Cruise ships are a growing industry. This year, Royal Caribbean will launch their biggest ship, Symphony of the Seas – carrying more than 6,000 passengers and weighing in at 230,000 gross tons. Millions of people board a cruise ship each year, taking them to exotic destinations and providing days upon days of entertainment.
Each company has different ideas on what entertainment their passengers enjoy, from casinos and spas to music and theatre. This means that as a musician, you could be playing in a jazz setting one day, and a classical concert the next. Your sight-reading skills are essential, as much as your ability to play all these styles. I was lucky enough as a trombonist to only be on larger ships, where the musicians numbered around 30.
My first ship was the Carnival Miracle, in a theatre/show band with 9 other musicians. We had full rhythm section, two trumpets, three saxes (that doubled on flute and clarinet) and me. Also joining us was a lounge singer, and a theatre cast of 12 – 10 dancers and 2 singers. Around the ship, there were a couple of guitar/vocalists, a DJ, a party band from the Philippines and a lounge pianist.
The standard of musicianship was varied – a few brilliant young musicians – but equally as many that I wouldn’t have hired for my own band. This, alongside the conditions of sleeping, eating, working and partying with the same people for months on end, meant that the standard of music produced was not exactly elite. Good enough, but I found the longer that I cruised, the more I noticed apathy sliding into my own playing. “I’m getting paid, so why should I try harder?” I’ve always had a high standard for myself and enjoyed playing music every time I picked up my horn, but it was getting hard to grow in an environment that wasn’t challenging me.
The Miracle sent me to Mexico (Cabo San Lucas during spring break was off the chart!), Hawaii and Alaska. I saw so many amazing places – a beautiful waterfall in an isolated beach resort near Peurta Vallarta, the volcanos and incredible scenery in Hawaii, and an ice cave under a glacier in Juneau, Alaska. The friends I made are still in contact today, even though it was a short 3 month contract, and I even managed to pick up a few clients for my transcribing/arranging work.
After a break of 6 months, my agency Proship gave me another contract, this time on the Cunard Queen Victoria world cruise! A beautiful luxury ship, this time I was working with 7 other musicians (rhythm, trumpet, 2 saxes) and a larger cast of 12 dancers and 4 singers. Also on the ship was a string quartet, a ballroom orchestra, a party band from the Caribbean, three pianists and a harpist. The itinerary took us from the UK over to the Caribbean, Mexico, USA, Hawaii, 5 Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia. This was the life!
I swam with stingrays in Antigua, crossed the Panama Canal, explored amazing rainforests with swimming holes in Fiji and managed to get my parents on board for a week from New Zealand over to Australia. The band was very good this time, with an Australian MD leading us on drums and I had a great contract. I sang a few tunes with the band on New Year Eve, held an Australia Day party and pretty much got to know the entire ship. The only regret was that I couldn’t get the next contract on there, as the previous trombonist had already signed it.
After a shorter break this time, I was off to the flagship of Cunard, the Queen Mary 2. One of the biggest ships in the world, they had a planetarium, two theatres, a jazz trio and the biggest ballroom at sea. I was however warned that they don’t call it the scary Mary for nothing. One month in to my contract I found out exactly why – one of the chefs committed suicide by jumping over board in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. After turning the ship around in the morning to look for him, we had to abandon the search. It would have been impossible to survive in those frosty waters. I spent 2 years doing contracts on the Mary, and I made incredible friends for life. I also had some of the lowest moments I’ve had on the ship and found myself getting more and more unhealthy – in my mental, physical and emotional state. The Mary does about half the year in Transatlantic season, going back and forward from New York to Southampton. Every time you get to New York, you have around 6 hours before having to be back on the ship and each crossing takes a week. The weather doesn’t always permit you to get fresh air, and the schedule makes a lot of people depressed.
In those 2 years, I did manage to achieve quite a lot. In an average day, you have a rehearsal late afternoon, and two 45 minute shows. Some of the artists you play with don’t use you that much, and others it’s quite a big blow. Days off are rare, as usually when you have a night off in the theatre you end up doing Dixieland sets in a lounge. But that does give you a lot of down time, which I spent writing charts, playing guitar and ukulele, playing Xbox (a lot), sun bathing and sleeping among other random things. I gained a lot of confidence as a singer, putting on shows in the crew bar, doing Australia Day and St Patricks day shows in the pub and even starring in a Blues Brothers show for the passengers in the theatre. Sometimes I would get frustrated at the lack of new music, and playing with some musicians who didn’t put in the same effort I was. Other times, I was content to be “flipping burgers” as one trumpet player I worked with referred to the same old stuff as.
Would I have done it if I knew the conditions of terrible food, cramped living areas and mental health issues? Maybe not. But I’m glad I did, as the friends I made are friends for life, and I managed to see so much of the world. The travel bug has fully bitten, so now I’m trying what I can to avoid settling in one area. I’m house sitting with my Irish girlfriend, a photographer I met on the Mary. We’re looking after peoples houses and dogs while they go away on a holiday. It enables us to see new places while working as freelancers, not paying rent or utilities. The freedom of being of “no fixed abode” is refreshing, and while I have friends in Cardiff and in Australia that I miss, I know it won’t be long before I see them again.
Should you sign up for a cruise ship job? Answer these questions:
Am I ok living in a small cabin with a roommate in bunk beds?
Do I value really high quality food? (the crew mess is abominable)
Can I live without access to high speed internet?
Am I able to play music with people who aren’t at a high standard and enjoy it?
Do I want to see the world?
If you’re looking for a career, cruise ships have them. You may not love it at first, or ever. Not everyone does. But if you’re sick of chasing people for gigs, being behind on rent, and not enjoying your existence, then maybe cruise ships is a good start to finding what and where you want to be.
Michael Pilley is an Australian trombonist, arranger, typesetter and all-round musician. He arrived in Cardiff in 2012 and has enjoyed a varied career in the UK with jazz, brass and cover bands as well as clients in the publishing and performing worlds.