A few summers ago, with my cello performance degree collecting dust, I waited tables and tried to determine my next move. I wasn’t interested in pursuing an orchestral career, but I loved chamber music and I was anxious to travel. I had a few musical acquaintances who had worked for cruise ships, which sounded like the perfect solution…
Two years later, Thalia Strings waved tearful goodbyes to our floating home and our third and final cruise ship contract. We had seen 25 new countries and made friends from almost every continent. We had logged over 600 hours of playing together, and programmed over a dozen different full-length concerts. After months of this intense and exciting lifestyle, my heart and mind were full. My confidence, stamina, and skill on the cello were at a higher level now than all my years in school. And I was ready to get my feet back on dry land!
If you seek an unforgettable musical voyage, I hope you’ll consider working for a cruise line. But there are a few things you should know before signing on! To help prepare you, here’s a glimpse into the travels and tribulations of a musician’s life on ships.
“Being in a quartet is almost like being in a marriage, and in some respects it’s harder than a marriage,” said Guarneri Quartet violist Michael Tree. While I haven’t been married, I can tell you that my quartet certainly saw the best and worst of each other, both personally and professionally. Take the time to put together a group that you love! At the very least, be sure that each member of your group is someone that you can trust and whose company you enjoy. Consider that you’ll be afloat together in very close quarters for several months – I daresay compatibility as friends is even more important than musical skill.
In a more practical sense, you’ll all need to be able to drop your “land lives” – your leases, your students, your significant others – at short notice. And once you’ve cut ties on land, it does make sense to consider multiple contracts. You’re also required to obtain a seafarers’ medical certificate, which can cost around $400; it’s good for two years, so you might as well get your money’s worth.
Be warned that cruise lines will push the duo or trio option because it saves them a salary or two. I strongly advise signing on as no less than a full string quartet. Even as a quartet, with huge amounts of available repertoire, we sometimes felt that we were running out of workable material and repeating the same tunes over and over!
Do you need an agency to land a ship gig? The short version: yes. The long version: The leading agency for cruise ship strings offered us a contract ten days after we applied. Their 12% commission was at the higher end of the standard range, but the itinerary they offered was perfect, so we accepted. Unfortunately, once on board, our agent was nearly impossible to reach (unless, of course, we were past due on paying commission). After months of frustration, we looked into “firing” our agency. We found 1) a non-compete clause in our contract which required us to go through our current agency for any ship gigs for the next two years, and 2) that even after the two years, our cruise line could not hire us again without going through said agency, as it would tarnish the relationship between them.
In the end, we found the agency to be unavoidable. With that in mind, it might help you to clarify expectations before signing on with any agency. Read your contract thoroughly, schedule a conversation with your agent, and don’t be afraid to voice (and put into writing) your expectations of the agency – e.g., they should act as your advocate in case of any issues with your cruise line, and they should respond to your emails and calls in a timely manner. After all, you’re paying them!
Agents typically ask for headshots, bios, and a video audition (be sure to feature varying styles and genres). It’s the look of the video that matters most: are you fun to watch? Are you dressed to impress? Realise that those reviewing the video are corporate entertainment directors, not an orchestra audition panel. They don’t care if your vibrato is too wide or you don’t cut off together; they want attractive, crowd-pleasing entertainment. (Bonus tip: spend a little extra money to record the audition at a studio, and make a full CD using an online source like Disc Makers or CD Baby. Cruisers love souvenirs, and you can make a ridiculously high profit once covering your costs! Trust me: it’s worth it.)
One of the best aspects of this job is the independence: your group decides what to play! Most sets are intended as background music in the lobby, with passersby stopping to watch for a song or two. In our first contract, we appreciated the relaxed environment as we sight-read through piles of music. But as our synergy and confidence grew, more passengers sat and listened, which inspired more thoughtfully curated sets, which grew our audience even more. Over time, our sets evolved into full programs, with a microphone at the ready to introduce each piece and a regular following of several dozen passengers.
The on-board management noticed and appreciated our efforts to pursue heavier repertoire and engage the audience. A few months into our first contract, we were asked to present our own full-length concert in one of the ship’s theatres. It was well-received, and we began planning more themed concerts and finding opportunities to present them. By our third contract, our reputation had preceded us!
The Daily Grind
If your group decides to go beyond the call of duty like we did, proceed with caution. According to maritime law, crew members can work up to 13 hours per day – this is a standard item in every contract regardless of your position on board. Once on board, you would never actually be expected to fulfil the 13 hours. That said, your schedule is at the mercy of the music manager and cruise director. Understand that they have performance slots to fill, but do stand up for your physical health. They may not know that you’re rehearsing outside of the scheduled performance times – most musicians don’t. If asked to play production shows or feature shows, negotiate for fewer lobby sets on those days. Your salary is the same either way!
Prior to ships, I had taken a hiatus from cello. Adjusting to a daily performance schedule was physically and mentally gruelling at first, but I saw massive improvement in my playing as I found ways to embed practise technique into our daily sets. Others in my group, however, had been full-time freelancers prior to ships, and looked forward to taking orchestra auditions when we left ships. They felt that their skills actually deteriorated during our time on board, especially because they were too tired to practise sufficiently beyond our rehearsals and performances. As for practise space, well – you’ll have to get creative.
