The End of a Cruise Ship Contract

So here I am, just about five months into my contract, and doing my first transatlantic crossing. They have warned us to make sure we have ways to kill time because of the amount of boredom on sea days. For most departments, sea days are the hardest. It’s no different for us than it is for port days, but we don’t have to rush around at port to make sure we’re back for rehearsal. So, in a sense, it’s more relaxing for us.

On a typical cruise, the sea days are the formal days, and we play big band sets. I enjoy playing in a big band, but for this gig, it’s a real drag. The arrangements are godawful, both musically and legibly, and it’s a seven piece big band, and the music is uninspiring at best. Then again, you can’t really expect to play Maria Schneider charts out here, can you?

Musical communication seems to be frowned upon on the ship, so it’s very easy to just sit there and read the notes on the page rather than play around the changes. Some of the charts are so poorly written, however, you have to juggle between the changes and the written notes to actually play something coherent. Sometimes the notes are wrong or handwritten and barely readable, and sometimes the changes are just written on top of other changes, making it a general ink blot. Also, some of the music is so old, the ink has faded over time. Every now and then, they have us do four of these sets in a night. This could very well be considered a musician’s hell. What I have gained, though, is better technical facility on the electric bass, and if someone wants me to read the ink, I can now do it just as second nature as reading changes. While I never had a problem reading, my teachers sort of encouraged me to come up with my own bassline and make the tune my own. It’s easy to forget to play one way when you’re so used to playing another.

For this cruise there’s still only three formal nights. Usually sea days are the formal days. The rest of the sea days are typical shows for us. So we have our rehearsals in the afternoons, and then the two shows. We have lots of time to kill. A bunch of us have been gathering in my cabin, since it’s one of the bigger ones for crew (I had to wait four months for this cabin), and have been watching Heroes. Between that, I have just been playing computer games, arranging, and reading.

At this point in the cruise the end of the contract seems bittersweet. I feel like I have been robbed out of a better experience because my first two months of the contract were so horrible, . It’s gotten better since then, and I feel like I want to stay and get that enjoyable time back. But I want to get off the ship just as much. More, even. When you’re on a ship like this, you feel as if you put your life on hold. All your friends, family, and general living are on land, and you’re living a completely different life while on board. How you act, what you do, and especially the amount you drink. I rarely get drunk, but you will have at least one drink a day, and that’s if you’re keeping it light. But I will miss the ports, the friends, and the lack of bills, of course.

If you were brought up musically about creativity, you will feel caged into doing exactly what’s on the ink, even just playing as vanilla as possible on the “jazz” sets. With the old MD, he really just wanted us to play an Abersold style backing during the sets, and would take us off to the side and yell at us for interacting with the soloist. “What if he was going somewhere else?” he would say. He was usually talking about himself, so we were like “what if you were going NOWHERE?” Playing something other than a root on bass in the “jazz” sets would get me a threat to being fired. Playing different basslines while backing some guest entertainers can give some funny looks from them. Since you get used to playing with the same guys over and over again, you tend to learn how far you can go with them. But honestly, with most of the music, you really can’t go very far before it changes the character of the tune. Even trying to play the original Jamerson line on a Motown tune might not work with the arrangement you were given. And that’s just sad.

One thing I am not going to miss is the way crew and staff are treated. Musicians seem to be looked at by everyone except the Cruise Director as a liability, as in someone that will cause trouble if given enough time. On most ships, musicians are staff–which is one step above crew, and one step below the officers. Staff gets more privileges than does crew, but less than officers, naturally. Jealousy can kick in here. For instance, we are allowed to eat in the pizza/pasta bar. It’s not great, but it’s better than the staff mess. Get the right guy serving you, and you can get eyeballed. With casual dining, we have to get permission and have forms signed. Even with those forms signed, they will either outright try to deny serving us, or just pretend they don’t notice us and hope we go away. Same with drinking in guest lounges. The crew serving us are watching for us to make a mistake. If we do, it’s reported right away in hopes our privileges are taken away, and the CD has to go to bat for us. It helps here to tip well when you eat in areas that you are served.

In Lanzarote a few days ago, we had to take a shuttle to get to the city center. Of course, crew had to move back to the back of the bus. We had a few laughs about it, whatever. But on the way back, the only reason I didn’t have trouble is because I happened to get on the shuttle when the person in charge stepped away for a minute and didn’t notice me. I found out that had I not done that, I would have been late to my training, because other crew members had to wait over an hour and a half. They were told they couldn’t board the bus until the guests were on there first. Well, guests kept coming and coming, and before they knew it, they had more than a (double decker) busload of crew that was denied the right to board the bus. They even brought an officer out to warn the crew complaining to not make a scene. Many people were late that day, and I’m sure they were the ones who got in trouble.

