I Performed on a Major Cruise Line and Travelled Around the World -- Here's What I Learned
Rhapsody of the Seas, Venice, Italy, October 27, 2018
"What seems to be the problem?" I asked the nurse on duty in the ship's clinic as she shook her head filing through my paperwork.
"The facility you did your medical testing at is not one that is approved on our list."
"But it was on the list the company sent to me."
"Do you have a copy of this list?"
"No but it's in my email." I go to pull up the email on my phone but of course internet is not working and my data doesn't work in Europe. I'm placed in to a waiting room and told it could take hours to get in contact with the mainland in Miami. It's currently 3:00am at headquarters in Miami.
"I'm sorry but without verification of an approved facility, we can't approve you to board and the company will have to buy your flight back home." says the nurse. Great. I've spent two days traveling only to find out that there's a great possibility I could be sent home jobless, apartmentless and defeated I think to myself.
I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Seattle, Washington. I've been racking my brain on how to present this post to you and it's by no means perfect but I'm sending it to you now because If I don't it will be another 6 months before I do. I'm currently on my first week with my new contract on the Azamara Quest. It's proved to be a great contract thus far and I can't wait to tell you more about it. But first I'd like to reflect on my very first contract on Rhapsody of the Seas with you.
During my travels I kept a journal so I could document what I was doing, what my daily challenges were, and how I developed new skills and tools to acclimate to my new surroundings to become a top performer in my field. I'm going to share some of the journal entries with you without going into too much detail. Keep in mind that this is all centered around the daily goings on of life on a cruise ship and entertaining audiences from around the world. There are a lot of non-sequiturs and it jumps from day to day and is not exactly in a chronological narrative order. Yet, If cruise ship life is something you're curious about, there is loads of helpful info. to glean from here. If not, then at the very least it's an interesting story from an entertainers' perspective.
Journal entry #1 10.25.18 GETTING THERE [2 days before my start date]
First stop Frankfurt, Germany then Venice, Italy to start my new job as a Piano Bar Entertainer for Royal Caribbean Cruises. This is kinda crazy. In a span of 3 weeks, I’ve quit my job of 7 years, moved out of my very comfortable apartment in a quaint town that I’ve loved since college and put on hold a very promising career in teaching.
Don’t even know if I’ll like it. But I’ve spoken to so many people and read so many things about this business that I’ve come to this conclusion time and time again “I'll never know unless I try”.
Journal entry #2 10.26.18
I’m on the other side. Finally in my hotel room. Let’s recount the day shall we?
First flight was amazing. I love Lufthansa. And I LOVED this flight. I had the middle row of 4 seats absolutely to myself. Not bad for a 9 hour flight. I slept like a baby sprawled out over those seats. My body fit them perfectly too. Even with my legs fully outstretched I couldn’t reach the armbar of the last seat so I was at no risk of having my fit stick out of the aisle.
The rest of the day goes as follows in quick succession because I don’t feel like thinking about it too much. I thought I was late but not really. I asked an off duty flight attendant. She was very nice and said bus 5 and 15 take you to the hotel but also it’s a 15 minute walk. I need to learn military time because I thought 15.00 meant 5pm. This is significant because on my reservation it says cancel at 6pm if I don’t arrive. So I thought my reservation was at stake when it was really 3 in the afternoon lol.
Anyways bus kept delaying. 15.25, 15.40, 15.55. I said “screw it” and walked.
What ensued was the sweatiest 15 minute walk of my life and it was quite hard because all of my the luggage but I eventually made it.
Arrival to the hotel was smooth. The concierge was very nice and accommodating. I found out I can have a private shuttle take me to my boat in Venice in the morning. I said “sign me up.” He said “50 eur.” I said “fine.”
So now I’m here in my hotel room. I’ve since taken a much needed shower, nap and am debating whether to get dinner sent to my room or not. Decisions decisions. The guy next door is watching Transformers and I can hear everything.
NEXT DAY -- PROBLEM WITH MEDICAL
I’m being held in a waiting room because my medical certificate clinic was not approved. EVEN THOUGH the one I completed was done at a clinic approved by Royal Caribbean according to the list they gave me back in August. Not only this but I sent that certificate to several people on staff at Royal Caribbean and no one said a THING about this. I’m pretty ticked that after all the waiting and correspondence and making sure everything was in order, there is a very serious reality that I may be sent home that's starting to set in.