We found an unmistakable correlation between our performance attitude and our audience. Nearly every day, passengers told us, “you look like you’re having so much fun!” or, “you must be friends as well as colleagues!” Alternatively, when we felt low-energy, our audiences were sparser and less engaged. Remember, this is not your typical concert-going audience on land – cruise entertainment tends to be, shall we say, fluff. But by first captivating our audience with our smiles and commentary, we built a base of loyal new classical music fans. Truly rewarding!
While we often grew weary of passengers and their unending questions (“Do you get paid to do this?”, “Would you keep playing if the ship started sinking, like in Titanic?”, “Where is the elevator?”), some left us with unforgettable moments and lasting friendships. An American-Australian couple who became our “Quartet Parents,” and with whom we continue to Skype, years later; a wonderful Polish gentleman who couldn’t get enough Chopin; an elderly lady who left dinner early with her steak stashed in her purse, desperate to catch our performance; a couple who booked another cruise specifically to see us again; a man who requested our Borodin Nocturne and told us afterwards, tears in his eyes, that he would never forget that night for the rest of his life. This is just a glimpse of the many, many encounters that made our experience worth every last note.
With a surprising number of tasks to juggle, we eventually organised ourselves into a miniature business. We divided duties into categories: outside and inside communications (managing our Facebook page and email, liaising with our agency and music director, acting as spokesperson for the group), finances (handling merchandise and payout), and logistics (coordinating rehearsals, sets, and concerts). We even went so far as to give mid-contract reviews together, where we openly discussed and critiqued aspects of each others’ playing and working styles. While this required a terrifying level of vulnerability, it really enhanced our group’s interactions and music-making. I continue to benefit from this unique and valuable feedback, even in a non-performance setting.
To pass the time on board, we developed a new skill: creating arrangements for string quartet. After testing our various versions of Finale and Sibelius, we eventually settled on the fantastic free software MuseScore, and spent hours in our cabins working on arrangements of pop tunes, many at the request of passengers and crew. In the years since cruising, arranging has continued to be a useful skill and a fun hobby for all of us.
An average Thalia Strings “sea day,” travelling between ports.
10:30am – 11:30am: brunch in the passenger buffet; go for a walk on the open deck
11:30am – 12:30pm: practise, read, or work on arrangements
12:30pm – 1:15pm: perform a set in the lobby
1:30pm – 2:15pm: practise, read, nap, or work on arrangements; enjoy the sun on the Crew Deck
2:15pm – 2:45pm: lunch in the passenger buffet
3:00pm – 4:30pm: quartet rehearsal in the Crew Bar
5:00pm – 7:00pm: perform two sets in the lobby
7:15pm – 7:45pm: snack/dinner in the Staff Mess
8:00pm – 8:45pm: enjoy a performance in the theater by our fellow entertainment staff
9:00pm – 10:00pm: work out in the passenger gym
10:00pm – 11:00pm: late dinner/relax with other staff in the passenger buffet
11:00pm – on: party in the Crew Bar, enjoy a movie with friends, read, or work on arrangements
Entertainers have the “easy life!” While most crew worked 10-13 hour days, there were weeks when musicians were scheduled for only a set or two each day. Other times, depending on management, we performed four or even five sets per day. Physically, this was incredibly tough to maintain for weeks in a row, and left little energy for practising or rehearsal. In any case, days off are rare – perhaps one day off every two months. Occasionally we played duos or trios to give one member of the group a break. However, the management didn’t love this, so we kept it to a minimum.
It’s nearly impossible to go five minutes on a ship without seeing another human. You work, eat, sleep, exercise, relax, and party in the same few rooms, all within a five minute walk, with the same few hundred crew. You share a bunk bed in a windowless room the size of your typical bathroom on land. You have one gym, one bar, and two places to eat. As a musician, you have somewhat of a celebrity status on board. (And don’t say I didn’t warn you: what happens in your personal life will be known to the entire crew within hours.) In passenger areas, your required name badge destroys any wish for anonymity and makes you a target for those persistently inquisitive passengers. The lack of personal space or solitude was exhausting, and eventually became my primary reason to leave.
Ship internet is expensive, spotty, and generally not worth the effort. Don’t count on keeping up with the news or social media – or a relationship via video-chat – while on board. My advice is to dedicate an occasional rainy port day to an internet café. Otherwise, savour the opportunity to break free of virtual reality and see the world!
Drinks are dangerously cheap, and parties are plentiful. Have fun, but not too much fun. Remember what I said earlier about crew gossip travelling fast?
On most ships, musicians have access to the ridiculously bountiful passenger buffet. If your ship’s management doesn’t allow this, (or in the unfortunate case of a Norovirus outbreak – yes, it happened to us!), you may be stuck with the Crew Mess, in which case you’ll develop a sophisticated palate for boxed cereals.
Similar to travelling to a foreign country, I experienced a certain type of culture shock living with people from all over the world. As a musician from a first-world country, my privilege was highlighted in a way that I had not seen before. The experience made me more wise, compassionate, and generous. If you decide to embark on this adventure, approach it humbly and with an open mind, and you will learn much about yourself and the world!
Ship friends become family, and very quickly. You’re sharing life at high speed together – the elation of new places and breathtaking sights, the little frustrations of ship life, the heartbreak of frequent goodbyes, and the hilarity of breaking through cultural and language barriers. Ship friendships are by far the most extraordinary and beautiful aspect of ship life.
Imagine waking up in a new city – or country – every day. You’ll step off your floating home into a land of new sights, sounds, people, and food to discover. A few personal highlights: I snorkled in the Great Barrier Reef, walked atop the Great Wall of China, jammed with local musicians in an Irish pub, sky dived in New Zealand, fed kangaroos in Australia, saw a night without a sunset in Norway, played with Iditarod dogs in Alaska, strolled through the streets of Paris, and crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific. And much, much more!
Passengers purchase land excursions from the tour office, and there are often opportunities for crew to accompany as escorts. Occasionally there are crew tours as well. Some of the best days, though, are the blind adventures into unknown cities, navigating foreign public transport and sampling unidentified food items (especially in Asia – were those fried grasshoppers?). A disadvantage to travelling via cruise ship is that you’ll very rarely stay in any city overnight; you’ll typically arrive around 6am and depart before dinnertime. Wake up early to make the most of it!
The crewmember visa allows you to disembark almost everywhere, but restrictions depend on your individual citizenship. A few American musicians hadn’t obtained their Chinese visa, for example, and were stuck on board for over two weeks! Before you sign your contract, talk with your agent about visa requirements for each country in your itinerary.
Maritime law requires a certain number of crew to stay aboard each day for In-Port Manning. Duties rotate among each department, and most ships allow you to trade duties. But if you can’t find anyone to cover you, you might be wistfully viewing some incredible destinations from the Crew Deck.
As a crew member, you are required to participate in the dreaded safety training and boat drills. A standard bi-weekly crew drill might be take twenty minutes: you don your life jacket and man your station until dismissed. Coast guard drills, on the other hand, may be prolonged for several hours as crew are randomly quizzed by officials, who won’t authorise sailaway until they are satisfied with the crew’s knowledge and ship’s safety. Luckily, the crew is usually well-prepared for such drills, but they can be a headache.
There’s a joke among crew that ships pay you just enough to keep you coming back. After a five-month contract, you’ll have a 6-10 week vacation without pay, then a month on your next contract waiting for your first paycheck. That’s plenty of time to run out of funds, especially if you weren’t paying attention to where your money was going during your last contract. If I could do it again, I’d budget! My first priority would be spending in ports and seeing the sights, especially on an itinerary with more expensive destinations. Then, I would save enough to be comfortable for several weeks after disembarking.
Out with the sheet music, in with the iPad! If you haven’t already made the plunge, it is an absolute must for a ship gig. By our final contract, we had amassed a huge collection of music (my cello parts alone weighed forty pounds!). Definitely purchase a tablet and a page-turning foot pedal before embarking. It will save room in your luggage and allow flexibility when creating sets and fulfilling spontaneous audience requests.
Musically, you reap what you sow. Luckily, we did this one right. We could have played out of our wedding gig books every day, and no one would have blinked an eye. But it was our desire for growth and commitment to each other that made our musical experience so very valuable and rewarding.
Surrounded by newness, adventure, and vibrant people, it’s easy to lose yourself in ship life – but you’ll burn out quickly! Crew lingo refers to this as “darkness” – that feeling that comes after the glow of excitement fades and you start feeling the bizarre monotony and claustrophobia of living in a big floating piece of metal. If I could go back, I would stay grounded by setting better boundaries and making more time for myself.
“A day is a week; a week is a month; a month is a year.” In the “time warp” of ship life, time is stretched and intensified by the action-packed days on board and in port. In contrast, land life can feel unbearably slow. After being surrounded by friends for every meal, workout, and adventure, I was shocked by how quiet and lonely it felt to simply walk through a house or down a sidewalk.
And there are some strange side effects. For several days, I felt solid ground swaying under my feet. I laid my cello case down on the floor, expecting it to rock and shift throughout the night. I couldn’t sleep without the ship noise I’d become accustomed to. My advice is to create some structure for your first days on land, and to give yourself plenty of time to adjust to the new pace.
I’m now happily working in arts administration, an opportunity I pursued after discovering how much I enjoyed the business aspect of my ship quartet. I love having an apartment of my own, cooking for myself, and living out of more than a couple of suitcases. But I admit: some days, when land life feels a little slow, I daydream that I’m back in the ship’s atrium, playing Beethoven with my favourite musicians in the world, on my way to unknown adventure!
Cori Lint is a cellist, arranger, and artistic administrator from Cleveland, Ohio. After earning her B.M. in Cello Performance at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Cori and colleagues founded Thalia Strings, who were soon invited to perform for a major cruise line. Now in St. Petersburg, Florida, Cori works for The Florida Orchestra, operates the Tampa Bay chapter of Open Classical, manages operations for the Dallas-based Lev Aronson Legacy Festival, and continues to teach, arrange, and perform.
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