There are a few other cases like this, and some of them could have been more serious, like a sick crewmember turned away from the medical facility because he didn’t show up during one of the two hours during the day that crew was allowed treatment.

In any of these instances, if you so much as express your displeasure about it, you will be reprimanded faster than you can say “signed off” and they may take the “privilege” from your whole department. While guests should come first, when it starts showing problems, especially healthwise, something needs to be done. I’m sure a guest wouldn’t mind if an obviously sick crew member were to get treated outside of the allotted hours, or that some crew were waiting for the bus long before those guests were and should be on a first come, first serve basis. And in both of those situations, we’re not in uniform, so as far as the guests know, we’re guests, too.

There are plenty of reasons to not go over the top about it, though. You make some great friends. You see some great ports. I would even love to go back to some of those cities and take a week exploring. Even more. The food off the ship is great. When else would I have said I’ve eaten authentic Greek or Turkish food? Italian is hard to say. I’m Italian-American, and I had to work very hard to get some good dishes in Italy. The pizza in Naples is great, but I’m still partial to New York pizza.

Would I do this gig again? Yes, in the right circumstances. I probably would not do a six month contract again, unless I really needed the money. After seeing the people that made this a career, it makes you think. Many of these guys have something funny about them. It must take a toll being on a boat that much for years, and to have only fleeting relationships. There’s no way to have a steady relationship with anyone, even family. People in your life come and go, and if you are lucky, you will see them again sometime in the future. Most musicians I’ve already met weren’t doing six month contracts any more. They do short ones to kill time between the poor guys who do the six month ones. In this way, you’re not away from home for too long, and it’s a little easier on the mind.

Some of the things that you will want to do as soon as you get off of a contract this long:

1. Sleep

While, yes, you do sleep quite a bit as a musician, the beds are small. Especially for someone like me. There’s no box spring, just a mattress on top of a piece of sheet metal bolted to the bed frame. A bedroom with a window is something to look forward to as well. You’re just going to want one of the best slumbers you’ve had in a while as soon as you get home.

2. Eat some of your favorite foods

You will miss your mom’s dishes. You will miss your favorite local grinds. Some of my favorite foods are the dishes I cook. You can’t cook here. I can’t wait to have a simple American sandwich. Some hot wings. REAL (not tourist-made) pasta dishes. You can find some in the right places in Italy, but it was a big ordeal to look for it. Inevitably, you will sit around with friends on the ship and discuss the first places you’re going to go eat at when you get home. The ship makes an attempt at hamburgers, and instead of hotdogs, you get some weird tasting pig-in-a-blanket. You have to wonder if anyone in the galley has ever had a real hotdog or hamburger. Since San Juan is American, we are going to at least find some American chains we know have good food and stuff our faces. And the entertainment department is looking forward to a real cookout on the beach.

3. Drive

Even if the gas prices suck these days, getting behind the wheel is something I like to do. Besides all else, I’m in control.

4. Internet

I can’t wait to just get on the internet and surf, and leave it on.  Windows hates not being connected; I get notifications like on the hour that there’s a connection problem.  You don’t even realize how much you rely on the net for just general information.  I spend quite a lot less money than most crew members on the ship–usually around $30 a month.  Some go through hundreds in a pay period just to surf around.

5. TAKE A LONG BREAK

Even in college, I didn’t play this much. You need a mental rest. A few days here and there to clear your head to have a clean start musically. The longest break you will have out here is a day, and that’s more than most crew get. Even music that isn’t really deep, I still feel things from performances jumbling around in my head without giving them a chance to get out and let me start playing with that clean slate. Then again, my current roommate said one of his ships gave the musicians three to five days off at a time. That would be a little weird for me there.

I realize in the future, I will be sitting around wherever I am, and missing these experiences. But this isn’t the first time music has taken me around the world, so I can be sure it won’t be the last. The trumpet player has told me about a popular touring brass group he’s a part of and that I am qualified for, provided I can get my brass chops back up. He said the pay is considerably better. Maybe that’s my next adventure.

Should I Bring a Bass Amp On My Cruise Gig?

We have a question this week from Ryan, who asks:

What kind of amps have you seen bass players use?  I was thinking of using my Acoustic Image Clarus with a Markbass Traveler 102P.  Small and light is good, right?  Would a 2×10 bass cab be enough to play with?

I asked one of our writers that is currently working as a bass player on a ship if he could help us with an answer.  He writes to us from Europe. – Dave

Hi Ryan,

First of all, let me state to David and everybody of my apologies for not being around lately.  Internet on the ship is not great, and lately, there’s been server problems.  When I am on, I just usually check my email and get off.  I will be writing a new blog soon, especially due to all the time I’m going to have on the transatlantic crossing I’m on right now (FIVE sea days in a row!).  Look forward to that.

Now on to Ryan’s question.  No, you shouldn’t need to take an amp, and I would suggest you not take such great pieces of equipment as an AI and a Markbass if you did.  For me, I use my Fender more than my Epiphone bass because it’s better, but maybe in the future, I might just bring the Epi or another cheap bass.  For the basses, the weather changes so much due to the different ports, then the season changes in Europe, and now the crossing to the Caribbean to bring the weather back around to warm so fast.  With my Japanese made Fender, that means I have to keep taking off the neck to do the adjustments, which could hurt its life expectancy.

Continue reading Should I Bring a Bass Amp On My Cruise Gig?

New Music Director (…finally…)

Dave was right.

It’s the second day of this cruise, and we are already seeing improvements. The old MD is back, and H. is a lowly sax player again, and nothing more. The one thing we aren’t happy about now, is that H. got away with all of it. The returning MD likes H., and no matter what we tell him, he keeps telling us that it wasn’t his fault. No matter how nasty the stories get, and I have been witness to three other musicians relaying their experiences. But, even though H. got away with it, Y. promised to make it right.

And he already has. Right off the bat, he talked to one of the waiters at the bar that’s in the walkway on deck 6 midship about letting us eat the finger foods after the “jazz” sets. H. told us we can’t do that. The party band was made to play during tenders the very first cruise H. became MD. The problem with playing during a tender, is there is an announcement over the loudspeaker every 5-10 minutes telling the guests when it’s their turn to get on the tenders. Musicians are required to stop when the loudspeakers are on. Why would you make musicians play during known ship announcements? Y. told them he can’t fix that this cruise, but as soon as they hear the first tender announcement, to pack up and leave. H. doesn’t realize apparently that when you’re playing, it’s rude to be regularly interrupted in such a way. Also, Y. promised the party band he will fix the fact that they play under the hot Med sun at port between noon and 5. The musicians and their instruments have been baking. The keyboard is barely usable any more, thanks to fried circuits.

The solo guitar player is promised to have less than six sets a day now. And, best of all, he’s going to try to get the show band to have one day off a cruise! He’s already been arguing with the CD about this stuff, and how the company can’t treat the musicians like this, even if superiors are threatening to bring ratings up or else. He said a job like this isn’t worth getting overly serious about.

I didn’t end up rooming with H. after all. I was put with the new keyboard player, even though he and the sax player were promised their own room from the Miami office. He’s really cool, but I know he wanted to be with his girlfriend. During their first cruise, I overheard H. talking to a guest performer about their situation, and he pretty much said he doesn’t know why they think they’re getting their own room on their first contract; it just won’t happen. I told the piano player what I heard, and he emailed Miami about it as soon as he heard. The supervisor sent H. an email telling him he better make the promise they were given a reality. That night, H. said he would work on it, but not before a lecture on how wrong the couple was to go over his head about this. I went to the CD and asked him to not stick me with H. because I can’t stand him. I didn’t know this, but H. was in charge of the rooming situation, including his own rooming situation. He tried to move around about six people just so he could have my cabin to himself, because it was a decent sized cabin in a very good spot on the ship, but once the singer in the party band was about to be moved from her cabin because of it, she told HR, who went straight after him. I’m now in a smaller cabin with the guitar player in the party band, and the couple got my old cabin. I don’t mind, especially when I think about how I could have had it.

Now, about Y.: He’s a complete NUT! If H. is a right winged individual, Y. is as far left as he can be (by the way, when trying to picture H., picture the 40 Year-Old Virgin). During the “Welcome Aboard” tech run yesterday, we were sitting at the bandstand while the aerialist was doing a run through. Y. started stripping to the music that was playing. He told me that on a ship, you can get away with just about anything, as long as there isn’t an officer looking. But he did advise me not to get drunk and run across the ship naked and jump in the jacuzzi like he did two years ago. He talks to passersby while doing the jazz sets, dedicating the next tune to someone so they feel obligated to stay. If I make a mistake, he doesn’t tell me to get it right or else. He tells me what I did wrong, and to fix it, and pats me on the back. You feel like a real person when interacting with this guy. He’s not trying to make himself look good, he’s trying to make his musicians happy. And that’s where the difference lies. I’d tell funnier stories I’ve witnessed since last night, but they get pretty bad. Two months of misery, and I have laughed more in the last two days than I have since I’ve been on the ship.

Also, the CD leaves in a few more cruises. I like him as a person, but as a boss, he’s way too demanding. He sees the road to improved ratings is by doubling the entertainment department’s efforts. The problem is, when everyone’s exhausted to the point of lower morale, it has an opposite effect. Y. has argued with him
about this, too.

The light at the end of the tunnel just turned on. We’ll see if it stays there. I’m optimistic myself.

Overworked Musicians in the Mediterranean

Right now we are leaving Kusadasi and heading towards Rhodes. Tonight is a show that’s done every cruise, either after leaving Kusadasi on the 10 day cruise, or the night we are in port at Istanbul on the 11 day cruise.

Besides the “Welcome Aboard” presentation on embarkation day, this is the only full show which we use click tracks. Because the show is on the pool deck, the equipment keeps changing around because it can’t stay there, which makes sound check a pain, because each time we do the show, a new problem shows up. Last week, my bass couldn’t be picked up in the house at all. Cables were replaced, the DI was replaced, my bass was checked in the guitar channel; we gave it the works. We resorted to putting a mic in front of the amp. Today, the same problem arose, and none of us really felt like working out the problem this time, so it’s all just my amp. Fine with me.

The MD still threatens to fire me. That’s fine, because I found out that a sub MD has no real power. Besides that, I’ve had over 30 “one more mistake, and you‘re gone” speeches, and no action yet. He’s proven to me that he has no power, and gets really upset at me because I can smile and nod at these speeches now rather than apologize for something the drummer did (usually I get blamed for situations like this).

I had to sit back and ask myself a while ago if I’m having these problems, is it because I really am not able to handle the gig? So what I did was at these “jazz” sets, was toy with H. Immature? Maybe. But I learned what crawled up the MD’s rear. In short, if I do one thing, he tells me not to do it. I comply, and he nitpicks something else. He’s just going power hungry, and he wants to pick on the new guys. He sees the others as friends, because he was just a showband musician with them before he stepped in as sub MD. He doesn’t realize those guys don’t like him much any more. So, I found H. is unjustified with his complaints, his ears are nowhere near as good as he thinks they are (I even played a tune in the wrong key by accident in the beginning, and he didn’t notice before I fixed it), and he has absolutely no power. So I don’t have to worry about it any more.

But there is one thing I worry about now: H. may be my new roommate! Oh God, please don’t let that happen!

At the end of this cruise, my roommate and the alto player leave. The new couple that are coming ARE a couple, and have requested their own cabin. I can’t room with the alto player’s roommate, because she is a she. So, the way I see it, I may have my own cabin for two cruises. Then, the real MD comes back. He’s the drummer, so the current drummer leaves, and H. is moved out of the MD cabin. The other showband guys, the singers, and dancers are all laughing about it, too, even if it is still only just a possibility. When I think about it, it’s about a 30% chance the this may happen. For me, that’s way too much. Now, I’m a nice guy, but I don’t know how nice I can be to a guy that gets a kick out of threatening me. Rooming with him just wouldn’t be a good situation. The current drummer rooms with the DJ, and H. said he can’t live in a cabin that small. My last resort may be trying to get the DJ to room with me.

Besides all this, in general, the ship is just not a good ship. I find enjoyable things to do with the little down time that I have, but morale is fairly low, even in the entertainment department. Everyone works every day. Technically, the showband hasn’t had a day off since I’ve been on the ship. I missed one “jazz” set, because it was last minute, and I wasn’t around to get the call. So, I have had an accidental day off. The upper management on the ship figures they can use us any time we have down time, so when we aren’t playing a show, we are playing on deck 11 aft (by the pizza bar), or in one of the clubs, or in the restaurant. On a typical ship, the general idea is musicians are to get at least one day a cruise off, if not one day a week. One time, I told H. that my hands are really hurting from all the playing we have been doing, and he told me to quit if I don’t like it. Wouldn’t it be nice to just have Carpel Tunnel Syndrome and then sue the company for not listening to me? In short, I don’t practice, so I can protect my hands, and to at least give my mind some sort of break from all the music. I hope that changes with the MD switch. The singer in the Party Band has complained that her throat hurts from singing four sets every day, and she was also pretty much told to quit if she doesn’t like it.

The reason we are made to work so hard is because the ratings on the ship are the lowest in the fleet, so upper management figures if they make the entertainment department work doubly hard, ratings will go up. It’s having another effect, though: it’s bringing the morale of all the musicians down, and not just the show musicians, but also the five other musical acts around the ship. I’m sure all musicians know, when morale is down, performance suffers, and it’s hard to put on a good attitude. In my opinion, working us harder to improve ratings is having an adverse effect.

The current drummer has been on six different ships. He has told the cruise director exactly what’s going on compared to other ships. He told me the CD doesn’t think things are likely to change, though, because the ship is sold to another country, and it goes to them sometime next year. They told us in meetings that they are still trying to improve things even though it’s sold, but all their promises have not yet happened. In general, the next five months might still might be unpleasant, but at least I will be with an MD that’s reputedly the best MD in the fleet, rather than this hack. The guys say at this point, because H. has made us work so much, Y. might not be able to clear the schedule without upsetting upper management, but they promise that he will be much more pleasant to work with.

So that’s what’s going on so far. I’d write more, but there’s the whole being overworked thing, plus I’m a procrastinator. Dave definitely wants a follow up to see who my roommate will be, so that will happen as soon as I find out.

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:

ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DOLLARS!

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.

Dealing With a Difficult Music Director

So, I really wanted to write about the positive aspects of being a cruise ship musician. So far, I can’t. I just finished my first cruise. It was really rough. This isn’t to discourage anybody from taking such a gig, but I do want to report on some of the negative aspects of it within the entertainment department, rather than the company as a whole.

Now, I realize Dave played with some killin’ musicians on his first ship. I’m not. They aren’t horrible, but they are at about freshman level for the colleges I went to. Which makes this whole situation I’m stuck in more confusing.

When I got to the ship, the drummer was the new kid. The MD is the drummer, but he’s taking a leave since his wife just had a baby. The tenor player is sitting in as MD for the moment. He was giving this poor kid drummer a really hard time. At first, I thought that the drummer just sucked. I was wrong. I sat with him in some jam sessions, and even worked out some of the charts with him. He’s got the chops, but the MD is hounding on him so badly, he was really doomed to screw up until he could relax. He never did, and he quit. He’s going back home to Indiana to gig again. And I don’t blame him one bit. I’ve experienced this before; if the bandleader says a musician sucks, the rest of the band will believe it.

Now, I get to be the new kid. I didn’t mind the criticism at first, because I figured I could handle it. But when the MD keeps repeating the statement, “don’t (expletive) up, because I have absolutely no problem replacing you” like a broken record, it really is nerve wracking. The problem isn’t reading down the charts, which I admit I’ve made a few stupid mistakes on due completely to nerves because of him, but it’s the shows that the rest of the band has played dozens of times before, and have things like playing this tune from bars 44-59 when you see the captain walk on stage, or play another short when M. walks on stage, etc. It’s a lot to remember, and when I don’t come in strongly on one, I find myself in the MD’s office explaining what happened to him, and having to hear him tell me “one more time, and you’re off at the next port.”

I find myself staying on the ship at ports working on these shows so something like that doesn’t happen again. That’s why I only got off once; it was a day we had off, anyway.

But then, something awesome happened. I found my chops again. They were lying somewhere in the Mediterranean between Kusadasi, Turkey and Athens. I had one little stitch right after that. I learned this: don’t play anything other than roots on the downbeats of chords if you’re a bass player, because the MD will tear into you. And he did that, right on a dance band set. It threw my focus off and I screwed up American Patrol. AMERICAN PATROL! How did I manage that?!

The next show, which was the farewell show on the cruise, I absolutely nailed. There was nothing the MD could complain about. And then we had embarkation day again. Remember that “Welcome Aboard” number I needed to shed for the next embarkation day? Well, it must have been nerves or something the first day, because this time around, it was easy. But, since our last drummer quit, we got a new guy. He’s good. Not only that, but he has played on ships for the parent company for years, so his adjustment to ship life is going to go fast. But we had a problem. At the “Welcome Aboard” show, we play a few things, and two of them are snippets of Chameleon and Beyond the Sea. It really bugs me when the MD counts in the horns on the Eb minor chord on Chameleon. I am really tempted to turn the bassline around every time. But I digress. Anyway, last night, the MD counted off Beyond the Sea, and the drummer went into Chameleon. An honest mistake, but it led to a complete and total train wreck. The piano player and I layed out, because we had a drummer pounding away at a slow funk groove, and the horns are trying to play an up swing chart. I got the evil eye from the MD. I knew where the blame was going.

Right after the show, he comes up to me and says “Good show. Can I see you in my office?” So I followed him down. He shares his office with the Cruise Director (CD), who was in there. I was really hoping he would go off on me in front of the CD, because I had already had words with him on how the MD is treating the new guys. Now that he is aware of it, he told me he would take care of it. I don’t know if he talked to him or not, but once he saw his boss sitting in the office, he said “actually, let’s go to my cabin.”

When I got there, he did go off on me. He asked me why I layed out. I told him it’s practically impossible to play up swing while the drummer is playing slow funk. He said this: “I don’t care. This is a professional gig, and you have to act professional, and not like a college student. If you pull a stunt like this again, you’re off the ship. Don’t (expletive) up any more, or you’re off the ship. This is the last straw.”

Right while typing that last paragraph, C., the drummer from the latin quartet came up to me. I had just finished talking to the singer, and we agreed it was best that I don’t play with them any more, even though they don’t have a bass player right now. The MD has been giving them trouble letting me play for two reasons: one, because I’m not Hispanic, I must not know Latin jazz. The funny part about that is salsa and Latin jazz were my first professional bass gigs. And bebop is only allowed maybe one to two tunes a night, and since I market myself as a bop player, that means I must not be qualified. Two, if I play well with the group, he thinks I won’t have the musical energy to play well in the orchestra. It seems like there will be trouble on both ends, so I agreed that I won’t play with them as long as this guy is the MD. Also, C. sat in for the orchestra drummer when he missed the ship a few weeks back, and explained the exact same situation that happened to me last night. C. played the wrong song and caused a train wreck. The funny thing is it was Beyond the Sea, the exact same song! The MD went off on the bass player, and Claudio is telling him that was the wrong place to put the blame. He told C. it was an honest mistake, and the bass player should have know better to fix the problem.

So it occurs to me there is a major communication problem between the MD and all the musicians, including the groups outside the orchestra. I hope it gets better; I took the job to save up for grad school, and I can’t afford to lose it. The other guys tell me that the original MD will come back next month, so when he gets here, things will get better. I really hope so. I hope I can make it to next month, too. It seems a little odd to think that cats like Slide Hampton and Nestor Torres took my card, and that some no-name Music Director of a cruise ship is giving me tons of trouble.

I was warned by a guitar player I played with that you’re only going to be as happy as your Music Director. He was right. You get a guy who goes on a power trip, you’re going to be jumping from hoop to hoop. The only thing I can say is this: don’t let it get you down as a musician. I know in the last two weeks I have improved as an electric bass player. By the end of this contract, I should be a very solid player. All the simple groove playing I do will be better, and will help me on this virtuostic stuff I’m trying to get. I’m trying to not let it get the best of me, but that part is hard. I found a way to successfully separate it from my playing though. I just had to reset my mind and remember how to get into the zone again. I can once again do that. Now it’s the mental games I have to work with off the stage.

Well, I’m off the ship for the second time in Messina. I’m about to get my first plate of real spaghetti in two weeks. Messina is where my family immigrated to the U.S. from, so it’s a little interesting to be here, even though before here, we came from Calabria. I bet the food will take me back home. I was about to go crazy without some good Italian food. Well, there’s no mood a good plate of spaghetti can’t pull up, is there?

Introduction to 2004 Posts

In 2004, I spend 6 months floating on a ship in the Baltic, Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, working as the keyboard player in the ship’s show band. I started in the Scandinavian countries of of the Baltic Sea, then traveled down to the Mediterranean for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. I spent four months in the Mediterranean, altogether, before sailing across the Atlantic to cruise in the Caribbean. In the end, I saw 29 countries, including North Africa and much of Europe – let’s not forget the Olympics – and many of the famous places we always hear about.

During my contract I had time to journal my thoughts and experiences. I enjoy reading through these entries now and then, and I thought there might be others that would enjoy them too, especially musicians that are thinking about taking a cruise gig.

Adjusting to Land After a Cruise Job

I’ve been home for over a month now. Veterans on the ship used to talk with disgust about the shock of returning home from a contract. Musicians talked about the lack of gigs at home, we all talked with spite about the weather at home.

The weather here at home is terrible. Yesterday a cold rain dripped through the trees and this morning we found the same rain turned to ice, clinging to every surface. There’s no talk of outdoor activities, nor will there be until at least April or May (and not definitely until June).

Gigs are sporatic and low-paying. It’s difficult to make a living as a musician, nobody can dispute that. Pianos are out-of-tune, keyboards are heavy, and more often than not those same keyboards that have replaced the out-of-tune pianos sound as much like a piano as a bird sounds like a bear.

Life is, clearly, not nearly as easy as it was on the ship.

But life is more full and satisfying on land. Relationships are deeper, space is abundant, daily activities are now priviledges. I get to see my cousin’s kids grow up, and I get to play cards with my Grandma and her friends on Fridays. My friend Rick comes over and we play jazz just for ourselves, because it’s fun. Scheduling is difficult, and finding a real job is worse. People’s lives are complicated, and life is a worthy challenge.

I’m happy to be back to a challenging life, although I must admit that I’ve so far been unable to completely shake off the lethargy that I laid in for so long on the ship. Having spent 6 months trying to quiet my stirring mind, I’ve so far found it a little difficult to turn it back around. I’ve brought contentment and serenity back with me, only to find that neither has any place in this life.

Altogether, it is indeed a transition to come back to land. Although I’d never go so far as to say that ship life involved any sort of deprivation, it is certainly – even after a month – a relief to once again be a participant in a challenging life and to again have all the specific priviledges of such.

We used to hear on the ship that it took at least 6 months to re-adjust to life on land, regardless of how long you’d been on. The idea, I think, was to securely chain yourself to something on land for at least six months, let the withdrawal symptoms fade, and then – under the supervision of trustworthy friends – slowly unchain yourself. I know now exactly what they are talking about, but I probably came home with fewer withdrawal symptoms than most, considering my disgust with the company I worked for and the boredom I found later in the contract.

I think I’ll stick around.

A Typical Day for a Show Band Musician

I often get asked, usually by crew members, “what exactly do you do here?”  I’m not kidding, crew members don’t even know what I do.

The short answer is both “whatever I want” and “nothing,” but I normally give them the non-smart-ass answer of my actual position here.  But, you may ask, what is a normal day like for a cruise ship musician in the Caribbean?  (Note: I’m only talking about being a cruise ship musician in the Caribbean here.  Europe is totally different.)

First, I should preface this by saying that this is not a normal ship and mine is not a normal gig for a cruise ship musician.  This model of cruise ship is considered the highest level of class for our entire fleet.  There have only been a few ships of its kind made.  As such, several things are much different on this ship than on others in the same fleet.

For instance, on the other ships, the musicians play for all of the “cast shows,” which happen twice a night, threw nights a cruise.  We, however, do not play the cast shows at all.  They are entirely accompanied by rigid recordings made, no doubt, by some sweaty, fat guy they keep in the basement of the corporate office that only eats sardines.  That is, at least, the picture I get from the recordings I hear.

Let’s start, then, with a normal day:

I get up around noon.  I used to get up earlier in Europe to go see the sites, but here in the Caribbean I’m usually fairly certain that regardless of the port I will find the same things, i.e., a scary man renting scooters without brakes, a beach roamed by renegade waitresses serving tequila drinks with paper umbrellas, soliciting old ladies, etc.

Let’s say its a day spent entirely at sea, as today was.  I’ll get up at 11:30, get to the Lido Deck (the 9th deck, with all the food), and eat lunch.  Afterwards I’ll either go out on Deck 3 (Promenade Deck) to read, back to my little room below decks to watch TV, or directly back to sleep (again, in my little room below decks).  I don’t believe I’m felt tired for 6 months.

Around 3 I’ll work out.  The gym is just down the hall, and the beefy Phillipino guys aren’t in there at that time.  I don’t work out long, but sometimes I’ll go twice a day (because I’ve just got that much time).

Dear Mummy and Daddy, re: My Return

Dear Mummy and Daddy,

Oh, my dear parents, how I’ve missed you so. How many times I’ve found myself tanning in the sun, sitting in a cafe in Italy, or lounging on deck and thinking, “oh, but if only I were home now, I’d be so happy!”

I’ve now completed 4 1/2 months of servitude to my company, and I’m happy to say that I’ll be returning home to you in just 41 days now, on the 4th of January. Oh Mummy and Daddy, you’ll never believe how this life has affected my very constitution. I dare say you will hardly recognize me upon my return!

Due to the difficult stains of living aboard a vessel for so long, I know that it may be difficult for me to re-adjust to home at first. But, of course, I know that because you love me so well, that you’d want to make my transition as smooth as possible. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of listing several things that would most certainly help me in this difficult time. Please see below:

1. Please turn the thermostat in the house up to a constant 81 degrees fahrenheit, at least until May. I’m sure this will reduce the shock I may receive coming from the Caribbean to Chicago in January (I’m sure you know how awful that will be for me).

2. Please change my sheets, make my bed, dust my room, scrub the floor of my shower, and vacuum my room daily. Furthermore, please wait to perform these tasks until I have awoke from my slumber (around 12:00pm), but before my 5:00pm nap. I just do not know what I’ll do without my dear cabin steward Nobby. Oh! I almost forgot – how rude of me – please remember that I will, of course, be giving you $1 a day for your services.

3. In order to, again, curb the shock of returning home, I would request that you please have an infinite amount of cakes, miscellaneous deserts and ice creams available to me between the hours of 12 noon and 2am. I am partial to orange sherbet. Furthermore, I will need a variety of dishes to pick from for lunch and dinner – oh, but you’ll never know how my delicate palate has changed in the past 4 months! A gathering of 3 kinds of meats, 5 side dishes and a vegetarian alternative should be sufficient for each meal. Please also have ready what we here call the “Midnight Buffet” – served around 11:30pm. I usually have several peanut butter cookies with my midnight buffet (many thanks, in advance).

4. Please, and this is very important, arrange a free shuttle between our house and wherever I’d like to go each day.

5. Oh Mummy and Daddy, I’m sure you’ll delight with this little request! Please, for the sake of my weakened constitution, organize and rehearse several full length musical reviews or comedy shows before I return home. Please perform these shows twice a day at 8:30pm and 10:30pm. I cannot promise you that I will attend both shows, or either show, or that I won’t walk out on them if I do come.

6. Certainly I wouldn’t want to ask too much of you, but I believe it would be best if you might grant me a weekly allowance of several hundred dollars. I just don’t know how I’ll survive without this pittance, as I’ve become so accustomed to it. Many thanks, dear Mummy and Daddy.

In return, I promise to play piano for you, in 45 minute segments, once every 3 days.

Oh, dearest parents! How I look forward to returning home to you in just 41 days! Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions regarding the above needs! All my love!

Your Son,
Dave

Trans-Atlantic Repositioning

And that’s all – all for Europe.  I’ve been here now 4 1/2 months and its unfortunately time to go.  We have already started to make our way out to sea for the 5 seas it will take to reach St. Maarten in the Caribbean.  I will be in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, United States of America on the 29th of November.  A little over a month after that, I will be home properly, at which point I’ll have to stop using British terminology, like “properly.”

Not too long ago, the only way to immigrate from Europe to the States was by boar.  Those immigrants didn’t usually take the route that we are – from north-west Africa tot eh Caribbean – and they didn’t travel in as much style and comfort certainly – but I like to think that they were traveling the same water that we are now.  Back then, on the new steam-powered ocean liners, it took 21 days to get from Europe to New York.  As I said, it will only take us 5 days to traverse an even greater distance than that.

Sea days weigh heavily on the crew.  We are not, after all, real sailors.  We took these jobs to see foreign lands, and being cooped up on the ship for an extent of time can make the best of us a little kooky after awhile.  We are braced for the five sea days now, though, and I think they will go along in quiet monotony.

Casablanca, Morocco

Of all the gin shops, in all the towns in all the world, we had to come here.

The metropolis of Casablanca doesn’t quite live up to the romanticized image we get from the Humphrey Bogart film – I’m afraid the image of dozens of white, Christian, western Europeans in finely tailored western fashions sitting around a white-washed jazz club in the middle of a French-run Casablanca is about as far from reality as you can get.

But Casablanca is not without charm. A Muslim nation at the northwest tip of the African continent, Morocco may not be a financially affluent nation, but what is lacks in cash, it more than makes up for in culture and tradition. While some parts of town look like a bombed out Beirut, there is a surprising number of finely manicured gardens and a great many treasures of Arabic architecture.

We left the ship at 11:45 and headed straight for food. There seemed to be some difficulty, at first, in finding a restaurant in which women were welcome – but that may have only been our own speculation. Women in Casablanca are certainly not absent, but although you walk the streets with them, you tend to not notice them at all.

The languages of Morocco are French and Arabic, and I did have a difficult time communicating with – for example – the strolling shoe shine boy regarding a price for the shining of my shoes. Eventually I held out a few coins for him to pick through, and like an Ape of Gibraltar, the guy took every cent (I should’ve known better than that!). I found out from the man sitting next to me that in the exchange I paid twice what I should have, but $.90 isn’t much for a shoe shine, even if it is twice the going rate.

My shoes look great, by the way.