Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Survival tips for cruise ship drummers

My man Willie Blair, the only person
I know who could get away with
flouting most of the non-musical rules. 

I guess I had to actually write about drumming on cruise ships at some point, hey? Here are some tips for not getting fired, for not hating your life, and for generally acting like a pro when working that kind of gig.

Keep a positive attitude. Many if not most of the people around you are going to be really negative about the job, especially if they've been doing it awhile. It's important to not let their misery effect you, otherwise your contract can start to seem like a prison sentence. Keeping a positive, professional attitude will make you more attractive to people you are working with who may want to hire you or refer you for non-cruise ship jobs. And remember that you are getting paid to play the drums, which I thought was supposed to be your life's dream, or something.

Be easy to live with. Be reasonably quiet, clean, tidy, non-smelly, and non-funky, but don't be over-fastidious, either. Be aware of your habits and how they effect the person or persons you will be sharing a cabin with.

Learn to keep a low profile. Stay out of people's way- passengers, crew, staff, ship officers, security. If you're a loud talker and/or dresser prone to a lot of public clowning, change that. The crew should not notice you sunbathing eight hours a day.

Adapt to the situation, but not too much. Check yourself if the tacky/skeevy gold chains and silk shirts for sale in the ports of call start looking attractive to you. Usually this starts happening after a year or more  on  the job. Question the wisdom of the whole band buying custom golf clubs or bowling balls because there is an opportunity to use them a couple of hours a week. This  over-adapting to overseas postings is what Marines used to call "going asiatic"- adopting native behavior/dress, becoming over-reliant on houseboys to do things like polish your boots, becoming addicted to opium, etc.

Much more after the break:

Be able to make the hang. Be able to be around other musicians for long periods of time without being annoyed or annoying. It's better to be funny than to have a lot of opinions. A lot of it is mostly shutting up. When one of the sixty-something entertainers apparently wants to hang until 4am talking about the old days on the circuit with Peter Nero and Frank Gorshin, all you really have to do is listen.

Respect the passengers.
Treat them like human beings and refrain from joining the rest of the crew/staff in  talking about them like they're a mass of dirtbag cattle, even if they are. If the crew have a funny name (or "slur") for them, do not join them in using it.

Do not "fraternize" with passengers if you know what I mean. Or with crew. It is generally frowned upon, if not forbidden outright, and will get you a lot of unwanted attention from everyone. Relationships among staff are generally more accepted.

Do not participate in drama. Of which there will usually be an ample supply. 

Be diplomatic in your interactions with the crew. And officers. Keep it brief, courteous, respectful, even if they're a little hostile. Most of them are being horribly exploited, and are working savagely long hours for not great money, and may resent you for your relatively easy schedule. Hanging with other musicians, entertainers, and staff is safe.

Be moderate in your partying. Do not be seduced by the glamor of the above image of me swilling Heineken. Drinking too much is a bad habit, and it's unhealthy, and it can get you in trouble, and cost you a lot of money. Overdoing it just really isn't fun, either.

Have a plan for being productive in your down time. Don't sleep your life away, and don't just watch TV. This is a great time to learn Finale/Sibelius, to transcribe, to do your theory homework, to learn French, or learn a computer programming language. If you can find a way to do your pad practice without pissing everyone off, do that.

Oh, yes, and there are also some musical concerns:

Have control over your dynamics. If the current post-concept-of-dynamics slamming funk zone is the only place you're comfortable, you are in trouble. Learn to play quieter.

Know your styles. You should be familiar with the basic styles associated with jazz, rock (esp. 50's-70's), and R&B. You don't need to get too deep into the intricacies of any one genre, unless you're in a band that specializes in it. You should know how to play a polka, 2/4 and 6/8 march (with roll offs), train beat, show 2, country 2-beat, rhumba/bolero/beguine, waltz, tango, and cha cha.

Keep it simple, do your job, and don't be looking to get your musical rocks off. Most of the music calls for solid, functional drumming. In fact: 

Your modern jazz vocabulary is useless.
Or close to it. As is your advanced funk/fusion vocabulary.

Know your basic repertoire. Things like Satin Doll, Don't Get Around Much Anymore, All of Me, Blue Moon, Proud Mary, Body & Soul, St. Thomas, Take The 'A' Train, Tequila, In The Mood, Sweet Georgia Brown, On Green Dolphin Street, Song For My Father, Just Friends, Someday My Prince Will Come, Sophisticated Lady, and Girl From Ipanema. You will learn many, many other tunes of that ilk on the job, but you should have at least the beginning of a clue when you show up. Oh, and someone is going think they're doing a favor by requesting, Take Five, so learn that.

Be able to read from lead sheets and big band-style charts. Most of the reading you'll be asked to do is very straightforward. Often the major challenge will be in making page turns, and navigating medleys.

Learn the music. If you're a new member to a band that has been working together awhile, don't adopt their more relaxed attitude until you learn the music. Just because they seem lackadaisical doesn't mean they don't care if you screw up the job.

And finally:

Respect the music. You will be asked to play a lot of stupid stuff, but be a professional and play it as well as it can be played. The simple act of keeping good time should be a pleasure, so focus on that if you hate the music.


Dan Gaynor said...

Nicely said.

Andy Stermer said...

Hey Todd, thanks for the informative and insightful post. I am wondering if you could provide some further information on the approach you take to playing a rhumba/bolero/beguine and tango on the drumset. I have had trouble finding recordings and/or transcriptions of these grooves for kit...mostly because I am not sure where to look! Thanks!

Shoestring Traveler said...

"Oh, and someone is going think they're doing a favor by requesting, Take Five, so learn that. "

Ha ha!

Earplugs. Bring earplugs. I don't think I slept much for the first year until I figured that one out. Also bring a camera.....

Todd Bishop said...

@ST: That happens about once a year or more. Not that it's a hard song, but it's about as much fun as playing Moon Dance.

+1 on the earplugs; probably a sleep mask wouldn't be a bad idea either, unless they're giving you a room to yourself.

@AS: I really only know the bastard, Americanized, working-drummer versions of those styles- usually playing this kind of music the authentic versions aren't called for, and may not fit with what the rest of the rhythm section will be doing.

The beginner groove for tango is easy enough- quarter notes on the BD and SD, with an accented roll on the & of 4. Tunes you can check out are Tango of the Rose and Fernando's Hideaway.

There are a lot of different versions of the thing that gets called rhumba or bolero. If you know the basic sound you can do whatever works for you- I just adapted something on the job myself. Here's an example, with just percussion.

The beguine is more or less a faster, stripped-down version of the same thing- at least that's what's been expected when it's called for where I've usually seen it, in shows. It hasn't turned up so much in playing dance music.

Zab said...

Thanks for very thoughtful post. For sure a lot of drummers out there needs to read this. I remember a good friend of mine who works in a cruise ship at NSMS and he felt the same way too, I hope that all is well with him.Thanks for writing your insight! A great help for everyone

Unknown said...

Well explained. 👍