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.


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.

Responsibilities On a Ship Gig

A few things to remember when looking at becoming a cruise ship musician are the personal responsibilities you face each and every day of your contract pertaining to the drug and alcohol policies, extra duties and emergencies. Although I personally have no problem with this lifestyle I have started to see other crew members (musicians and others) become increasingly lax in their approach and attitude to living on a ship and pitching in when need be.

I am writing this after a very stressful and potentially life threatening situation aboard my current ship. We were docked in a popular Mexican port and the musicians had a very busy day (2 rehearsals, 3 shows) so we had limited time to get off the ship. Others, however, managed to hit up some popular crew bars and took advantage of their hours off. About 5.30pm the musicians had an hour before sail away and we decided to go out and get some dinner. Walking down the pier we ran into one of our friends – covered in blood and barely able to stand due to too much booze. She was being helped by a man who we can only guess was a passenger. Apparently she had fallen over entering the pier through security and had banged her head. We took over and let the man return to the ship and we tried to clean her up. For a whole hour we were on the pier with varying levels of success trying to get her to walk forward towards the ship! At the time we didn’t know, but a guest had called the Hotel Director and she was waiting for us outside the ship. Luckily a guest had distracted her as we walked passed and we got through to the mid-ship passenger area and again our friend kicked off a scene. Eventually we managed to get her to bed. Later that evening, during our next break where we intended to try and eat for the second time that evening we had a crew announcement – ‘Bravo, Bravo, Bravo – Portside boiler room’. Basically one of the engines was on fire and this was not a drill! Needless to say we didn’t get to eat as we started the emergency plan. Luckily the fire was resolved with no evacuation muster taking place, but what came as a big wake up call to many people on the ship was the fact that drunky did not hear the alarm at all and had the situation been more serious she would have not been able to perform her evacuation duties, or even manage to get off the ship herself.

From the above situation we have all come to realize first hand why ships have these rules. Living on a ship is a 24/7 commitment whether you are working 2 or 22 hrs a day. This also pertains to extra duties when a ship has an outbreak of any sort. The past 2 months this particular ship has seen its fair share with a case of German Measles resulting in Canadian and US Authorities not allowing crew off in some ports and directly after that was a outbreak of GI amongst the passengers. The latter meant that all crew, regardless of position, had to pitch in and help clean the ship each day.

So basically, if you’re thinking of becoming a musician on a ship remember it’s not the same as being a musician on land. You can’t show up to shows drunk or high, you can’t drink on stage and when need be, you have to be able and willing to perform ANY duties the higher ups throw at you. You can get angry, you can threaten to quit, you can skip out on duties, but all of the above will probably result in you being on the next flight home if you persist. If you are prepared and willing to accept the lifestyle you just have to grin and bear it. Ship life isn’t always glamorous and a ship musician sometimes has to work a lot more than people realize. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t let your guard down for the whole 6 months. You are responsible for your own work, safety and the passenger’s safety. In saying this, I do sincerely love this job and already have my next 2 contracts lined up. Being a cruiseship musician is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.

What Are the First Days Like?

A pianist emailed me a question a few weeks ago.  His question:

I was wondering if you could perhaps describe what the average first days are like on a cruise – training etc. Things like how many days is it typical for you to arrive before guests.

I thought I’d open this one up for discussion. If you’ve worked a cruise gig, please post a comment below and tell us what your first few days on the gig were like.

What Happens If I Get Fired?

I like to check the traffic stats of this site regularly.  Not because the site gets a huge amount of traffic, just because it’s interesting.  In most stats you can see how people got to the site.  If they found the site through a search engine, it’ll even tell you what term they searched.

Today I got an interesting one.  Some poor devil searched this term:

“musicians i got fired from a cruise ship will i ever work again”

That search term brought them to this website, although they probably didn’t find any information here.  I haven’t talked much about being fired from a gig.

First off, yes, you will work again.  Cruise lines don’t seem to talk to each other, strangely enough.  If you get fired from Carnival one day, you can be on a NCL ship – maybe within the week.  This is especially true if you are going through an agent.  If you get fired from one cruise line, they’ll bundle you off to another cruise line right away.  A placement fee is a placement fee after all.  You’re still good for 12%, even if you got wasted one night and broke into the bridge with your birthday suit and a spa girl (or whatever you did).

The worst thing about being fired, aside from losing your job, is that you usually have to buy your own plane ticket home from wherever you are.  So if you get fired and the next day the ship is ported in Tunisia – you have to buy a one-way ticket home for that day.  There goes all the money you saved.

