Q: How did you become a pianist on a cruise ship?
A: I found an agent a few years ago. I did this weird Internet, phone, and video audition with him. He’s the one who got me the contracts.
Q: What kind of piano-playing experience do you have?
A: I did a master’s in jazz performance at NYU. I didn’t always know I wanted to be a musician, but in college it became obvious that I only had passing interest in everything else.
Q: And when did you start doing this kind of thing?
A: One summer, I went on a two-month trip to the Mediterranean. Then one summer I did a three-month trip to Norway. These were on different ships while I was finishing school.
Then I went on the world cruise with Crystal Cruises. They have a high crew-retention rate; they are really concerned with the quality of service. I did it January through the end of May.
Q: What kind of skills do you need for this job?
A: It requires a mix of sight-reading (mainly Broadway-style music), classical facilities, and jazz skills. So classical, jazz, pop—you have to be pretty good at everything, but you don’t have to be amazing at anything, per se. Of course, the better you are, the better itineraries you get. I’ve seen lots of great classical players that just can’t hang with the gig because they get asked to improvise, or arrange music, or they have to listen to the other musicians to feel out what’s happening, and they just can’t do it.
Q: How is the pay?
A: The pay is fine. On paper, it doesn’t look as good, but you don’t have to pay for rent, health insurance, food, and transportation to and from the ship.
Crystal really wants to keep high standards; it’s to their benefit to have me come back.
Crystal is flying me to Venice on Sunday. They’ll put me up in a hotel for a night, because when you get on the ship you have to perform right away.
Q: Where does the ship go?
A: The 2008 world cruise started in L.A. and ended up in London. Along the way, we stopped in French Polynesia, Australia, South East Asia, India, etc. We spent three days in Myanmar a week before the big storm. Next year, we’ll sail up the east coast of China, spend time in Japan, eastern Russia, and the Aleutian Islands. I even spent a week in Cuba on a ship once!
Being able to travel so extensively is the most unusual aspect of working for Crystal, since most ships stay in one place for months at a time (Alaska, Caribbean, Mexico, etc.). Only a handful wander around the world, and thus these jobs are more difficult to get.
Q: What’s the living situation like?
A: It’s pretty good. I fall just below the single-cabin cutoff, so I have a roommate. Living quarters are small and crowded, but most people that sign up for the job are pretty flexible. My room looks like half a dorm room with no windows and two people. A small desk, TV, and a minuscule bathroom.
I live next to the morgue. I’ve never been inside, though. They also have a brig.
Q: What’s that?
A: It’s a jail. It’s just a normal cabin with a door that you can’t open from the inside.
Q: Do you ever feel trapped in the bottom of the ship?
A: The crew facilities are totally fine. We have our gym, café, a couple of bars and places to eat …
Q: Just for the employees?
A: Yeah, just for us.
Q: Do you have Internet access?
A: We have wireless in our cabins. It’s slow and expensive, but it’s the only way to communicate. Most people use Skype to make calls.
Q: How many people are on the ship?
A: There are around 650 crew and 800 to 1,000 passengers. The passengers are definitely paying for it; it’s on average $800 per person per night or something like that. They have rooms for maybe $500,000 for the whole world cruise.
Q: How long is that?
A: A hundred days.
Q: And do people come for the whole world cruise?
A: About half the people are on for the whole cruise. Other people join for 14-to-17-day legs.
Q: Is it a lot of old people?
A: It’s a very old clientele; some don’t get off the ship all the time.
One time, I was reading the music and at one spot there was an arrow that said, “At this point in the music, someone died on the dance floor.”
Q: So what do you actually do on the ship?
A: You could compare where I work to a small cabaret theater. There are six musicians; it’s like a house band. We play for Broadway singers, opera singers, sometimes—rarely—a comedian. There is a cast of singers and dancers, and we do jazz things and other shows. We also arrange a lot of our own shows, which is unusual for a ship gig. At any given time, there are 6 to 10 pianists working on each of Crystal’s two ships.
Q: Does it ever get like The Real World, where you just want to kill everyone?
A: Everyone has their breaking point. For me, it’s about four months.
Q: Do you ever get seasick?
A: I’ve never been really seasick, but of course rough waves make everyone a little queasy. Especially if you have to work (which everyone does) or if the waves last for days at a time. I try to make sure that I have a full stomach—I think that’s the best. People rely on pills, wristbands, crystallized ginger, etc., but I think those are all placebos. Just a full stomach and a nap works for me.
Q: What’s it like working on a ship?
A: There is a real hierarchy. Half of the crew is very structured, very military. The other half are hotel employees. We sort of have to abide by their rules; there are places you can’t go, places you can eat and can’t eat. For example, there’s a lunch place where I can go but only during a 15-minute window. Or you can go to the coffee shop any time of day but only if it’s less than half full. It seems very random, but they give you a big sheet with the rules.
Q: So how much longer will you do this job?
A: I’ll be doing this as long as they keep me interested with great itineraries. It’s a bit like being on tour, but you don’t have to ride the bus.