Going on a cruise gig!


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I think I've been somewhat conspicuously absent of late.

It's been a year of upheaval and worries, though I have been working steadily, if not as busily, with the Stratford Festival.

I'd anticipated that there'd be no contract for me in the 2015 season, as the musicals they're doing are single instrument R&H shows. I can play those, but there's a first right of refusal hiring list that I'm not on, so that means no gig for me.

At the beginning of October I did an online audition with Proship Entertainment. They called me on Wednesday with the offer of a short (1 month) contract. This was closely followed by an offer for a further two months on another ship with the same line. Both contracts are confirmed, and I've got work lined up from Oct23-Feb 6 at this point.

The paperwork and medical et al have had me tearing all over hell's half acre for the past 48 hours. All I have to do now is wait for the tickets, pack, and get myself to the airport.

I shall be checking in as the opportunity presents.

The shipping line operates out of Southampton, UK, but I'm joining the ship in Messina, Italy. Apparently the were so keen to have me, they're sailing without a sax for the first few days of their current excursion.
The fact that I worked Cunard back in the day is al the evidence of that which you would need. I started my time as a good clarinet and excellent bass clarinet, but only a mediocre sax player, but by the end of the commitment I was burning them up on the saxophone (baritone).

During my secondary education, I was handicapped by the fact that our school had an excellent group of saxophone players. Those of us who wanted to double clarinet and sax were welcome to do so, but the performance opportunities were severely limited by all of the "jazz band" slots being jealously guarded by their occupants. I got my feet wet by playing in the pit for other district's musicals (since I could hack clarinet, bass clarinet and (due to a summer in the summer band playing bassoon) the faggot. Three Broadway shows gave me a founding, and a week on the boat, playing five hours a night, was all that it took.)

One of the problems with secondary music education it that it focuses far too closely upon art music ("classical") and jazz, while pretty much ignoring rock and pop. You spend the four years playing Taste Of Bravery and other concert band stuff, or (shudder) Basie's Buddy B, only to find that you are being asked to play Knock On Wood and similar stuff out in the real world.

Something that I encounter all the time is musicians who attempt to play rock music with swing rhythm patterns. Just because it's on a saxophone, it doesn't mean that you play the eighths swung...
Have you ever been on a cruise? I went on one and it is the last time for me. You might have more luck with it however. You will at least have something to do. I neither drink nor gamble so that eliminated 95+% of the entertainment available on that ship. The food was mediocre and the music was very limited in both quality and quantity. But I wish you luck. Bon Voyage mon ami.
Quality can vary, often in direct relationship to price. Go cheap, and don't expect the best.

Not having been on a boat since the very early 1970s, and having been exposed to many years of advertising on the industry, I didn't know what to expect when we went last year. I chose Disney based upon quality experiences with the Disney firm over the years (their live music at Walt Disney World is pretty much perfect), combined with the critical "no flying involved" (I don't fit airline leg room tolerance at all, plus I don't like flying in the first place) restriction. Lucky for me, Disney was still cruising out of Galveston; otherwise, we'd still be shorebound.

My lovely wife, who fought going on a cruise for over twenty eight years, positively fell in love with the Disney version of same, and is now an enthusiast. She enjoyed the food, the entertainment (even though live music was but a very small and inconsequential part of it), the destinations (of which we had only two, this being a mostly at sea one).

Neither of us gamble, we're not into many of the cruise activities (the seminars, the "party events"), and I'm not all that into the food (having lost much of my sense of smell (and thus sense of taste) from injuries during the war. But, the whole experience was a much more positive one that I anticipated. She loved the food, we both enjoyed the entertainment (recorded backing tracks notwithstanding), and she loved two of the three destinations. Plus, as a disabled veteran, I got free parking at the terminal.

But, what I enjoyed the most, both as an employee and as a customer, was the time spent at sea at night. When working as an employee, I would finish up my evenings by lounging on the crew's deck (the main deck forward of the bridge) and watching the sweep of the sky pass by. Often, I wouldn't get to bed until three o'clock. And on our recent cruise, the spectacle of the Leonid meteor shower on a pitch black moonless night, when viewed from our veranda low on the port quarter of the ship, was (in my eyes) worth every penny that we paid.

One of the pitfalls for anyone working for a cruise line in any capacity is to fall afoul of the crew's bar. I've known people who drank away every penny that they earned, and then some. Some even blew out the seams on their marriage as a result.

But, the same thing could be said of many other work environments. When in the military in RVN, there were those who blew their (somewhat limited) pay on similar pursuits. Booze, perfectly legal though it may be, is always waiting for anyone dumb enough to stumble.