After a few hours of walking on the different decks trying to get signal using the free wifi on the ship, I am able to see the last email that was exchanged between my agent and I and find the list there. I pull it up and go to the clinic. Everyone seems to be on lunch break. I go back to the waiting room which is called "The Living Room" and watch the Filipino cooks playing pool. I eventually ask to play winner and get my but kicked by a long shot. I may as well pass the time getting to know some of the crew. Met some cool people that day that for some reason I never saw again in my 4 months there.
While I'm waiting, I intermittently check to see if the medical staff is back from their break. Eventually someone comes to get me and I show the medical facility document to the on duty nurse in the clinic from my phone. She approves my medical facility and I'm shown to my cabin. Crisis averted. Phew!
Journal entry #3 10.27.28 CHALLENGES OF THE NEW WORK ENVIRONMENT
I'm hoping to develop skills to get people involved in my shows more. As things stand now, sometimes it works splendidly and sometimes not at all. It seems to happen most when I’m not planning for it and it happens organically. I’m trying to get it there every time. When I plan sometimes the audience doesn’t respond the way I want them to and it throws me off my game. I’m determined to give the passengers a good time. I want the respect of my peers as well. But if people don’t like what I do I have no control over that. I must simply grow and adapt until I find that sweet spot between what I can offer, what they want to have happen and what my superiors consider excellent work.
Journal entry #4 11.21.18 HOW'S THE SHIP LIFE?
Ship life is like you’ve entered a time vortex and everything moves much faster. Everyone’s lives off the ship go in normal time and things stay routine and mundane. But on the ship you're in a new location of the world every day. You're meeting people from all over the world and entertaining them everyday. And everyone has their interests.
I met a group of Aussie’s last week that wanted to hear Khe Shan, Alice and Horses. I’d never heard of these tunes but learned them nevertheless. British people love Tom Jones apparently. Met a group from New Castle on my first week and they were such a great group of people. As a piano bar entertainer, every week there seems to be a group and that’s the group that you hang out with most in the week. This group also infects the others in the room with the need to participate and be involved. The first week it was the Brits. The second week it was two American couples from Wisconsin. The third week it was another group of Americans from all over. This week it’s 3 sisters from Kentucky. But I also get subgroups. There’s a couple from the UK that’s come to each of my shows this week and they sing every song. Also there’s a group from Ireland and another from Scotland. There’s a beautiful couple from Mexico celebrating 44 years together. I have all of these nationalities to play to and am learning so many songs that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned had I not decided to take this job.
For a musician it’s a dream job. Your schedule is light, your days are off. Completely. Unless it’s the first two weeks where you have security trainings and whatnot you can spend your days checking out the beautiful destinations, practicing, going to the gym or planning your sets. Out of all the musician jobs aboard the piano bar entertainer is the best. You get to eat what the guests eat as well as the crew. You don’t have to learn other people’s songs or shows just your own. You plan your own sets and play by yourself. If you want to join in on other musicians’ performances you can at the discretion of the musical director. You get to interact with the guests all day every day. I think you're the only person on board who gets cash tips. You get a private cabin. Gym is free, healthcare is free. Laundry services are free and someone comes by everyday to pick up your dirty clothes and dry cleaning. You get your cabin cleaned every day, your bed made, your towels restocked and carpet vacuumed and when you go to eat, you don't have to do the dishes. Life is sweet aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. You also can bring family aboard.
I don’t know how much the other musicians know of my privileges but I don’t share them. Of course if they're reading this, they'll know. Most entertainment staff all share cabins with another person. They can’t eat in the guest areas and if they do it's only for dinner and they pay for it. I’m sure they don’t get laundry services as I've seen them going up and down the passageways with baskets of laundry.
Journal entry #5 11.23.18 ON BOARD SICKNESS
If you're ever on a cruise ship please wash your hands. If the ships goes into an emergency level, you will receive a notification that people are sick and to wash your hands to prevent the further spread of sickness. This should never happen but I've seen people of all varying ages go into a bathroom stall on the ship, be there for a while and then walk out without washing their hands. It's disgusting. If you're one of those people that go to the bathroom and don't wash your hands, I don't want to ever meet you.
There are some viruses that if you even touch a surface that someone else has touched and then touch your mouth or eyes, you'll get sick. The most contagious and common on the cruise ship is the norovirus. It sucks and it is entirely preventable if people simply wash their hands before they eat and after they use the restroom. If you're a nail biter like me, wash your hands every time you touch something, period. Luckily I never got sick but it's just because I'm OCD about washing my hands and I never like being sick.
Journal entry #6 12/24/18 KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Internet is expensive on the ship for crew. Just how expensive? There was this confusing holiday deal. 300 minutes BOGO for $29.99 and you get another 300 minutes free. That means you’re paying .09 cents per minute. Whereas they have an option to buy per hour at $1.99 which means you’re paying .03 cents per minute. It’s clearly the better choice to pay the $1.99 but they make it seem as if you’re getting a deal for the 300 BOGO bull**** deal. Oh and Merry Christmas Eve 😊
1/7/19 ACCLIMATING TO MY ENVIRONMENT
Ok so I’ve grown further acclimated to this ship's atmosphere. I’m hanging out with the crew. It usually involves my Musical Director, the Production Manager for the theater shows, the drummer in the orchestra, the Trumpet player in the orchestra and his girlfriend who’s with Crew Staff. We’ve eaten food truck tacos in Cozumel, Mexico, had ceviche by the beach, been to Belize, Honduras, Costa Maya Mexico and Key West.
In Belize I paid a guy $30 to take me to the beach for internet. Not only did the beach not have good internet, food took forever and on the way back to the ship the guy got a flat tire. I really thought I was going to be left behind in Belize. I was alone and no one knew where I was. But he called his friend and got us a ride back to the cruise port. I won’t be going out alone again in these countries.
DON'T BE LATE
On time I was late back to the ship. They took my seapass card that night but gave it back in the morning. No hole punches or anything. A hole punch means a warning. You get 3 of these and you're terminated. Also as a general rule it's good to show up 15 minutes before anything whether it be training, a divisional meeting or a performance.
MAKING A SHOW THAT KEEPS THEM COMING BACK
Other than that I think I’ve come up with a system for requests that I’m implementing today. I’m going to download the requests from the previous night every morning and then work on them that day. I’ll also categorize them by tips. Also I’ll save EVERY napkin and once a cruise or once every two cruises I’ll go through them and find the repeats. Whatever gets requested multiple times becomes a part of my routine. Whatever artist gets requested multiple times becomes a part of my routine.
I’ll also monitor the tips I get every night and separate the early set from the late set because it’s a different crowd. I’ll match the tips to the set that night and see if there are any correlations. At the end of my contract I can analyze all the numbers and find out which were the most successful sets. I can also start making notes about how the crowd was that night to see if that had any outcome on the amount of tips I made. My goal is to each week increase the amount of tips I make on a given night and to reach $200.00/week in tips for starters. That’s $34/night. My long term goal is $1,000.00/week consistently for future contracts. That would be $170 a night.
Let the challenge begin…NOW!!!
Journal entry #7 1/10/19
Okay, so far I’ve gotten on Tuesday $46 and $33 on Wednesday. I’m well on my way to making my first goal already. I’ve started developing my show further. Calling people up to play “Where is My Mind” by the Pixies with me. I’ve been successful but I need more variety because I can’t keep doing the same thing every night. It needs to be a different show each night. Focus should be on themes of the night to break it up a little. Also emphasis on BIG FUN moments that involve the audience. Not just sing-alongs but actual games and audience involvement directly with what I’m doing. I bought toy instruments in Cozumel but I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with them. I’m thinking about having people come up and do a solo break with me. I’m racking my brain on which song I could use for it though.
Journal entry #8 1.27.19
I’m settling in much better now. The show has been on a standstill for two weeks. I stopped doing Annoying Pop Song Night until I can learn more variety for the older demographics. Besides these last two weeks have been a mostly older crowd that would not know most for the songs I’m performing. I haven’t been developing the audience participation thing like I should be. I’m not focusing enough on the show. I need to talk to the film crew about filming with their equipment for my show. Then use that footage for a new promo video. I also need to work on the Victor Borge Routine. It’s a great idea as long as I practice and implement. This could work great with an older crowd and maybe with a wireless mic like Victor Borge uses. Furthermore I need to download some Victor Borge videos and study his act. If you don't know who Victor Borge is click here to see a video.
Journal entry #9 2.5.19 USA AUDIENCES VS. EUROPEAN AUDIENCES
Things have really slowed down in the Caribbean and that’s a good thing. On the flip side I’ve been feeling the wear and tear on my voice and I’ve taken extra precautionary measures to ensure I don’t hurt myself. So very minimal alcohol. Don’t think I had a drop of it last week and this week it looks the same. Other than that I’ve kept up with my water intake and I’ve made sure to warm up but most of all I’ve been planning my sets to take it easy on my voice. It’s strange because my upper and lower registers are fine. It’s the middle register (the one I use the most) that I feel the strain. As if I’m at the beginning stages of losing my voice. It’s gotten better the last few days. A large portion of my day I’m alone so I don’t talk much and when I do it’s with my conversational voice. If I’m not projecting with my diaphragm even whilst talking I REALLY feel and hear the strain. There’s no pain thankfully.
Other than that the crowd is still older this cruise but it’s a bit better in terms of energy. I’ve gotten great tips to start off. Day 2 (which is the first day I play) I got $64 in tips. Day 3 I got $54. I use my tips to pay for internet, shopping and restaurants in port. The money I make for playing goes to the bank and pays off my credit card charges or goes into savings.
VOCAL STRAIN AND THE RISK OF INJURY AT THE PIANO
So in the meantime I have to make decisions about my vocal health and my wrists as well. I’ve modified my playing because I’ve been banging a little hard on the piano out of excitement or showmanship. It’s starting to take a tole with sore fingertips and pain in the wrists. I’m SO glad I have Ms. Engel’s training (Ms. Engel is my teacher from Florida) and that I took that injury prevention course with Barbara Lister-Sink (Link to Injury Preventative Technique blog for more details) before taking this gig because I would not have known how to handle this otherwise. I think I’ll be fine as long as I don’t compound the problems and be intelligent in my playing. Also I save every set list I do. And usually I try not to repeat songs the following day. Some are unavoidable like Piano Man and Sweet Caroline but most can be repeated another day. I recycle the sets from the previous week because they’ll have this process already built in. It’s brilliant and has saved so much time for me in planning my sets.
Journal entry #10 2.10.19 THE MOST REQUESTED SONGS
Okay so I’ve been keeping track of all the requests being made for about 2 months. So far people have requested 275 songs of me. Some I know and some I don’t know yet. Out of all the songs so far “Piano Man” has been the most requested at 10 written requests. Most times people just shout it out and that’s virtually every night so it’s more like 50 times but I’m only going off of written requests. The 2nd most requested songs at 5 written requests are “Walking in Memphis” and “All of Me”. The 3rd most are “Sweet Caroline”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Country Roads”.
It seems that people mostly request ballads which is weird because when it comes to listening to a show people lose interest if more than two ballads are played particularly if you have not warmed them up to you yet.
12.21.19 OPPORTUNITIES BEYOND THE CRUISE SHIP
I've met someone on board who is flying me to Cambodia to stay in a hotel. They own a school there where she and the teachers there teach English and computer skills and I’ll be doing music classes and piano lessons as a thank you for the free trip.
I’ve been introduced to a culture I’d only heard of and knew nothing about. I’ve learned some of their language and customs, met a lot of people and have been teaching the students at the owner's school how to sing musically in a choir setting as well as giving lessons to one of the instructors. It’s been so rewarding to see their improvement in such a short time. I’ve been working with them for 2 weeks and tonight is the culmination of all that work. The Cambodian New Year. The year of the Pig. We will have a night of festivities, games and water gun fights...But that's another story for another blog post.
And that's where it all ends for now. I'll be working on similar journal entries for this current contract and will update you accordingly of course. Also I was talking to my sister today about starting a VLOG. A blog but as video. Since it's difficult for me to blog frequently on the ship but it's much easier for me to make a video and update you guys more frequently between contracts. I already have all the equipment I need on board. What do you think? Leave a comment below. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com
Photos used under Creative Commons from Art&Music*Woo-Hoo, starmanseries, quinn.anya, woodleywonderworks, quinn.anya, devinStein