So, you’ve heard about ships from a friend, or maybe seen something online, and think you want to give it a shot. Perhaps you are asking yourself, “What type of music would I be playing, exactly? I mean, I’m going to be playing endless choruses of The Girl from Ipanema, while sipping piña coladas by the pool, how do you prepare for that, anyway?” Don’t kid yourself, playing as member of a showband on a ship is a challenging job for many musicians. Based on my own experiences, I will try to give you an idea of what you might actually be doing onboard a ship, and what kind of things to work on to prepare yourself for the gig.
Playing in the showband typically has different elements to it. The main job is to act as the pit orchestra for the cast production shows onboard. These can be compilations from Broadway shows, a tribute to popular artists, or based on a theme, such as movies, magic, and so on. There is usually nothing or little in terms of dialogue or story in these shows, so they tend to be a segue of one song to another. This can mean wicked page turns, especially if you are in the rhythm section. Given that you are working with singers, expect to play in any key; for some reason, their voices usually fall into keys like G flat or C sharp… The way these shows are written tends to be that you have one song, or just a portion of a song, with a fast segue into another, often in a different tempo, feel, or style. Learn to be able to play, read, and groove in any style, including: 2-beat (Cut time, frequent on Broadway shows), swing, samba, salsa, merengue, funk, rock, etc.
Most cruise ships now use click-track accompaniments along with the live band and lead vocals. Normally these tracks contain strings, oboes, french horns, sound effects, and backing vocals etc. that compliment what the band and cast are playing, without duplicating it. However! There are some tracks which include instruments that are already being played live. In this scenario musicians, particularly the rhythm section, have to read the score note-for-note, flawlessly, and accurately recreate what was played in the studio when the track was recorded. This combined with monitoring issues, can create a very difficult environment for an inexperienced player.
In addition to playing for production shows, the showband also backs up “guest entertainers”. This can be one of the most challenging areas of the gig, as you never know what style of music, or what standard of arrangement, you might be faced with. Staying cool under pressure with a limited amount of time to rehearse is essential. It is a good idea to check your ego at the door, even if some around you have not.
As well as singers, you can expect to back up pianists, piano vocalists, violinists, and other instrumental performers (I have played for clarinetists, trumpeters, banjoists, harmonica players, ukulele players, and even a guy who played tuned cowbells and a musical saw!) Non musical acts can include comedians, jugglers, magicians, ventriloquists, you name it. Rehearsal time is at a premium, so as showband musician you are basically like the guys in the Late Show band; you will be sight reading at rehearsal for the show that night. Musical styles can range from Classical to Pop, to Broadway, Rock, Jazz, Country, Flamenco, Klezmer, whatever.
Aside from playing the shows, showband musicians are also called upon to play dance sets. How many sets/day, in what line-up, and what repertoire may vary depending on the cruise line or ship. Usually, the band plays for “Captain’s Cocktail”, a formal dance where they introduce the Captain and senior officers to the guests, once per cruise. Musical styles are usually ballroom music, and standards, played at tempos for dancing. The band may have charts, head arrangements, or you might just fake tunes, depending on the situation onboard. Showband musicians need to have a good command of the vocabulary and idioms of jazz, pop, and contemporary music, and be able to improvise… but, you need to know when to use particular styles and licks. For example, a killer burning bebop solo over “In the Mood” just doesn’t cut it. Keep in mind that this is a commercial gig, and you are getting paid to entertain the guests. You might get to play the occasional jazz jam onboard and there are opportunities to solo within the idiom, but if you are looking to do really creative jazz that pushes the boundaries of convention, ships are not the place for that.
I hope that this overview has given you an idea of what to expect from a cruise ship gig.