Playing Music on Cruise Ships: Know Before You Go

Thinking about playing music on cruise ships? Our first article on this topic, Performing Music on a Cruise Ship: Is This Your Dream?, prompted many additional questions. We decided to ask for advice from drummer Cameron Hicks, who’s currently playing music on cruise ships across the world. He shares great insights and suggestions gleaned from experience.

by Cameron Hicks

1. How musically proficient do musicians on cruise ships need to be?

Orchestra musicians should should be able to proficiently sight read, play with a click, easily handle tempo changes, play several styles (including styles common for production shows, big band, jazz, etc.), and proficiently speak English (may sound weird or biased but is very important).

Lounge musicians should have a large repertoire of recognizable and appropriate music. Each lounge act is its own entity. And cruise lines have pretty specific ideas as to what they’re looking for. For example, they may want a solo guitarist to play guitar and sing, or a jazz quartet that includes a singer (which is almost always the case). That said, I would never tell a band not to send in for a job. You just might be what they want!

2. What have you found to be the best way to go about finding a job performing on a cruise ship?

The easiest way I found is to go through an agency. They generally work with several cruise lines and have quickly found me work.

3. Who is your main contact once you get the job offer? And who is your main “go to” person once you’re on board?

I stay in constant contact with my agent. Agents will let you know about flight details and other important things you need to know.

Once on board the ship, my direct manager is the Bandmaster who is in charge of all the musicians on the ship. This is typically a musician in the orchestra who creates the daily schedule for all the ship’s musicians. The cruise director is in charge of the entire entertainment department.

4. What’s a typical day like on board the ship?

As an orchestra musician, I generally have a rehearsal and/or tech run sometime during the day. The time varies depending on when the performance theater is available. These are either for a production show with the cast or with a guest entertainer. Generally you won’t see the music before this rehearsal.

On days when the orchestra isn’t needed in the theater, we usually play one to four lounge sets – either big band or jazz.

5. In addition to playing music, what are you required to do?

There is one mandatory emergency drill with passengers on each cruise. Crew members are given duties to perform during this drill. This can include crowd management, life jacket demonstration, announcements, etc. There are also emergency drills required of just the crew.

6. Where do you store your instrument? Do you have access to it when you’re not performing?

If you’ve brought your own instrument, you are responsible for it. I’ve seen some ships with safe places to store instruments backstage, but this is not the norm. Musicians generally have to store their personal equipment in their cabins, which are small!

If you have your own instrument you always have access to it. Most musicians are also able to find a place to practice (harder for drummers due to the noise factor).

7.  What can you do to make the most out of each cruise?

It’s a good idea to create a list of two or three (realistic) goals and schedule your personal time around them. I’ve heard people who want to save money, practice, see as many new places as possible, make new friends from as many countries as possible, etc. Several of these are possible but having too many goals can be a problem.

8. What essentials will cruise musicians need to bring with them and keep handy?

  • Valid passport (not expiring just before, during, or right after the cruise)
  • Valid ID (in addition to the passport)
  • Medical exam – each cruise line has a medical exam you must pass to be allowed on board. If you forget the paperwork you will not be allowed on.
  • Your instrument (check with your agent to see what’s necessary)
  • Headphones and 1/8″ to 1/4″ adaptor for click track
  • Visas – your agent will probably help you with this, but do some research about the countries you’ll be visiting regarding visas. It’s possible you’ll need one or two to get off the ship in certain ports (even if you’re an American citizen).
  • And don’t forget to tell your bank/credit card companies where you’re going! Otherwise, it’s likely your card will be frozen after the first few purchases and you will probably not have cell service to fix the problem.

9. What’s the best way for a musician to pack for a cruise gig?

Don’t bring too much stuff!

I mention this for two reasons. First, there is very limited space in your cabin and you will most likely be sharing it with another person. Second, you will be traveling alone and likely end up in a foreign country pushing your way through an unfamiliar airport trying to figure out how to get to your hotel. You will also be carrying your luggage through small hallways on the ship when you get there. Make sure you can carry all of your luggage by yourself!

Even though you may be away from home for six months at a stretch, don’t worry –– there are laundry and dry cleaning services on the ship.

For more information on packing see How I packed for a two-month Alaska cruise.

10. Which instruments will the ship have on board? And how’s the quality?

The only instruments I’ve ever seen provided are drumsets with hardware (no cymbals), pianos, and keyboards. The quality is decent. If these need repairs or parts, you can talk to the Bandmaster to see how the problem can be fixed.

11. What’s the average age range for cruise ship musicians?

The majority of musicians I’ve met have been in their 20’s or 30’s, but there’s always a range of ages.

12. What kind of non-compete policies have you had to work with?

The only non-compete I’ve seen is with my agency.

13. What if you were to get sick on board the ship? What do you do about health care and health insurance?

There is a medical center on board for dealing with any illnesses that may arise. Check with your cruise line to see how you’ll be covered. Also check with your own health insurance plan. It’s a good idea to have health insurance that will cover you beyond whatever the ship offers.

14. Any final words of wisdom?

Take a camera and have fun!

Cameron Hicks received his BFA in Jazz Studies from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 2012. He is a drummer and composer who performs, tours, and teaches professionally.

Playing music on cruise ships - drums


    • There are entertainment agencies that specialize in helping cruise ship musicians and other entertainers find work. With the changes in the cruising industry brought on by the pandemic, it’s hard to know how this will be handled in the near future, although some of these agencies say they’re still reviewing applications and preparing to hire performers as soon they can. You can learn more by checking the websites of cruise lines directly since some have their own in-house entertainment directors; also try googling “cruise ship entertainment agencies.”

  1. Gary

    Outstanding advice. Cameron has succinctly covered all of the must-know facts about working as a cruise ship musician. I would add to try and get in touch with the bandmaster/musical director (MD) prior to departing. That way you can find out about ship-specific things (do you need suits, tuxedo, all black, regs on open-toed shoes for women etc.) You can also find out if any performance prep resources are available like digital copies of production show music or recorded track stored in a drop box account. Emailing the ship’s MD ahead of time may also help you make better packing decisions.
    – G. Beamon, Lead Trumpet, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line

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