As far as work on land goes – relax.  If anybody asks, you worked as a cruise ship musician and it was great.  If they asked you point blank if you got fired you’ll have to tell them, but nobody will ask that.  A musician’s career isn’t about credentials and resumes, it’s about recommendations and chops.

Here’s the process:  If you do something wrong (it usually has to do with drinking too much, so be careful) you’ll be called down to the captain’s office.  You’ll get a long lecture and you’ll be fired.  You’ll have to pack your bags and leave the ship that day or the next day.  Usually you’ll be totally responsible for your lodging or airfare from whatever city you get thrown off in.

Also, you will be the source of constant gossip on the ship for weeks and weeks.

Don’t get fired, it’s a total drag.  If you work on a ship though, you can expect to have some member of the crew fired every few weeks or months.  Again, it’s usually for drinking too much and doing something very stupid.  Be careful and follow the rules and you’ll get through no problem.

When and What Does the Show Band Play?

Chris is leaving to play in a show band soon and asks:

What I want to know is: when do we play. All I know is about the 8PM and 10PM shows. I am SURE though that there is more, and I’ve been trying to contact the Cruise line for more info. ProShip has given me some info to go by, but I still have questions.

Good question Chris.  This is one of the reasons I put up this site in the first place – because it was so hard to get straight answers about what would be expected of you when you got to your gig (or what to pack, what your room would be like, how to get the job in the first place, etc., etc., etc.).  I’ll never understand why Proship doesn’t do a better job of communicating with their musicians.

Chris, the show band plays back-up for each ship’s nightly entertainment, which usually hits at 8pm and 10pm.  But – you may not play for every show.  If a comedian comes in, or a juggler, or a solo pianist – they may not need the backing band, in which case you could have the night off.  You may not know if the band is needed or not until the guest performer is actually on the ship and tells you.

When I worked in the show band we played shows 2-5 times a week.  My band didn’t play for the dancers production shows (the music was all pre-recorded), so we knew we’d have those nights off.

The show schedule can be really light on some ships (on my last ship the show band only played 1 show a week!), and perhaps because of that, the show band is given other responsibilities on the ship.

Pianists and guitarist in particular are sometimes given solo sets to cover in lounges around the ship.  For instance, I played cocktail piano sets at least once a day while working in the show band.  The schedule for these sets varied widely.  Sometimes I would work 30 minutes in the coffee and tea lounge, sometimes 2 fifteen minutes sets (literally) in the jazz lounge, and sometimes a 2 hour set in the top deck lounge.  These sets were invariably during the day sometimes between noon and 7pm.  Sometimes these sets would be on show days, so I would play a set, then go play the shows.

On average, even on days I would have solo sets and shows, I would only work about 3 hours a day.

For the rest of the band – drummer, sax, bass – the schedule was lighter.  3-4 times a week we would have jazz combo sets in various lounges – again always during the day between noon and 7pm.  Sometimes we would play after lunch on the pool deck, sometimes late afternoon in the jazz lounge.  I don’t remember entirely, but I think they were maybe two 45 minute sets or something like that.

The show band is also sometimes used to give the lounge acts a night or set off if needed.  Sometimes the jazz combo would have a player sick (often the singer) or some other problem, and we would come sit in for the night and play standards out of the Real Book.

The show band would also play for special occasions – New Year’s Eve we would play for the pool party.  I’ve always seen show bands play for Christmas and 4th of July.  As GhostWriter has been mentioning lately, the show band also plays for the welcome aboard show and the captain’s cocktail party (expect maybe 30-45 minutes each).

Again, on average I worked about 3 hours a day, and usually had at least a few full days off a month.  GhostWriter has been sending reports that he’s working considerably more than that, but his MD sounds like a fascist prison guard and his schedule is pretty unusual.

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.

Book Review: The Inner Game of Tennis

The Inner Game of Tennis
By W. Timothy Gallwey

This book was very helpful to me. This book, along with Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner, was required for a class all freshmen in the tuba studio at FSU were required to take their first semester, probably because our professor needed butts in the seats to keep the class going. Even though there were about 30 of us in the class, he never again offered it.

That’s a loss to the students. It was a very influential class for me, even though I didn’t take it seriously. I only read the books half-heartedly, and barely even took part in the discussions when I was there. But, it was similar stuff taught in my lessons anyway. I took this book along with me to read with more attention later.

This book helped me get out of my rut with the MD here. The idea of the book is that we have two “selves” to our minds: Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the ego-mind: it’s where our waking consciousness sits, where we analyze and study things and use logic to solve situations.

Self 2 is the more subconscious part of our minds. This is the part of our mind that we use when doing things that take no thought or analyzing, like walking or driving, or playing “in the zone.”

Self 1 and Self 2 are in a constant tug-of-war. Self 2 can do it (whatever “it” may be), but is very soft spoken and submissive. Self 1 can’t do it, but thinks it can, is very aggressive, and tells Self 2 to relinquish control so Self 1 can fix the problem. During this inner turmoil is where we fall apart.

When I started college at FSU, I learned while in the class how to get “in the zone.” Over the years, my abilities increased on the euphonium, and most of the stuff I learned to play so second nature, I didn’t really need to think about it any more. Then I started to learn to play bass. I rarely played like this on bass.

When I got to the ship, I was completely out of my element. The floor under me was very rocky, I was given music that could barely pass as legible, I would sometimes get this music only hours before a show, and for me, worst of all, it was on the electric bass, an instrument that dangles on the bottom of the list of instruments I play. On top of that, I was trying to please the guest artists all the while having a power hungry MD threatening to fire me if I so much had a fret buzz. Unless you’re a seasoned gigging musician who doesn’t need this job, it would be easy to be shaken up in the beginning.
After reading this book, and combined with some personal information about the MD given to me from a friend of mine who played with him long ago, things started to sort themselves back out. First, I realized that I could dispense with Self 1 altogether, and allow H. to be my Self 1. No sense in having two Self Ones, is there? And for some reason, the idea that Self 1 is outside of me rather than inside seemed to help the progress out more.
Next, every time H. comes and yells at me, threatens me, or just tries to put me down, I think of the story I was told about him that he would be super embarrassed to know that I have heard, and I have a hard time trying to not laugh in his face about it.

The day all this came together, I thought to myself “what’s the worst he can do to me? Fire me?” To which the answer is a resounding “NO!” since he’s only temporary. Also, I would have to be a horrible player, and even the real MD would have to have a very good reason to fire me and be given permission by the cruise director before the steps can take place. In other words, I’m not going anywhere.

I’m not a bad player, no matter what he says, and in my opinion, I am a much better musician than he is. His weaknesses are so much more lacking than any of mine. So logically, if I get fired, so should he and a few others for similar reasons. To know all of this makes me go into rehearsals with a smile, and just smile and nod at all of his critiques. I know when I play a wrong note, and don’t need him to tell me. So I pretty much let his lectures go in one ear and out the other, and that really eases up the stress on me and in turn lets me play much better.

This book is all about relaxing, which is what I needed to relearn. It’s a book I think all musicians should read, or even anyone who’s trying to improve anything in their life. I have heard about the book The Inner Game of Music, but what I’ve heard by people that have read both is that “Tennis” is much better and makes more sense, even if “Music” was edited by Gallwey himself.
By the way, I probably won’t write reviews for the following books, but I think all musicians should own these as well:

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
The Music Lesson By Victor Wooten
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

If you’ve noticed, I’ve recommended five books for musicians to read, and only two out of the list are actually written on the subject of music. If you don’t understand why, Wooten’s book should help you out for the answer, and will even teach you how to use the other books to your cause. The Tao book is probably the most far-fetched, but still includes a wealth of information. It would probably be best to read Herrigel’s book before, as it’s a book on Zen from a Westerner’s point of view, and explains it in a way we can understand.

Beard and Moustaches

Starkey asks:

I have a question on beards and mustaches. Whats the story?

Hi Starkey – I assume you mean if, and to what degree, beards and moustaches are allowed for crew members.

That’s a good question.  Some companies in the hospitality and entertainment business can get a little weird about facial hair.  As I’ve mentioned a few times before, in college I worked as an intern at Disney World in Orlando.  When I arrived at new employee training, they handed us a book (not a booklet or a pamphlet, but a bona fide, bound BOOK) detailing the appearance policy of the company.  They had just started allowing sideburns back then – but ONLY 1″ long, and ONLY 1/2″ wide.

I’ve never seen any rules like that on a cruise ship.  For instance, check out this guy, who is labeled as a captain and has that scrappy looking beard.

If you are a competitor in the world beard championships or look at all like this guy, then you may have a problem.  Short of that, you’re probably ok as long as you keep it groomed.

