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Aboard the S.S. Cheese

Article by Jillian Mitchell // August 02 2007
Aboard the S.S. Cheese

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ St. Augustine

Ahoy, mateys! For the past few days I have been flooded with visions of the deep blue abyss and all she entails, so forgive me for my sailor babble. I couldn’t help myself! I’m talking about life at sea, people; the warm salty wind, the glistening waves and glorious rays, the untold foreign utopias and invaluable treasures, and, the magnitude of perfectly tanned bodies clumsily gripping yummy umbrella drinks, whilst booging to the show band’s disco rendition of Copacabana. Ah, yes, be careful what you ship for. Life on the waves is indeed a sticky situation, and if you’re not careful you could literally end up with sticky-umbrella-drink-guck on your throne.

Aboard the floating city—or what some refer to as the “Las Vegas, MIDI programming, Lawrence Welk, devil spawn” ship—anything goes, as long as the patrons are content and that almighty dollar continues to flow. As I found out through researching the net, no other industry has been growing so rapidly in the past seven years as the cruise industry. Just in the last four years alone all leading cruise lines have doubled their fleets and number of employees, and each has issued full scale Broadway and Las Vegas style production shows to be performed aboard. Well, slap yellow feathers in my hair and call me Lola. Lucky us! Apparently, it seems the sea has been infected with Barry Manilow! Yes, it is a sad revelation, but a true one nonetheless. Still, I have to admit there’s a certain appeal to the life of an onboard musician cruising through chartered waters. Let’s retract to the beginning of this article, before the mention of disco renditions, and spilly-talkers, there was an initial and genuine reason why this topic sparked my interest. You get to see the world and get paid for it! Okay, now it’s almost worth it to suck up my pride and go for the gusto. I need answers.


In search of nirvana, I reached out to my friend and fellow musician, Kirk Bewer, who agreed to help me understand first hand what cruise ship gigs are really about. Most recently known as the rhythmic backbone for the successful Canadian band, The Cruzeros, Kirk Bewer is a drummer of high caliber and musicianship. Furthermore, he has also completed three separate contracts with Princess Cruise line, spanning from 2003-2005. When I inquired about his initial attraction to gigging at sea, Mr. Bewer reiterated that the travel component was the deciding factor that directly contributed in his boarding the good ship. “I first wanted to pursue a cruise ship gig because I wanted to see the Caribbean,” commented Bewer. “Now, I have seen almost every country in the Caribbean! I have also been through the Panama Canal about nine times, and have also toured Alaska.” Along with this excellent travel-based incentive, Bewer admits that the economic compensation—the US dollar— was another deciding factor, as the exchange rate from U.S. to Canadian funds was strong at the time. Now, what musician can’t relate to that?


Okay, so how does one go about acquiring an onboard gig? Is the process grueling? Are there crazy stipulations and requirements? Again it’s all about whom you know. In Bewer’s case, there was no audition: “I was just recommended by a fellow musician, but, from what I gather, auditions are held in Los Angeles (for Princess Cruise line), and it is also possible to audition over the phone.” For clarification, I checked into the audition process. Step one, fill out an application for the gig, which you can find on-line. Step two, wait and wait until the cruise line has processed your application, then afterwards they will contact you with further info pertaining to the actual audition. Tricky bastards! Needless to say, if you’re interested in finding work abroad, the internet proves to be a great job-searching tool. 


“There are several requirements for cruise ship musicians,” states Bewer. “A valid passport is a must. Also, you must pass a medical exam, and it must be preformed by a doctor who has FAA recognition.” Both a passport and a FAA medical exam are mandatory if you want to set foot on the boat.  As a cruise ship musician, there are obviously musical requirements as well. “You must be a strong reader to play in the show band,” states Bewer, “but you can also go out as a lounge act with a group of people you have rehearsed with.” Most importantly, “a good work ethic and attitude” are just as essential as any of the other prerequisites mentioned.


The following are descriptions of the drumming positions available at sea: (courtesy of Sixthstar.com)

  • Showband Musicians: Individual musicians (Piano, Bass, Drums, Trumpet, Trombone, Sax and Guitar) are brought together by the cruise line to form The Showband (sometimes called The Orchestra). This band is primarily responsible for sight reading theatrical production shows, dance sets and backing cabaret. 
  • Lounge Bands: The Lounge Band is typically an established four-piece band, usually consisting of piano/keyboard, bass, drums and guitar (with one or more instrumentalists doubling on vocals) with or without sequences. Bands should perform Pop and Classic Rock from the 60’s to the present including Standards, Country, Disco and Latin.
  • Duos and Trios: Cruise ships require self-contained vocal Duos or Trios, often using sequences or midi files, acoustic instruments and vocal harmony to perform a wide range of musical styles including: Top-40’s, Country, Standards and Ballroom dancing. 


“The schedule is easy for musicians,” Bewer reveals. “Normally, you work seven nights a week, but you only play about three hours a night and get the days off to go on shore excursions.” Hmmm… not too shabby. However, the burning question is whether or not it is worth it to bombard yourself with the cheeserific repertoire. (What? It’s not just me!) I mean, come on, it’s well known that the music on a cruise ship can be paralleled to being about as creatively interesting as a TV dinner. When I directed the question to Bewer, he confessed that, indeed, the Barry Manilow/Village People/Donna Summer retro genre is the nonsense that international audiences are craving for, but you have to remember that, at the end of the day, it’s a job just like any other. You must learn to take the good with the bad. Keep in mind that you’re seeing the world and working with top-notch musicians to produce the tightest and grooviest versions of that cheeserific repertoire!


“Playing on ships isn't for everyone,” Bewer cautions. “You may have to share a small room with someone you don't know and there is a hierarchy of power that gets abused at times by higher ranking crew.” Aside from these few downfalls, Bewer suggests that there are more positives to life at sea. “Cruise ship gigs are a great way to travel and the camaraderie among the crew is excellent. The food is great and unlimited. Also, there is a lot of down time so you can use it as an opportunity to get in shape, practice your craft, learn a new language, whatever!”

Alright, I’m satisfied. Survey says: When you sum it all up, the perks of the gig (traveling, sightseeing, topnotch musicians, a good salary, great food, and lots of down time) definitely override the cheese! 


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About the Author
Jillian Mitchell

As a professional vocalist (and self-professed grammar nerd), Jill brings a fresh perspective to The Black Page. In addition to earning a B.A. in music, creative writing and English, Jill has also studied vocals with Philadelphia-based vocal coach Owen Brown, known for his work with Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion, and Wyclef Jean. Jill makes up the other half of world soul group The Mitchells, alongside Black Page creator, Sean Mitchell.

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