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:
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.
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.
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.