And, the big treat for me (other than banking all of my pay during my stint with the Cunard contractor back in the late 1960s) was the wonderful privilege afforded we musicians by the hotel staff, that being the ability to browse off of the ruminants of the midnight buffet as it was being torn down. I had a mass of lobster for my "midnight lunch", every day that I spent on the boat.

Live music on the boats, just like live music everywhere, is on the wane. We look at the quality of what's being provided, but the cruise lines look at the overhead (you've got to house and feed those extra twenty staff that a 1960s era cruise ship band included), along with dealing with issues like absenteeism, performance quality, and so forth. Far more economical to provide quality tracks that can be backed up and played through a quality sound system, this to back up the performers on stage (who are the ones that audiences are really interested in after all).

Disney is a good example here as well. Their system produced spectacular musical performances to back up the shows in the huge on-board theaters. Sure, the on-stage performers have to hit their marks with precision, and sure, the music isn't "live". But, the people (most of them, at least) are there to see the show, of which the music is an important, but not exclusive part.

The dancing portion of the cruise is better served by the four man "group" (which represents pop music these day, if not administered by the disk spinning DJ), and certainly not the "big band" style of years past. Once again, the operators look at modern culture and trends, but they always have the reduction of crew headcount at the back of their minds. Follow the money, and you'll always figure things out.
Of the five cruises I've been on, I dreaded going on the Disney cruise the most. Note that 4 of the 5 cruises I went on was paid for by my wife's parents. I worried about being surrounded by children. Much to my surprise, the Disney cruise was our absolute favorite. Classy, well done, and the kids were on different parts of the ship. Just thought I'd mention that ...
I happy for you Merlin. I know how stressful the uncertainty of the next paying gig can be. In the end, I didn't have the stomach for it anymore, and I ended up training for a gov't job (paramedic). Funny thing is, after I was settled in that career, and went back to music, I had no problem finding paying gigs. I ended up with 2 full time careers. Life can certainly throw you some curve balls at times, and work can find you when and where you least expect it.

Take good care, and safe travels. Check in when you can, and share some of the more amusing tails of life as a cruising musician. ;)
Same opinion on the Disney operation. Unlike the world at the theme parks (where children are found just about everywhere, even at the ultimate high end restaurants (like the California Grill, or the Artist's Point), children are mostly walled off on a Disney boat. Unless you gravitated to the family pools (2 to one adult), the only time you saw the kids was when they were lined up to meet a princess (lotsa that, keeping the kids very occupied all of the time)

Seating at the meals is "segregated" so that the families with the small 'uns are seated separately from those with mature children, and both are segregated from the adult crowd.

Our table was quite interesting. We were seated with a group from Texas (not hard to understand, as we departed from Texas), with a business man (and his fiftyish (and smokin' hot) Baptist girlfriend, whose church employers apparently had no problems with her sharing a cabin with an unmarried man, since she got calls from them all of the time) and a government employee and his wife. We all melded quite well at the dinner table, and we had some additional interactions (mostly unsought) during the rest of the cruise.

On the shore expeditions (at least the two that we took) the families were otherwise occupied, so children were not a factor there. It shocked the hell out of me how that happened, but that's the way that it was.

On-board entertainment was similarly set up so that the "non-captive" shows (i.e., those where there was not a compelling stage show holding the attention of all) for the kids were separate. They had their own vast areas of the ship, full of kid-centric activities and a massive counselor to children ratio. Another area on the boat was set aside for intensive caretaking of very young children, with an even higher ratio of staff.

In summary, unless we frequented the upper deck snack bar areas during the day, we seldom saw children (other than those patiently waiting in the lines to meet Snow White). Hard to believe, but completely true.

The ship itself was first rate, at least compared to my prior experience. First, my contrasting experience with Cunard, a first class operation when I worked for them:

I spent a season on the old Cunarder, the Countess, as we worked our way down to Caracas, then up the Windwards to the Virgins, and then back to Puerto Rico. While a "modern" boat (dating to perhaps the early 1960s), she was no picnic in a decent seaway. And, she was one cramped mess, both in the public spaces, and in the hotel crew quarters. Later, with a prior wife, I sailed on her as a passenger, and the cabin (while better than what I had to endure as a member of the hotel staff) wasn't anything to write home about. The food was abysmal, the outdoor rec spaces were limited to sunning, bathing in the pool (none for the crew, though), and watching the sky and sea roll by. The library was laughable, and the shore visits (while more interesting that what we saw on the Disney operation) were bland and very "history oriented".

The Disney boat (the Wonder, one of four that they were operating at the time) was (above all) spacious. Our cabin, near the bottom of the cost tier, was roomy for a bargain such as it was. An adequate king-side bed, large veranda, sitting area with sofa and chairs, separate bathing/toilet areas and a wash station - at least double the size of the cabin (high tier) that I occupied on the Countess when I rode as a passenger.

Disney has accomplished this by, above all, a massive increase in size. I've got a book around here somewhere that lists the gross and deadweight tonnage (they are different figures, figured differently) for all ships launched after 1900 and up through 2005. I don't think that the Wonder made the cut, but I would estimate that she was easily five times the size of the old Countess. More space translates to more facilities, and Disney crams them in with a vengeance.

First, the important stuff. The Wonder rode like a dream, with zero pitch and roll, and only a slight amount of yaw (which was more noticeable where we were in the ship - nothing that would make you seasick or anything like that. Even though a Diesel boat (the Countess being steam turbine), she was vibration free, even low down in the back of the ship by the screws. This was done by having the Diesels on vibration rafts, and the motors that drove the props isolated in pods outside of the hull. If the Countess were a land vehicle, she would have been a city bus; the Wonder a luxury sedan.

A massive live theater (but without a pit or a live orchestra), where theatrical performances equal to the Broadway touring operations I have worked were put on nightly. A massive movie theater where movies (Disney ones for the most part) were continuously shown during the cruise. At least ten different night clubs/comedy clubs/dance clubs, all scattered along one of the lower decks. They even varied the content, so that an excellent ventriloquist would work family shows on some nights, and then do "blue" on others.

The hotel service on both ships was impeccable, but the food on the Wonder was several magnitudes better than on the Countess, and she was considered to be one of the better cruise liners back in the day. As a more modern ship, the Wonder offered a few more options in the food department. Our ship had a "reservations/adults only" Italian restaurant that was first rate, equal to any other Italian operation at which I have eaten (and I hail from Saint Louis, which used to be crammed with excellent Italian facilities).

One new (for me) wrinkle was the constant availability of non-alcoholic beverages and food. On the Cunard Line, the way that they got you was to charge for everything not in the bare-bones, basic meal plan.

Want something other than coffee, water or tea? (I hate coffee and tea, and the water on the Countess was nasty.) Sure, we'll bill you for it. Booze? Same only at a higher rate. Snacks? Sign here, we'll put it on your tab. I don't drink at all, but my week's drink tab when cruising as a passenger totaled up to over $100, and this was in the early 1970s.

Not so on Disney. The food was all free, part of the meal plan, including room service - all of it. (The only charge area was the separate Italian place, set up on a deck above the rest of the ship with a spectacular view.) Soda, lemonade, limeade, fruit juices, milk shakes (in short, all non-alcoholic beverages) and ice cream (real ice cream) sundaes, and sandwiches, and pizza - all of it free, and all available 24 hours a day. (Tipping, of course, was extra.)

And, the hot dogs that they served were great. (And, they would grill the buns in butter if I asked them to do so.)

The service, as I mentioned, was first rate. But, the Disney boat was cleaner (and more modern, but you would expect that as it was thirty five or so years younger), the attention to contagious disease was rigorous (hand sanitizer when moving into meal areas, both passenger rooms and public rooms completely sanitized every day), and the staff (more international than back in the 1960, with a lot of folks from the former eastern block countries) was every bit as good as the fabled stiff upper lip British folks (actually, quite a few weren't British, but never mind) that Cunard fielded.

In short, Disney does the same here as they do at their theme parks world-wide, only with more attention to segregation of the kids from the adults. If you go on a boat for a swinger experience, or a nudist experience, or a young couples only experience, or an over 65 experience, you will probably get a slightly more "exclusive" trip but of much lower overall quality. On a Disney boat, you will share it with some non-adults, but they will be kept separate from you almost all of the time, and it will be a gold-plated operation, with no cut corners.

And, you can still drink yourself into a stupor if you want. One of the features of the adults-only pool was a pair of stainless steel hot tubs (which promptly emptied themselves every night at 12:00 midnight ship time - it was weird as hell when it happened). Invariably, as we wound down at the end of the evening by soaking in one of them, some drunken woman would show up and climb in, fully clothed. If they can do it, so can you...
I'm in Southampton for the turnaround between cruises. We're just back from the Med/Adriatic, and sailing shortly for the Eastern Caribbean.

So far, I've played shows with 4 guest entertainers (2 different shows per performer, 2 performances of each). We've also had a big band dance, and a jazz night.

Four horns, three rhythm. Lack of guitar is kind of an issue for more pop oriented acts.

We changed trumpet players here in port, and the trumpeter is my roomie, so I get to move to the bottom bunk. It makes coming back from the officers ward room at 1:00 a touch easier.
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