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Playing music on a cruise ship is every musician's fantasy. Turns out it might not be that different from performing down the street. Photo by Phil Houseal


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Cruise Music

by Phil Houseal
April 23, 2008

Every musician's fantasy gig is to perform on a cruise ship. What better than doing what you love, but doing it on one of the floating palaces of the sea?

In the interest of research (and so I could deduct part of the trip), I cornered some of the musicians playing aboard the Carnival Ecstasy during a 4-day cruise to Cozumel.

First, the choice of music styles aboard your typical cruise ship is boggling. You can writhe to reggae on the Lido deck in the afternoon, spend happy hour with rock and roll in the lounge, enjoy a cocktail in the piano bar, take in a Vegas-style show after dinner, and wrap up the evening singing karaoke.

I tracked down Rob Stokes, musical director for this cruise. He has a challenging job, playing and directing the small orchestra that on successive nights backs up every type of show from Broadway musical to country hoedown.

"We have a different show every night," he said. "There is a stressful learning curve at first, but then it settles a bit. We like to bring out new stuff but don't have a lot of time."

All ships in Carnival use Las Vegas quality shows, arranged and recorded by top studio musicians and producers. The on-board bands play along with the pre-recorded arrangements, a challenge as far as pitch and timing. There is little time for learning.

"Band members are coming and going all the time," he explained. "I hand them a disk and sheet music and say this is the show for tomorrow night, look it over. It is tough at the beginning, but you get to point you can put the music away and play it live."

An average tour for ship's crew is six months, and musicians are assigned to ships by the main office in Miami. Stokes finds a large part of his role is supervising the often young musicians.

"Unlike on land, here I live where they work, so if they're not getting along, I have to solve their problems," he said. He pointed to his cell phone. "I carry this 24/7, and it often goes off at 2 in the morning."

Shipboard jobs take their toll on all relationships. Being separated from a spouse for six months can be a strain, although shipboard romances can be just as challenging. Stokes' last girlfriend got transferred to another ship.

Stokes claims he "gets a little weird after five months at sea."

"You just want to run away, because you live where you work," he said. "You don't have as much down time. Most people, when they are ready to go home, they are ready to go home. But then after about three weeks, it's oh man, I want to go back to the ship."

The high seas can sing a Siren song.

"You can play music every day," Stokes said. "Some of these cats don't like this kind of music, but they are playing their axe everyday. You're not going to get that back home. And, hey, I had lunch in Cozumel yesterday. That is a huge benefit."

There is nothing magical about cruising. We tend to haul our personalities and peccadillos with us, no matter where we go. According to Angela Johnson, an engaging performer in the ship's piano bar, the main difference on board is the different expectations of the guests.

"On land, you often get business people," she said. "On a ship, people are on vacation. They know when they come here they are going to be entertained. Their expectation is razzle dazzle. It's fun, regardless. When you are entertaining, you're entertaining."