Often the cruise industry is misunderstood so I figured I may as well attempt to set things straight by getting the information from the horses mouth(s).
“Cruise Ship Musicians” is a series where I interview various musicians within the cruise industry, with my aim being to help translate the life of a musician at sea and what is involved.
In this post I share with you the responses from Musical Director and drummer Calvin Hansen.
What’s your favourite part of being a cruise ship musician?
My favorite part of my job is working with the talent that comes from across the globe. Specifically, the musicians. We all come from different backgrounds and musical upbringings, and it all comes together onboard. We have to work and live with each other every single day, and that creates a great vibe within the entertainment division. Outside of the musicians, you have a similar situation. People of many different backgrounds making it happen…no matter where you come from. The travelling aspect is always a plus. Waking up in a new country almost every day has its perks. I have had the opportunity to see many cities and famous landmarks that I only ever read about in my history classes growing up. To experience all of that while working as a musician is really special to me.
How did you get into the cruise industry and how long have you been in it?
I auditioned for a spot with Royal Caribbean while I was still a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. I had always had my eye on Royal Caribbean through college, and when the opportunity came around my graduation, I figured this was my opportunity. My 4 years at Berklee helped me become as well prepared as I could be, so the time was right. And now here I am, celebrating 5+ years with the company in May 2017.
Have you always worked with Royal Caribbean?
I have only worked for Royal Caribbean, but was initially auditioning for a cruise ship position across RCCL, Holland America, and Carnival.
Have you worked under any other positions in the industry?
When I joined Royal Caribbean, I was employed as an Orchestra Musician. In 2015, onboard Allure of the Seas, I was asked to step up to Assistant Musical Director with Thomas Kleyn as Musical Director. Last year, onboard Grandeur of the Seas, I had the opportunity to step up as Musical Director for a few months. Currently, I am the full time Musical Director onboard Vision of the Seas.
How much time do you spend at home?
Between contracts, I try to spend as much time in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Now that I am married to my new bride (Dance Captain Bianca Borlant), I split time between Omaha and her hometown of Leeds, England. I also have the travel bug, and find it hard to stay still once I’m off the ship. I enjoy seeing friends all over, from Kansas City to LA, New York to Miami.
How do you manage your living arrangements between life on land and being at sea for so long?
Once I joined Royal Caribbean after graduating from Berklee College of Music, I sold my apartment and moved to sea. I spend time with my family and my wife’s family between contracts.
Given that a career in the cruise industry includes being away from home for so long, how have you managed to maintain strong relationships with family and friends on land?
It can be tough keeping the friendships and other relationships going while out to sea at work. To me, family is family. They will always be there and have my back…which is something I am very grateful for. My friendships are also still strong because I do keep in contact via social networks. I love to post pictures of my travels, but as of late, I tend to keep everyone updated with music related posts. I enjoy giving everyone back home the “backstage pass” to what goes into a performance onboard. I take pride in this job, so I want my family and friends to be there every step of the way.
From your experience, what’s the biggest difference from working in the cruise industry as a performing musician verses working in the music industry as a performing musician?
From my experience, the biggest difference is the versatility that comes with being an Orchestra musician. That’s not to say that people working on land gigs aren’t versatile, but with the cruise industry, you perform for such a wide ranging audience that changes week to week. You quickly learn that your repertoire will expand to please the demographics, or you will be left behind. Overall, though, I find there a lot of similarities between land and sea gigs.
What’s the weirdest experience you’ve had while working on a cruise ship?
Where do you start with this one? From the food in the crew mess, to the trainings onboard, the weird initiations of new hire musicians, back deck (crew bar) conversations, the hook-ups, the break-ups, all within the community that is a cruise ship…the easy answer is that you are bound to see or experience something weird almost daily. (Sorry for being vague on this, it’s hard to pin point one )
What, if any, changes have you observed within the industry that’s had an impact on your career?
Fleetwide, it’s hard to say if any changes affect my career. I have, personally, had a few changes that have helped me to develop my own career. I have had the opportunity to perform the Broadway version of Mamma Mia! onboard Allure of the Seas, which was a great experience. This exceptional opportunity was a huge boost in my confidence, and with the great leadership of my Musical Director at the time (Greg Carger), I felt infused with more confidence as a musician and a leader. I still apply what I learned under Greg in my leadership role here on Vision. (Side note: David Morehead, Kevin Matthews are 2 other MD’s that have had a positive influence on me as a musician and MD. Can’t leave out those guys!)
