A few musicians I know have gigged for a while on cruise ships, playing in a band or orchestra to provide dinner music and accompany shows for the hundreds of passengers on these seafaring behemoths. Like a lot of jobs, it sounds at first as though it might be a lot of fun – the adventure of the open sea, getting away from it all, seeing new places, discounted drinks perhaps – but it sometimes turns out to be not quite so scintillating. You can end up playing the same charts night after night, receive unwanted attention from passengers from whom you can’t really escape except by hiding all day in your cabin, or discover that you suffer from occasional sea-sickness only after terra firma has been left hundreds of miles behind. On top of that, if your colleagues should turn out to be poor company (or they think you are, which of course would be impossible), you can’t just dump them and find some new ones to play with. But I hear the money’s not bad, and some people head back to a cruise gig when other jobs are inconsistent or in short supply.
I’ve never done an ocean liner gig, nor have I set foot on one of those massive ships, even despite my Glaswegian shipbuilding roots. Maybe one day there’ll be an opportunity to which all we Baroque music people flock, for example if Cunard Lines were to offer Baroque-themed cruises such as Bach Around the Baltic, or Händel’s Water Music – Go Big Or Go Home. But so far, the only ship gig I’ve ever played was on a much smaller, less glamorous scale: it was for a party held by a wealthy businessman and patron of the arts, who decided that the most festive way to celebrate his parents 50th wedding anniversary was to party down on board one of Toronto’s historic ferries. He rented the Trillium, the magnificent ‘grande dame’ of the city’s fleet, to chug around the Toronto islands for a few hours while all the assembled friends and relatives partied the evening away.
The guests of honour loved Baroque music, and their son hired three musicians to provide some: harpsichordist Valerie Weeks, Brian Franklin (bass viol), and yours truly. We played together frequently and so had a clutch of cheery, party-friendly repertoire by the usual suspects – Telemann, Sammartini, Händel, Boismortier, etc. This ferry party sounded to us like a fun and straightforward gig, so at the appointed time we loaded ourselves and the instruments onto the Trillium at Toronto’s harbour. We were asked to set up on the lower deck, mostly indoors and protected from wind and possible rain, and we started playing as the guests began to arrive. The ferry bobbed slightly from side to side as people came on board, and the atmosphere was vaguely idyllic. So far, so good.
Well, the idyll ended abruptly with the ignition of the ferry’s engine, located right underneath us. A low but loud rumbling enveloped the space, and an incredible vibration buzzed through the floorboards. I felt like a Lilliputian sitting on a Gulliver-sized massage chair – which isn’t a bad sensation, but it’s a tad distracting when you’re playing a musical instrument. The three of us couldn’t really hear ourselves either so any necessary communication, such as sorting out our set list, required yelling, sign language, or semaphore. Numerous guests came down to the lower deck throughout the evening, and they all bellowed at each other too. It was elegant and festive, and it was bedlam.
We played on and, as with many background music gigs, there were several people interested enough to hang around and listen for a while (or maybe they just liked the vibrating floor too). One of them was a tuxedo-clad but very inebriated gentleman who decided to hold himself up by leaning on the raised harpsichord lid, which soon began to buckle under his weight. I had my back turned to this, and couldn’t hear much, so I only realized there was trouble when I saw Valerie flailing her arms in the direction of the harpsichord’s tail and looking a bit freaked out. I turned around, saw the warping harpsichord lid, stood up and asked Mr. Hammered to please stop leaning on the harpsichord. I tried to ask politely, but that’s a genuine challenge when you have to yell. He shouted back, “Who invited YOU? Who do you people think you ARE?” and then, “What do you think you’re DOING?,” a very good question which we’d already been asking ourselves for the previous couple of hours. He eventually shuffled off, the harpsichord lid survived in one piece, and we played on. The rest of the evening was uneventful, and when the night was over, when we had docked and the rumbling and shaking was over, we had to admit that the bedlam had been fun and that gig stories like this wouldn’t come along every day.
So if Cunard Lines ever decides to put out a call for Baroque Cruises staff – who knows, maybe they’re already on it – I can hardly wait to apply. Perhaps I’d do OK as far as ‘previous experience’ goes. I have my Trillium story; and I once survived a ferry ride across the English Channel in a force 8 gale. My most vivid memory of that? The massive sound of smashing glass, followed immediately by the smell of the world’s biggest accidental cocktail, and a single word from a lone, tired voice: ‘SHIT.‘ Someone had forgotten to take down the duty-free display before we left harbour, and when the first wave hit: KABLOOEY.
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The Trillium first sailed in 1910, was retired in 1957 and then put back into service for parties such as this beginning in the 1970s. She’s a beautiful ferry. For more on the Trillium, read here: