It's been 11 days since I signed on to my 3rd cruise ship contract of 2013 and so far I have visited Italy, Spain, France, Turkey, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Denmark, Norway, UK, Canada and USA, which is quite the list now I look at it! I've had the privilege of playing with some fantastic musicians and making some great new friends along the way, which is really one of the best aspects of this job. In this blog I'd like to talk about a few of the lessons I've learned both musically and personally whilst sailing the high seas and playing bass!
Musically, the cruise ship gig is one of the most varied and sometimes challenging gigs available to bass players. I often get asked what kind of music I play onboard and its probably actually easier to answer with a list of music I don't play. Stylistically you could be expected to play everything from Lady Gaga to Rodgers and Hammerstein, possibly in the same show, and the performance situations vary from club style cover band to semi operatic orchestral accompaniment.
On the one hand this keeps the job interesting and varied, but on the other it can be tricky to wear so many different musical hats. However, there is help at hand in the form of the musical score. Reading music is a massive part of the gig and is essential to navigating all the different genres you'll find yourself playing, however, if you are unprepared it can be overwhelming. It's common to only see the music you will be performing on stage that night just a few hours before the show at the rehearsal. With any luck the charts will be well written, legible and not too difficult. Alas this isn't always the case and you may have to put it in a few more hours practice to get the parts down. On the plus side my sight reading has improved significantly, which really helps reduce the stress of the job. Coupled with a broad knowledge of musical genres, a versatile instrument and a positive work ethic, it's possible to enjoy performing in a professional, high quality setting night after night.
Of course, no matter how much you have your skill set together you are always at the mercy of the other band members. Luckily I've only had positive experiences with my fellow band mates and even encountered some truly incredible musicians. But just as important as the musical compatibility is the personal connection. I blogged about this topic previously and in this current situation I'm reminded of just how crucial good people skills are. For example, the accommodation is a small cabin with bunk bed. That is, you are sharing a living space not much larger than some people's bathroom with another person for up to 6 months at a time. Again, I've been lucky in that most of my cabin mates have turned into great friendships, and I've also kept my contracts to 4 months and below which helps.
Aside from the musical and interpersonal aspects, the cruise gig has a few more facets that are worth talking about: ports of call, and the crew bar. It's true that if you do this gig long enough you will probably end up visiting the four corners of the earth. It's also true that many musicians are too hungover to get out of bed and see them. Essentially it's a balancing act, the crew bar is an integral part of ship life; It's really the only place apart from your cabin where you can kick back and enjoy some normality after/during/before your shows, but it can also turn into the place you go whenever you're bored, and this can be detrimental in many ways, not least of all to your paycheck! I try to get out and see every port of call we visit, not just to try and find free wi fi and decent coffee (although for repeat ports of call this often the motivating factor) but also because I feel extremely privileged to be able to experience new places and cultures purely because I play bass! So many times I've found myself on a plane or in some great little bar in a city Ive never been to and thought to myself 'Someone is paying for me to experience this purely because I play bass.' This is both a humbling and inspiring notion that I try and remind myself of on a regular basis.
So there you have it. My experience working on ships in a (rather large, sorry!) nutshell. It's not my ideal job, but approached with the right mindset and surrounded by the right people, it can be a fantastic breeding ground for both musical and personal growth. And, the beer is ridiculously cheap....;)