Do you have a prediction for the future of live music in the industry?
Since working for Royal Caribbean, I have seen the music aspect of the Entertainment Department start to shrink slowly. I still see many musicians that I have worked with over the years, but again, the positions don’t seem to be growing. The ships are becoming what are called “smart ships”, with the wow factor coming from the digital corner of the industry. While this is an innovative development, it can retract from the live working musician at times.
What key skills does a person need to succeed in the cruise industry?
There are many skills, but the first above all is sight reading. If you want to last as a cruise ship musician, specifically in the Orchestra, it is imperative that you can read music on the fly. Another part of being successful in the industry is to come prepared. Once on the gig, you must act the part. Keeping an open mind and always listening is the key to working well with others. Since you are thrown into a band without any knowledge of what is coming or who these people are, you must adapt crazy fast. On top of it all, you are expected to read the music and play it like you’ve played it for years. Through all of this, you learn to keep your composure and channel any stress into the music.
What’s the hardest part of being a Musical Director on a cruise ship?
Although you carry the title of “Musical Director”, the job comes with many other responsibilities outside of the music. You are expected to conduct inspections with other department heads, check that your team has punched in their work hours, correctly file paper work pertaining to scheduling of musicians, and many other clerical duties around the ship. Being involved with the music is only part of the gig, which is not something I was told when I first accepted the Assistant Musical Director position. I do enjoy my job, and I am lucky to have a great team that works well together, but it can at times be challenging trying to level with so many different personalities and musical styles. You cannot please everyone, and there are some things that your team will not fully understand or will not accept. But the key is to remain firm and supportive of your musicians. Do what is best for your musicians and ensure that they are as happy as possible (sometimes it never happens). When the musicians are happy, then you can make great music in any venue and for any demographic (hopefully, but someone always complains).
Is there anything you wish you did differently?
My time at Berklee College of Music was very special to me. It was tough, and at times beyond hectic, but I enjoyed it and it made me who I am today. I used a lot of the skills I learned in the classroom outside of the “Berklee bubble” and spent a lot of time gigging around town. If I could change one thing, and only one, it would be that I used the resources at Berklee more than I did. I reached out of the Berklee community rather than looking inside to what was right in front of me. It could’ve been that driving, always hyper-competitive nature that Berklee has that made me look elsewhere for collaboration. I had my resources at school, but I did not fully take advantage of the accessibility the school provided.
What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are today?
I would have to say music school was the most valuable. I can thank my always supportive parents for helping me get through that school. It was one of the most difficult challenges I have faced, but I am a better musician for it. The pros far outweigh the cons of my experience, and I would not trade my experience for any other. It forced me to really find my own sound and personality behind the kit, but surprisingly, it helped me with business acumen as well. You have to work well with others in order to succeed in the music industry, and Berklee gave me the tools to find my confidence not only within the music but in the business aspect as well.
Do you find time to practice?
I try to listen and practice different styles of music as often as possible. When you are playing the same 2 production shows with the cast every cruise, things can get dangerously routine. By that, I mean that complacency starts to creep into the picture. As a cruise ship musician, this is where the “darkness” can come into play. To counter that, I try to find new music from a colleague or jamming with someone I usually wouldn’t play with. Sitting in with other bands around the ship is also a good way to create comradery and unity within the live music division.
What would you say to a musician looking at making the move to the cruise industry?
Make sure your sight reading skills are up to par. No matter what instrument you play, you have to be able to read. It’s even wise for a lounge band musician to have sight reading skills in case of learning new material. It gives a musician an entirely different dimension to their playing, and opens up the possibilities of gigs opening up in the future.
What’s your mission as a musician?
I firmly believe I will never reach perfection as a musician. That’s the artist dream, but it can’t be achieved. The journey, the ups and downs, and the people along the way are what make you the artist you were meant to be. My mission is to leave an imprint on the people I work with. I want a legacy that my family can be proud of. Not a loud and bombastic career, but one that shows my true self. In the short term, I would love to do all the travelling and performing with my wife I can do. Then, make a move to England and perform on the West End with some contacts I have made during my time with Royal Caribbean. In the long term, I want to do what I do best until I physically can’t do it anymore. My mission, in short, is a work in progress.
If you want to see Calvin in action head to: