no one brings them charts to read.

One-man-band gigs – such as a guitarist/singer with a drum machine – there’s another gig with zero sight reading.

I could go on, but I think you probably see the point. The gig on ships with the most sight reading is the show band. If you get in that gig, be prepared to sight read every day. If you have a solo gig, then you shouldn’t need to worry about it nearly as much.

For tips on improving your sight reading, read the post How to Improve Your Sight Reading.

Cruise Jobs – International vs. American Ships

When I was first employed on cruise ships, I worked on an international ship in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. There were a lot of advantages to this job.

  • Our cruise itinerary was incredible. We sailed through Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, all of the Mediterranean, North Africa – then across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. I saw nearly 30 countries and dozens of cities. See pictures in the photo album.
  • The crew members I worked with were from very diverse backgrounds. I had friends from everywhere – London, Edinburgh, Munich, Holland, the Philippines, Indonesia, Poland – the list goes on and on. I had American and Canadian friends too, but we (North Americans) were the minority within the crew.
  • Rules were somewhat relaxed on the ship, now that I look back at it. We didn’t work very much, we complained when we did. People drank every night.

Now I’m working on an American ship, and its a different kind of experience.

  • The crew on an American cruise ship is paid hourly, with benefits, and many crew members are represented by workers unions. I was amazed when I found this out. Crew members are guaranteed 40 hours a week and paid overtime after that. On my international ship there were Indonesians working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for $600/month! Its my experience that crews on international cruise ships often feel over-worked and under-paid, but I don’t get that impression from this American ship.
  • Perhaps because of the better pay, morale seems higher on the American ship. As I said, crew members on my international ship sometimes spoke bitterly about the company we worked for, but I don’t find that as much on the American ship.
  • There is no casino on American ships.
  • All crew members on American cruise ships must apply for their merchant marine license through the U.S. Coast Guard. According to Wikipedia, “in time of war, the merchant marine is an auxiliary to the Navy, and can be called upon to deliver troops and supplies for the military.”
  • The crew is not allowed to be drunk on an American ship. The U.S. Coast Guard requires that all crew members be under the legal limit at all times in case of an emergency. The captain of my ship requires that the bartender in crew areas limit each crew member to two drinks per hour, and the time stamps on receipts are monitored to make sure.

Generally, I think that there are good things about both kinds of cruise ship gigs. I think I prefer the itinerary of an international cruise ship job, but the comfort of a more satisfied crew.