Sending Money Home Thru Wire Transfers

David asks about money transfers:

Is there something like a Western Union on board? I know we can have direct deposit, but some of my bills I absolutely HAVE to send money back for.

There’s no way to transfer money directly from the ship – at least no way that I’ve heard of. Your best bet is to find a location in port that will wire the money for you. Try the link below, it looks like you can look up international Western Union locations there:

I once wired money from Norway and it worked just fine. I find wire transfers a little expensive, but it was before my direct deposit had been set up and there was no way around it. I think you’ll find, as I did, that it’s just as convenient to wire money in international port cities as it is from home.

Who’s My Boss?

Starkey asks:

I am the band leader of a new band going onto Princess in August. How does the MD affect or not affect my show? Who do I answer to directly with regards to my act?

Thanks for the question Starkey, and congrats on the new gig. Bosses are a common subject amongst cruise ship musicians, maybe because the concept of a boss doesn’t jive totally with being a musician – especially freelance musicians. For instance, you’ve spent the past 2 years freelancing without a boss, then you get on a cruise ship and you’ve got, like, 10 bosses.

The Music Director is the leader of the showband/houseband on each cruise ship. Sometimes the MD is also in charge of scheduling the lounge bands, but sometimes that is the responsibility of the cruise director or assistant cruise director. And sometimes, depending on the day, you just have to play the “Who’s My Boss Today” game, in which case you could be told what to do by whoever – the captain, the hotel director, the staff captain…the dude scooping food at the buffet…your cabin steward… I think you get my point.

Officially, this is the chain of command on most cruise ships for musicians, starting with the top:

  1. Captain
  2. Staff Captain (or “First Officer”)
  3. Hotel Manager
  4. Cruise Director (entertainment department head)
  5. Asst. Cruise Director (when the Cruise Director is unavailable)
  6. Music Director
  7. Band Leader (for lounge bands)
  8. Side Musician

Does that make sense? Find wherever your position is on this list – every position listed above you is someone you have to listen to.

If you have a problem, the standard etiquette is to bring it to your MD first, then your Cruise Director, but usually not higher than that. If you have a problem and you bring it to the Captain, you’ll get in trouble with all the people you skipped along the way, and potentially the Captain too (because that guy probably doesn’t give a hoot about your problem). When in doubt, go to the cruise director – they are the head of your department.

(If the problem is a safety or harassment problem, i.e. a BIG problem, go to someone higher up on the list.)

Chain of command is an important thing on a cruise ship, but it can create as many problems as it solves. For instance, there tends to be a don’t-tell-Mom kind of mentality on cruise ships, where something will be going poorly, but your immediate boss won’t tell his boss because he doesn’t want to look inept or get in trouble (or they are lazy). So the problem remains until it comes to a head or just drives all the sidemen nuts. An example of this would be a chart that’s written wrong, a musician that is always late and/or drunk, or poorly mixed monitors and a lazy sound man, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve never worked on Princess, Starkey, but it’s likely you will answer directly to the cruise director if you are a lounge band leader.

What Are the Crew Areas Like?

Ryan asks:

What are the crew areas like? I’ve heard (of course) of the crew bar – but not much else. Is it nothing but crammed rooms like a dorm – or do they have some lounges and things like that specifically for the crew.

This may sound like an odd question – but do they have pool tables on the cruise ships – or anything like that?

Hi Ryan. I’ve never seen pool tables anywhere on ships, but you can find them in port. When a ship has a set schedule, such as every Tuesday is an overnight in St. Maarten, or something like that, there tends to be a bar or two in town that the crew flocks to on these nights. Often these are bars with darts, or pool, or something like that.

There are crew amenities on cruise ships. On my first ship there was a big crew mess, a medium-sized petty officer’s mess (“the PO”), and a small crew bar. Drinks were served in the crew bar and the PO. Also, if there was a big party we’d set up a DJ and lights on the mooring deck, which is where the mooring lines and anchor chains are stores (usually around deck 5, aft, and hard to find).

Crew spaces are generally very utilitarian. Whereas passenger areas are often decorated and carpeted, there’s little to none of that in crew areas. Expect metal walls and ceilings painted white and blue-green linoleum-like floors. Often, though, the crew bar will be decorated for someone’s birthday or a holiday. I remember one particular 30th birthday party of a popular spa girl that had ice sculptures and a buffet in the crew bar. The place was packed.

While small and bare, the crew areas are very important to the crew. These little spaces are the only places on the ship that crew members can get together and blow off steam. When you live where you work, sometimes there’s a lot of steam.

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?