By Louise Lee

Players seeking to break the routine of weddings and corporate events can consider a more-unusual kind of gig: performing on a cruise ship. Entertainment is a must on any cruise, and operators routinely book soloists and ensembles both to provide background music during cocktail hours and to play more formal sets before a seated audience. Here’s what you need to know about performing at sea.

 Lee describes her life outside of performing, rehearsing, and traveling between ships as ‘basically on vacation.’”

1. Getting the Gig

Most cruise operators use agents to find musicians. Audition procedures vary, but generally, agents require that you submit a bio and a video with a sampling of your playing. Cellist Cori Lint, who several years ago performed on cruises with her quartet, included on the demo video some familiar classical pieces such as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik as well as some Gershwin and Broadway tunes. Guests on cruises often want to hear a variety of music, so it’s best to show that you can play in a wide range of genres.

Some agents select players based on demo videos alone, while others use them as screening tools to choose candidates for a live audition via Skype. Others require in-person meetings: Players auditioning for Lincoln Center Stage, which operator Holland America Line describes as an “onboard classical-music venue” that evokes the design of New York’s Lincoln Center, must perform live during one of its scheduled audition days around the world.

2. Performing at Sea

Most cruise musicians will perform at least a few times a day, likely in the dining area at lunch and dinner and in a lobby or lounge during cocktail hour. Over time, opportunities can grow. When violinist Amy Lee began performing on cruise ships, she played in a violin-and-piano duo as a lounge act. Now, Lee is a main headline act, performing shows in a theater with a band as her backup.

Lee says she performs one or two headline shows per week and, unlike lounge-act players who typically stay on one ship for several months, frequently flies from ship to ship. “That’s the most exhausting part,” she says.

Pay varies by cruise operator. Players performing on the Lincoln Center Stage on Holland America cruises earn $4,000 to $5,000 a month and receive a single cabin, meals, and other guest perks, according to the website of RWS Entertainment Group, the production company managing the auditions. Smaller operators might pay less. Remember also that the agent will take a cut of around 10 percent or more of your salary.

Lee describes her life outside of performing, rehearsing, and traveling between ships as “basically on vacation.” Performing on a cruise lets players see the world, she says. Lint, too, recalls having plenty of time for working out in the gym and enjoying meals. She and her quartetmates took full advantage of sightseeing opportunities during port time. “That’s probably the best part of the job,” says Lint, who has visited locales ranging from New Zealand to Norway. “We got a little spoiled.”

Still, Lint and her colleagues carved out time for practice, both to polish old repertoire and to learn new pieces. Because performers play multiple sets a day for weeks on end, they need to have a substantial amount of repertoire at the ready so they (and their audiences) don’t get bored with the same pieces. Lint says that during her time at sea, she and her quartet learned and performed half of the Beethoven quartets and most of Haydn’s, on top of countless other classical pieces and pop tunes. She suggests that players store at least some of their sheet music on an iPad so they’re not lugging it around and keeping track of stacks of printed scores. Players also need to be prepared for requests, which can range from a Haydn quartet to the theme from the movie Titanic. Production staff may supply microphones so you can speak to the audience about yourself and the music.

3. Life on the Ship

Gigging on a cruise ship is like being on a long tour; you’ll be away from home and might miss important events with family or friends, warns Lee, adding that internet access on the ship can be expensive and slow. Contracts usually extend for four to six months, so you could be on a ship for more than a month at a time. Rooms can be small, and some operators will put two musicians in one cabin. And it can be difficult to find a suitable area to practice. (Lint and her colleagues rehearsed in the crew bar.)

Cruise life resembles being at a summer festival—you’re eating, socializing, practicing, and performing with your colleagues all the time. But all that togetherness can at times be trying if you occasionally need some solitary time. Unless you have a single cabin, there’s no privacy and you can’t get away from people. And “a lot of freedoms you take for granted on land aren’t afforded to you on ships,” says Lee. “You can only eat meals at certain times, and you often have to dress in a certain way to leave your cabin.”

And what about dreaded seasickness? It happens, so ships have doctors on board and distribute plenty of seasickness bags. However, Lee says, “Most cruise ships are so big that you don’t really notice the movement most days.” 

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