My qualifications to write this article:
I apologize for being self-indulgent right 'off-the-bat', but I believe it best to start by telling you of my qualifications to write about this subject matter:
I've been performing as a Professional Musical Entertainer since 1980, starting when I was 15 years old, playing in various 'cover' bands. Eventually, I began performing by myself (solo), as a 'One-man Band' in 1997, which led towards my first job entertaining on a Cruise-Ship in 2005, & many more 'Gigs' at sea since then.
Life aboard the ship:
As an 'Independent Contractor' of the Cruiseline (as opposed to being an 'Employee'), as well as being a Solo Performer (referred to as a "Guest Entertainer"), I enjoy a very 'sweet' deal aboard the ship. Basically, I'm a paid passenger, with many of the same privileges as paying guests.
I'm very fortunate to have an agreement which is a MUCH better deal than MOST of the other Musicians aboard the ship, who are typically either part of a 'Show-Band' (or specialty Band of some type... Calypso/Reggae, etc), 'Orchestra', and/or a 'Dou/Trio', all of whom are hired as employees of the ship. As ship 'Employees', they usually share rooms with each other, and have very limited access to the ship's 'Public' areas (they are usually restricted to 'Crew' areas, in the belly of the ship). The only other Entertainer who is hired as an 'Independent Contract' (with Guest/Passenger privileges) is the 'Featured Performer', who appears in the main Theater.
It's in the Company's best interest for me to mingle with the passengers, and get to know them a bit, which promotes business in the 'Schooner-bar' (or 'The Pub' on some ships), where I performed each night. It is expected, of course, that I conduct myself in a professional manner while inter-acting with all guests of the ship. It is a well known fact amongst the crew, that the quickest way to be dismissed from your duties & sent home is to have ANY type of 'intimate moment' with any of the passengers, which is ABSOLUTELY TABOO! ...(even for me, as a private Contractor). As a result, the crew/staff-bar (in the aft belly of the ship... not open to the public) is where we often 'hang-out' & have fun amongst ourselves. Through our multi-month contracts, we do bond quickly, and grow to truly feel like one large 'family'.
A BEAUTIFUL environment!
I'm sure you're not surprised when I tell you that the environment is absolutley beautiful; being on water for as far as the eye can see, with the wide-open sky, and breath-taking sunrises & sunsets that are ALWAYS different, each and every day (no two are ever the same)! It's incredible to see the earth's curvature on the everlasting horizon, while breathing in the rich ocean-air.
The trade-off for such beauty comes on those days when the Ocean seems very angry (high seas), and there is no escape from the ship's motion. Some people are able to handle it better than others, and I'm lucky to have fairly good 'sea-legs', so sea-sickness isn't too bad of a problem for me.
All Crew members must regularly (weekly & at the start of each new Cruise) practice various 'boat-drills', which are mandatory. Quite often, they are scheduled on 'port-days', when most passengers are off the ship (and us Crew members would like to be too!).
Although my working hours (4 hours daily) are just about the fewest of all crew (except for the 'Featured Performer'), it's MUCH more difficult than it might sound to anyone who has never sang for a living (see "My Workload" below).
Most contracts for 'Guest Entertainers' specify that we are not 'entitled' to any days off, so IF any time-off is scheduled for me, it's only because either the ship's Musical Director or Cruise Director is kind enough to give me a break. This is just one of the MANY reasons to always maintain a good relationship with your superiors aboard the ship.
I have a lot of respect for each and every Entertainer aboard the ship (Musicians, Singers, Dancers, Comedians/ennes, Magicians, Illusionists, Ventiloquists, etc...). We naturally form our own little community, and quickly become close friends. Although we all share things in common, my particular gig as a 'Solo' Musical Entertainer poses it's own unique challenges.
Most other Entertainers aboard the ship voluntarily acknowledge to me personally, that I have the MOST difficult of all Entertainer gigs, because they understand how I have absolutely nobody else to 'lean on' during each night's performance. Also, the particular environments in which I perform (Pubs, Bars, sometimes Poolside, etc) demand a high level of interaction with the audience, and I deal with MANY requests on a nightly basis. I don't have any fellow band-mates to joke around with, so, as a result, the audience is my best friend.
Other Entertainers recognize that my specific 'gig' has the audience 'in-my-face' (so to speak), where there is no escape! In fact, I am so 'accessable' to the audience that is not uncommon for passengers to simply 'snuggle-up' close to me at any point during my performance, simply because I am there, right beside them (unlike all other Entertainers who enjoy a bit of seperation from the audience, by being on an actual 'Stage' of some sort).
NOTE: Although it can be fun inter-acting with 'the crowd', it can also be quite insulting to be treated as any passenger's own personal karaoke machine! I'm fine about INVITING people to join me, but when somebody simply jumps up beside me while I'm performing, it can prove to be very awkward for everybody. So part of my challenge also includes having to deal with paying Passengers in a tactful, polite and respectful way which will not offend them, while giving myself sufficient 'space' to do my job.
My work-load compared to other Entertainers:
Entertainers in any of the full Bands (Show Bands, Specialty Bands, etc) often share the singing, and rarely sing an entire night by themselves (with some exceptions). Even then though, on a night when any of the Band members might not be feeling 100%, they always have the option for other Band-mates to 'pickup the slack'.
Singers in the nightly Show on the Theater's main stage are always part of a group, none of whom are ever required to sing 40 songs in a row, by themselves, one after the other. Their voices are given sporatic breaks throughout the performance with Costume & Scene changes while other Singers & Dancers take the stage. Even while on stage, multiple Singers take turns Singing their own specific parts, which include SOME of their own 'Solos'.
I'm about to divulge a surprising little secret that I only learned during my first Cruise Contract: DID YOU KNOW?... every Show-Singer has a recording of their own healthy voice singing the show, not normally used at all, but held on-file as a backup (referred to as a "Sick-track"), just in case there comes a RARE occasion when they're so ill that they're unable to sing. In such a case, their "Sick track" can be played while they lip-sync live, so that the show can go on. WOW! I only wish I had such an option! NOTE: Please do NOT get the impression that this is a regular occurance (which it is NOT), but I can only dream of having that same chance to allow my voice to recover from times when I struggle & suffer through a night with a nasty flu.
Even the ship's 'Featured Performer' (in the main Theater), who performs nightly, will typically perform for about an hour only, with a live Band to back them up. By comparison, I perform by myself, and must Entertain for a period of four (4) hours! Thank goodness for my breaks! I'll typically take a total of 2 or 3 breaks per night, timed specifically around whatever other special events/entertainment are happening in different parts of the ship.
SIDENOTES (regarding a Solo Performer's workload):
a) Consider this: Any popular recording Artist/s going on tour to promote themselves, will RARELY (if ever) schedule more than 3 or 4 performances each week (usually LESS). There is good reason for that! It's because all professional Singers understand that our vocal chords NEED sufficient time to rest in order to prevent permanent/long-term damage to our voices, and/or get very run-down and ill! However, this issue is of low priority to any Cruiseline, because they demand continual regular Entertainment (which is understandable to want to provide for the passengers). There is a long line of other performers who are willing to quickly take my job if I show any weakness at all.
Regarding some of my favorite friends: Musicians in the Orchestra (various instrumentalists: Saxaphone, Trumpet, Trombone, Clarinet, Piano, Bass, Guitar, Drums, etc). I find it ironic that although the Musicians in the Orchestra are usually some of the most schooled & best trained musicians aboard the ship (and I hold a TON of respect for them), they also happen to be (quite often...but not always) the least paid. Some of the most BRILLIANT friends I've made aboard the ship (with many bordering on genius), have been members of the Orchestra.
There are times, however, when I'm a bit envious of their position as part of a larger group, on a night when I KNOW they're struggling from illness (or perhaps even a bit of a hangover... LOL). On those rare difficult nights for them, they are at least afforded the luxury of blending a little further into the background, without having to face the crowd 'head-on', as I must do (in my position) without exception.
Having said that; please understand that such rare occurences are ALWAYS noticed & addressed by the Musical Director (M.D.), who can NOT be fooled! Although many of us might have trouble picking out any individual's lack-lustre performance from within the group, no Orchestra member can escape the well-trained ear of their 'M.D.'. In such a case, their best hope is that perhaps the M.D. also took part in the previous night of 'socializing' (ha ha), and MIGHT find it in his heart to take it a bit easy on them.
A healthy routine:
As a result of my demanding workload, I make it TOP PRIORITY to keep myself in good shape with a nice routine of healthy diet, sleep & exercise while aboard the ship. After all, I have all the right ammenities at my disposal, and plenty of time to take good care of myself. I'm always a 'regular' at the ship's Fitness Center (perched high ontop the ship with an AMAZING view), and have PLENTY of free food available at most any hour of the day. I do empathize with most of the other crew however, who must eat at regularly scheduled hours (as dictated by the 'staff mess' schedule).
My favorite place aboard 'SPLENDOUR'; Deck 10, with the Swimming Pools, Fitness Center, ...and CLAIRE!
My cabin, and general 'living conditions':
Perhaps my age factors into this next statement, but I really don't think I could do this gig if I didn't at least have my own cabin to myself: a tiny bit of space just for me (it's one of the 'perks' of being a Solo 'Guest Entertainer'). Rooms for most crew are about the same size as mine (120 to 150 square feet), but with another bed stacked on top ('bunk-beds'). because MOST crew must share a cabin (2 per room). As you can imagine; that doesn't allow them much 'personal' space.
I'm also VERY fortunate to a have a porthole to let some natural light into my cabin. Although that might sound like a small luxury, aboard the ship, MOST crew member's shared cabin is almost always an 'inside' cabin (meaning there's no window/natural light at all). Under those conditions, you have absolutley no idea what time of day or night it might be, with no connection to the outside world at all. OUCH! For me, that would be an absolute 'deal-breaker'. Keeping in mind that the average age of the Crew is quite young, many of them seem OK with just having a cool & unique experience living on the ocean, with regular parties in the crew bar.
The exception to this are the ship's higher-ranking Officers & Navigational Crew (referred to as "Staff", as opposed to "Crew"). The ship's 'Staff' also have their own Cafeteria/Mess area, which is seperate from us lower-ranking 'Crew'. I have a few friends on "Staff", and their accomodations (higher up on the ship) are quite luxurious by comparison (MUCH larger, quieter, and most have windows). Our 'Crew' cabins are quite noisey because we all stay on deck's 1 & 2, with deck 1 being just above the waterline, and deck 2 being the lowest row of portholes you see from outside the ship. Although the Ocean is easily heard and felt from within our cabins, I actually sleep like a baby at sea. Perhaps the sound of water & constant motion somehow soothes me back to my pre-natal days in the womb...?
By the way... there ARE two decks BELOW deck 1: The true 'Belly' of the ship, where most of the mechanical systems, garbage compacting/recycling, and laundry facilities and are concentrated.
Regarding my income: Although it's very similar to what I make on-land (monthly), I'm able to make approximately the same pay (monthly) working far fewer days on-land. That's a polite way of saying my daily rate-of-pay is not so good aboard the ship! That being said, I do (of course) save money by not having the ongoing costs of food & fuel. I also really enjoy not having to cook & cleanup after myself, and/or deal with a daily commute and/or driving to each gig. I know I could save a lot more money by getting rid of my 'home' onland, but that would leave me nowhere to go between contracts, and with no fixed address. Again, because of my age, that's not something I'm willing to sacrifice at this point in my life.
Regarding electronic communications (telephone & internet) aboard the ship: although available, they are very expensive to use & sometimes (if your satellite signal is lost) you might go without for a couple days at a time! Most of the crew simply wait until we can get ashore during a port day, and do our communicating from onland, which is always MUCH cheaper and more efficient (higher speed) at any local Internet Cafe.
As far as regular mail goes; a permanent address is made available (at your home-port), where people can send you stuff (if required), and the ship's office staff will pickup and distribute to you. You can send mail out either via the ship's office, or simply wait to get onland & visit the closest postal outlet.
It's very easy to become spoiled aboard the ship, having my dishes cleared after every meal by an always smiling server, and my cabin cleaned by an always friendly cabin-steward. It's a REAL TREAT, and something I NEVER take for granted. I always show my appreciation by getting to know each of them well, and making a point of paying them an above-average tip. I know that these kind friends of mine make much less money than I do, and whatever I contribute does make a difference in their lives. I am ALWAYS very grateful to them for their HARD work, which goes unrecognized by many, far too often!
This reminds me to mention a little something about the importance of the 'Comment cards' provided to the Passengers at the end of each Cruise. They are optional for Passengers to complete, and offer a chance for them to have input about the quality of service regarding ANY Crew member. This could be from ANY/ALL department/s (Servers, Bartenders, Cleaners, Cruise & Casino staff, Entertainers, etc). I only mention this because those 'Comment cards' are MUCH more valuable than you might think! The Cruiseline lets us know about every comment made specifically about us. If you're a Crew member; they keep you 'on your toes', and if you're a Passenger; your comments carry a LOT of weight! Passengers are, of course, expected to report anything that has made them unhappy, but it would be great if as many people took a couple minutes to also report good service that went above-and-beyond the call of duty.
Those little cards make a big difference in the lives of us Crew!
Some final thoughts:
I've had many different 'day-jobs' in my life, including various office positions (Purchasing & Sales), Management (Retail, Wholesale, Service/Repairs), Manufacturing & Labor, and I can tell you from experience that giving a 4 hour performance leaves me more exhausted than working an 8 to 12 hour shift doing any other job I've ever had! It's MUCH more demanding than most people can imagine. I say that with confidence because of what some of my own friends & previous co-workers have said to me about their own naive thoughts regarding "...only having to work 4 hours a day/night". Comparing 4 hours of performing & singing to anything else is like comparing apples to oranges!
Anyone who judges personal demands by the number of hours worked is a FOOL! Besides which, the 4 hours I perform each night is like my coffee-break, to finally do what I actually enjoy doing: playing music. As previously mentioned, the VAST majority of my 'working time' includes the countless hours I spend 'behind the scenes' learning & programming music, advertising & marketing, booking my schedule, maintaining my equipment, and MANY other things that most people do not consider. After all, I run ALL departments of my own business.
On an adventure ...alone.
While very difficult to do long-term, I have experienced how being a Musical Entertainer aboard a Cruise-ship has PLENTY to offer: A steady paycheck, in a beautiful environment, with a chance to see a bit of the world. In many ways, I feel fortunate to have a working-vacation, and see it as a form of early retirement. Although it will never make me rich, it offers a unique & comfortable lifestyle that I enjoy more times than not. It does, however, require the sacrifice of being isolated from your loved ones for long periods at a time.
So, THAT IS the unfortunate 'trade-off': feeling lonely quite often. I expect that might sound a bit strange, while I'm on a ship filled with people, however, prolonged periods of being away from those who are dearest to me, leaves a void that can NOT be filled by all the water in the world. Instead, it only makes me dream of being back 'home'. Although I always miss my family & friends, my choices have led me here, so this is the path I have chosen for myself...for now.
You see; I love children, and have always hoped for my own. The older I get, the less likely that will be to ever happen. This lifestyle is, unfortunately, NOT conducive to a good 'family-life'. If I was ever lucky enough to have children, my TOP priority would certainly be at 'home', wanting to be there, and raise them properly, in a way that all children deserve to be raised; with love, discipline, security and stability. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like for my fellow ship-mates who tell stories of their wives, husbands, & children 'back home'; a situation I would never want for myself.
A boat-load of Gypsies:
One of the many 'up-sides' to life at sea, is how fascinating it is to make friends with people from all over the world, and learn a bit about their lives. The flip-side of that same coin is also the tough part. Generally speaking, us crew members are (for the most part) a boat-load of gypsies who pass through each other's lives for a few weeks or months at a time, never again to be seen by each other, unless destiny crosses our paths again on some other ship, which is entirely out of our own control (the Cruiseline chooses when & which ship we are required on). The perpetual 'good-byes' do wear on me, and I do long for some place to call 'home' forever. ...(but then, don't we all).
Whenever those days come when I feel a bit low, I simply think about all the poor souls in this world who struggle each day for food, water and shelter. Those painful thoughts remind me of how truly blessed I really am. so, provided that a person can cope with the isolation of being away from their loved ones for long periods of time, and you're also prepared for a VERY demanding schedule, then working on a Cruise-Ship as an 'Entertainer' is a way of life that guarantees PLENTY of changing scenery AND people. Some good and some bad: Just like most things in life. Either way, it certainly promises surprises & excitement! The key to staying content is finding that healthy balance we all long for: PEACE.
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All Copyrights Charles Belhumeur.
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