Is Drumming on a Cruise Ship Easy?

The role of the orchestra drummer on a cruise ship is an interesting one and unlike anything I had done before. Prior to working with Royal Caribbean, I was mostly involved in the “improvised music world” or reverse engineering electronic programmed drums to then play them myself when I was working with producers. Personally, I love improvising when I’m playing drums, and particularly when working with great improvisers on the band stand. So let me make this clear, the role of the orchestra drummer on board is not a creative one filled with improvising. With dense arrangements and production shows where the choreography is matched with your beats, it’s important you are a consistent player with attention to detail. For those of you who are considering auditioning for a position, or are just curious about what is expected, I have outlined what I believe are the 4 main pillars to assess before committing to the job.

  • VOCAB.

Of course there are a long list of other things I could write about including: Time management, Organisational skills, Leadership skills etc that I would highly recommend investing time into developing if you haven’t already in order to execute a successful contract. The point here is to address the 4 main ones and if you are feeling weak in one or more of these areas, really invest time into developing them before auditioning or taking a contract.

ATTITUDE: First and foremost is your attitude. If you aren’t a people person and can’t communicate well with your team or the headliners on board, you’re destined for a long and painful contract. This job requires a lot of flexibility on your instrument and being able to serve the music as best as you can. If you’re only interested in doing things your way, I suggest you look for another gig.

SIGHT READING MUSIC: This is a must. You will be given charts that are potentially decades old from headliners who have been doing the same show over and over. This means you will have pencil markings all over the charts, things crossed out, then written back in….then crossed out again! The point it is you got to be ready for anything on the page and be able to play it first time. Sometimes this includes performing it first time with a theatre full of guests. Generally there won’t be any real odd metre stuff other than user friendly 12/8, 6/8 and 3/4. Rarely do you get stuff in 5/4 even. In my experience the hardest things to read are the old torn up charts where you can’t see exactly what is needed and you got to play it first time (with tempo changes) and the musical director is on the other side of your music stand. If you can get through that, then you’re doing alright!

PLAYING TO A CLICK: The production shows are generally accompanied by tracks which means you will be playing to a click. Sometimes the headliners will use tracks too so if you aren’t solid with a click (with tempo changes too), it’s not going to be a fun gig. It’s important you couple this with your sight reading skills because it’s your job to be able to sight read the music to the click and also appropriately set up the transitions and form etc. This can be a lot to digest for a new hire but is just the role of the drummer.

VOCAB: You will be required to play in a number of varying context e.g: Production Shows, Big Band, Small Ensembles, Headliner Shows etc. Each of these requires a different approach to the drums. Sometimes is fast latin stuff. Sometimes is very quite brush playing. More often than not this gig requires you to play strong and lead the band with your groove and form execution. The key things I would suggest are to work on your world grooves, funk grooves and big band playing. If you can nail these (solo over them, play comfortably at all dynamic levels and comfortably groove at various tempos) then you’ll be respected by your Musical Director and colleagues on board.

I can honestly say it never crossed my mind to play on cruise ships and I didn’t really think it was for me. This is now my second contract with Royal Caribbean and I am very pleased with my job. Like anything it has its perks and it’s issues, but overall it’s a very fulfilling job. More will be revealed with new posts but this seems long enough for those wanting a little taste of what the position entails. Hope I’ve helped paint the picture a little better and if you got specific questions you want answered, don’t hesitate to get in contact and I’ll see if I can help out.

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