Many high school and college music students aspire to play music on a cruise ship. Whether for a summer or a year or more, what’s it really like to pursue this as a career and a lifestyle?
We spoke with Josh Greenberg, a recent music school grad from the midwest, who is living the dream.
What is your educational background for working on a cruise line?
I started out as a music education major but graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in performance from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. While growing up, my mentors emphasized that being a musician these days means having the ability to professionally perform on a variety of instruments. I studied clarinet and bassoon while in college and picked up flute. I also studied classical and jazz saxophone. After graduation, I continued my education at the University of Minnesota, Duluth for a degree in saxophone performance, and certification in K-12 education.
After a year of graduate school, I found myself in financial hardship. I decided to hit the high seas to make money and gain experience.
What made you decide to work on a cruise ship?
Performing on a cruise ship has been a part of my life goals and plans for awhile now because it is one of the last frontiers where musicians can earn a decent salary plus health insurance while living and working well. I’m able to perform many different genres of music while being able to practice whatever I’m passionate about in my off time. While the Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy bands also hire for symphonic bands, the cruise ship commitment is much shorter.
Cruising is a great lifestyle when you are young and want to travel. But you pay the price of changing your lifestyle, which is why performers usually do not stay long.
How does one apply to work on a cruise ship?
I applied by sending an email to one of the bookers for the cruise line itself. There are many different companies that do talent finds for cruise companies around the world, but many of their business practices have been controversial. Some require you to sign a contract that forbids you from engaging in any similar business within three years of your current contract. This leaves you unable to work as a free agent after signing a contract with any company with this sort of policy.
It is easier to either have an independent agent who works for you, or be a complete free agent and find your own work. As a free agent, I find my own work and avoid having to pay someone to do that for me.
What’s the audition process like?
The audition and application process is kind of funny and extremely weird the first time around. They email you PDF files followed by a phone call. They give you ten minutes to look over the music, and then the audition process starts.
As a saxophonist, I had my sax, clarinet and flute ready. The folks auditioning you typically have you put the phone on speaker or place the receiver close to the instruments. Then they ask you to read certain passages from the music (both classical and jazz genres). If you are going for an improvisation chair, they will ask you to solo over a blues outline.
How soon do you hear whether you’ve gotten the job?
If you are auditioning with a company representative, you will know right after the audition if you will be offered a contract. If you are going through an agency, it may take longer and you may be asked to submit a video as well.
And how long is the contract for?
After you get hired, the average contract for a musician is six to nine months depending on the company that you work for. Vacation fills are usually just six to eight weeks, but require you to bounce around between different ships (which can be frustrating). Like the water you’re sailing on, the job is very nomadic: always moving and not really ever staying put. But if you are working directly through a company, you are likely to be offered a contract back onto that same ship.
What is a typical work day like for you?
A typical work day usually entails playing one or two shows plus maybe a dance set. Different companies have different practices, however. It doesn’t matter if no one shows up; you play what’s in the schedule.
Besides the dance sets, there are jazz jams and working with guest entertainers (artists who usually come onboard at the end of one cruise and perform that cruise and the beginning of the next cruise). We also perform with production shows commissioned for the ship. These shows typically involve a mixture of live musicians with tracks. The musicians play to something called a “click track” — a metronome track that plays through the headphones of all the members in the pit.
What about the challenges?
The main challenges I’ve found are these:
1. Working as a musician on a cruise ship can be frustrating due to the diverse knowledge of the musicians. The overpublished number of lead sheets and books like “The Real Fakebook,” “The Real Really Really Real Book,” and the “Standard of Standards” have made things overly complicated for jam sessions. Musicians from different countries have tunes memorized in different keys and have learned those from different publishers.
If you plan to play music on a ship, bring a RealBook — and I mean the one known as the RealBook (all of you music students reading this will know what I am talking about).
2. Also improve your sightreading and practice sightreading before taking a gig like this. You’re likely to read over 200 charts a week and rehearsals for guest entertainers are only an hour and a half long for a 45-minute show. You need to be able to read down music, scoring at least a “B” average or better (i.e., 80% or higher) to keep your performing skills compatible with other musicians. Continuous mistakes will lead to disciplinary action based on what company you work for, and could lead to termination of the contract and being blacklisted from being hired for awhile or forever.
3. A word of advice for woodwind players: if you are getting hired to play other woodwind instruments like clarinet and flute, you better be able to play the normal written range of the instruments. Otherwise, you contract is bound to be short-lived. They don’t expect you to be able to sit down and play like Benny Goodman or Eddy Daniels when you are a tenor saxophonist, but you better be able to play senior (college) to graduate school-level on the doubles.
4. Depending on what company you work for, you may be assigned duties such as port manning (where you are basically on watch and greeting guests) to entertainment productions on the ship. There is also likely to be a clause in your contract — a “need clause” — stating that in an emergency, you may be asked to perform additional duties as needed.
What’s the value of a college education for this line of work?
The education you receive in music school gives you the social and professional training necessary for this work. The music theory, arranging, and efficient practicing skills you gain will all pay off while working as a musician on a ship.
You may be asked to arrange something for the group. Perhaps the charts the guest artist has given out are completely wrong and unplayable and need to be re-written. Music theory allows you to speak in the jargon needed to make sure all the musicians are on the same page. This prevents wasted time and assures less confusion during rehearsals. These are the reasons why a proper music education is needed to be successful and a college education gives you more than knowledge, but rather the experiences in college allows you to deal with social and professional aspect of being a musician.
From your experience, who would not survive this kind of work?
The cruise ship job is not for everyone. You are basically a nomad for at least six to ten months. If you are not able to cope with distance and extended time away from family, if you get overly stimulated and burned out from being around people all the time and cannot relax, this job is not for you.
In summary, what are the top reasons to work on a cruise ship?
You learn life skills when living on a ship, including how to deal with people. You have to learn how to let things not get to you because of how close you are living to all your co-workers. Unlike on land, you can’t avoid seeing people you don’t get along with. So this is a great place to learn patience. The business of music is all about politics and people and what they like. Working on a cruise ship teaches you to work with people in close proximity on a daily basis.
Traveling on ships and working with people from around the world is amazing. You get to use your talent while gaining professional experience to put on your résumé. If you want to travel, enjoy dealing with people from other cultures, and would love to experience the world from different perspectives, this job is right up your alley.