Background Music #2: Water Music

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.

Arcadia Cruise Ship

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 Trillium

The Trillium

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:


Background Music #1

In the unpredictably varied world of the freelance musician, the background music gig is often a staple of one’s experience and one’s bank account. Most of us have played at least a few of these, and some people make much of their living by playing them, the most common of which mark life’s typical rites of passage: weddings, funerals, birthday and anniversary parties, and such.

Some background music jobs are very fancy and rare: I have a colleague, for example, who played at Barack Obama’s first inaguration. Then there are the other, less impressive inauguration jobs, like when I played for the opening of the new subway station near my family’s home. Yes I did. But I’ve played in Carnegie and Roy Thomson Hall too, and it’s worth sharing that the acoustics in the subway station were better than at Thomson Hall, that is until the latter was renovated.

At some background gigs you spend a bit of time playing for people who listen to you, during a wedding’s register signing for example, but the rest of the time on the job is spent providing ‘wallpaper’ music for meals, receiving lines, arrivals and departures. Sometimes you spend the entire time noodling your way – almost inaudibly once the party’s in full swing – through your own gig book of tunes, or through one of the many published collections with names like Wedding Classics or The All-Occasion Fake Book. This can sometimes be tedious, it’s true, but if you’re fascinated with human social behaviour, have some new music you want to try out without necessarily being heard, and/or you get free food and wine as well as getting paid, it’s kind of fun!

But there are other more uncommon rites of passage, about which many of us have never had much reason to think. One of the most unusual jobs that I’ve ever played was for a Canadian citizenship ceremony. That’s not a gig that comes along very often, and perhaps not at all these days, but if you’re ever asked to play at one, I recommend accepting the offer. It’s an honour. For a brief while, your life connects with those of complete strangers who meet to celebrate a big decision, and they are all strangers to one another too.

I had no idea of what went on at citizenship ceremonies, apart from people perhaps taking an oath and receiving citizenship certificates, and I certainly never gave any thought to whether or not live music might be included in the event. But when I got the call, it seemed like a unique opportunity so I accepted, and on the appointed day I trundled by public transit out through deepest and most spacious suburbia to the Scarborough Town Centre shopping mall and civic offices. This was prior to 1998, before the city of Toronto was amalgamated with several outlying boroughs, a union rejected by a majority in a referendum of city and borough citizens, but rammed through by the provincial government of the day. Here’s the Scarborough Civic Centre, designed by architect Ray Moriyama.


At this point my memories of the ceremony’s exact details aren’t great, but what I very clearly remember was a wooden-walled courtroom filled with people from all around the globe. There were families, couples and individuals, and their friends and relatives. Their countries of origin were listed in the opening remarks made by the Justice in charge, and these included places like France and New Zealand but also many countries known more for civil war, famine, poverty, genocide, religious strife or suffering of so many other kinds. I wondered what each of these new Canadians had lived through prior to arriving in this tastefully lit courtroom in Scarborough, how they’d gotten here, what they’d left behind or given up.

It was certainly moving to to watch all these people parade to the centre of the room to receive their citizenship papers and a congratulatory handshake, and to hear them sing the national anthem, some exuberantly and some a bit more shyly. As in a graduation ceremony, for each person it marked the end of a lengthy journey, though the challenge of some of their journeys would likely have made medical school seem like a walk in the park.

As for my contribution to it all, I played at the usual moments – some music while people arrived, some tunes during the certificate distribution, and something perky when it was all done. I can’t recall exactly what I played but I’m pretty sure some Telemann, van Eyck and some Scottish folk tunes made it into the mix. Very likely it wasn’t music that anyone in the room would have expected, if they’d expected live music at all. Even so, people listened, and afterwards several of them thanked me for the gentle wooden flute sounds that added an unexpected special something to the proceedings.

My pleasure.