I’ve talked to a few musicians lately about repertoire lists, so I thought I’d write a little about that.
There’s a theory that I recently read about in the book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. The idea is that each musical genre has a prototype song. For example, when you think of “disco”, the first song you might think of is “Stayin’ Alive”. Or you might think “modal jazz” and “Kind of Blue” would directly come to mind.
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Alternative – Blues – Children’s Music
Christian/Gospel – Classical – Comedy
Country – Christmas – Dance – Electronic
Jazz – Latino – Soundtrack – Musical Theatre
Pop – R&B/Soul – Rap/Hip hop – Reggae
Rock – Singer/Singwriter – Vocal Standards
Workout/Fitness – World Music
Each person can have a different prototype, and your prototype for each genre can change over time. For instance – you might hear a modal song by Coltrane and suddenly that’s your new prototype for modal jazz.
Now, you may wonder what kind of music you should expect to play on cruise ships. Primarily, you will play prototypes. That means if you have a jazz set it will probably include Satin Doll or Take the A Train or other standards like that. A piano bar guy should play Billy Joel. The guitarist should sing Brown Eyed Girl and Bobby Magee. If you play by the pool you might play light Jobim tunes or “Beach Music” (which seems to somehow be synonymous with 1950’s Top 40s rock).
In other words, cruise ships are not interested in presenting their guests with new music, and they have zero interest in original music. Even the main stage shows will include some combination of popular, one might call it “over-played”, music from one genre or another.
The result is usually a big slice of cheese. This kind of programming completely ignores the nuance of musical genres, and completely omits many of the best “deeper cuts” that most musicians want to play now and then. What also ends up happening is that square playing becomes very valuable – as variations are not as valuable as precision.
But maybe I exaggerate. It’s not that bad. To a certain degree it depends on who’s calling the tunes. If your music director is hip, he’ll throw the musicians a bone now and then and call up a bebop chart, even though it knows the audience may not be into it. And if you are a soloist, you can squeeze in something that lights your fire even more often.
Certainly, nobody on the ship is monitoring the repertoire in your sets. Whether or not you get asked back for another contract (or fired) has more to do with how you get along with other crew members and what the guest say (or don’t say) about you than what songs you play.
I bring this up more for the case of repertoire lists, which agents and cruise lines seem to be asking for these days. As I said, I had a two musicians ask me about repertoire lists this week. What you want to put on your repertoire list are all the hits, or prototypes, of your genre.
For instance, I had a pianist from New Zealand send me his list. I won’t put the whole thing up, but I hope he doesn’t mind if I put a few of his listed songs, because his list was very good. It included:
- How High The Moon
- Here’s That Rainy Day
- I Could Have Danced All Night
- I’ll Be Seeing You
- Jamaican Farewell
- Jingle Bell Rock
- Just A Gigolo
And others. Just looking at the list you can tell what kind of pianist he is, where it would fit in on a ship, and because he keeps it consistently within the Light Jazz/Light Pop genre, the agents and cruise line can trust that he’ll give them a consistent product while out at sea.
In the independent music scene on land you are often told not to pigeon-hole yourself into one genre…not to state your influences to loudly because people might think you are trying to be an imitation. But the opposite is true on cruise ship jobs. Imitation is highly valued – look at all the impersonators on cruise ship for proof of that.
These repertoire lists are silly things. If they asked you to play 150 songs, that would be one thing, but to just ask you for a list of 150 songs that you may or may not play shows no interest in your abilities. It’s just a test that they want you to pass before they can consider hiring you. What they are looking for is music that the average guest will be able to connect to – that is, popular songs. Prototypes.
To a lesser extent, repertoire lists also show an agent or cruise line whether or not you’d be able to handle requests in your genre. Requests are common on cruise ships, and make guests happy. When people make requests, they will often request songs that they feel are prototypes of the genre you’re playing. So if you have a jazz set going, someone might come up and as for “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” or “Georgia.”
When you get on a ship, you might want to keep a copy of your repertoire list handy for when guests do come up with requests. If you don’t know their request, you could refer them to your repertoire list and ask if they’d like to hear any of those songs.