Cruise ship singers and entertainers can often find it difficult to know what makes a good quality arrangement and it may take a great deal of experience and money to learn how to avoid mistakes.
Here’s a few tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of long rehearsals, wasted money and nervous performances!
Firstly I should point out that personally, I’ve written arrangements for many professional cruise ship vocalists as well as the main shows (and TV show, orchestras and Pop acts) but aside from that I am also a freelance pianist and I get to see a wide variety of musical arrangements and talk to vocalists who regularly play guest spots on cruise ships.
My first 2 jobs out of college were in the cabaret band on cruise ships and I’ve even been a passenger and spoken to other bands and artists.
Tip1. Not all Musicians Are Created Equal.
Your arrangements should sound fantastic played by fantastic musicians but also sound good from bad musicians. I spoke to a singer recently at a gig in London and after the first set he was thanking the band for the way the charts sounded. He told me how he’d recently come back from a cruise ship guest spot and had to give up using the band, it sounded so bad. He moved from the theatre to the lounge and had to use backing tracks instead.
It takes a lot of experience in order to write arrangements that take this into account. You may be a seasoned pro’ with beautiful charts and your regular session guys have no problem playing the intricacies that you’re used to hearing but if the band are not up to the same standard then you may have to pull numbers from your carefully worked out set, even after long, extended rehearsals.
Tip2. Make It Easy To Read!
This may seem like stating the obvious but I come across this issue so often.
Music which is quite simple to play but which is written in such a way as to make it difficult. Even if you don’t read music, does it look neat, clear and can be seen at 3-4 feet away? Even if the answer to these questions is “Yes” there’s detail which can still make the arrangement difficult. An example may be a chord symbol written as “Fb7(#11)” – although this may be technically correct sometimes, a commercial musician will ALWAYS prefer to see “E7(#11) , I guarantee it. Good arrangements are written to be read first time with no rehearsal as opposed to get marks in a college exam.
Something which constantly irritates me is that people write music with 5 or 6 bars to each line, especially with Jazz or pop music. Rhythm sections tend to think in groups of 4 or 8 because that’s how the musical phrases sound. If your arrangements have 4 bars (measures) per line, a rhythm section doesn’t need to think much but if your charts have 5 bars (or 6 or 7….I’ve seen them all), your chances of the bass, drums, pianist or guitarist getting lost have just increased by a massive amount.
Tip3. Bands Come In Different Shapes And Sizes
Cruise ship bands not only differ in their level of competence but also the amount of musicians and instruments within the group. This can be a real headache for the arranger as well as the vocalist. The band that I started my career with was a 7 piece, with piano, bass, drums, guitar and sax (doubling clarinet) trumpet and trombone. This is a good size band that can cover most music really well but it’s not that common any more.
I tend to ensure that arrangements can be played well by a trio (piano, bass, drums) and include all the necessary cues of the horn parts. That way it’s all covered.
Tip4. Choose Your Key Carefully
OK, we know the show is all about YOU…..and your voice sounds perfect in B major on this song. By all means use your B major arrangements for bands that you know but for bands that you don’t know or if you have little or no rehearsal, take it from me – Bb major of C major will make everybody’s life a great deal easier!
Tip5. It’s Not All About Style, But……
With musicians, style IS important. A great Jazz player may know 1000s of tunes in any key but may not be able to read simple notation or if you put a page of chord symbols in front of a classical trained pianist and you tend to get silence! Your arrangements (especially for piano) should have enough information on them so that a Classical player can read some notes and so the Jazz player can read some chords.
If you are a singer and have any questions regarding arrangements please do feel free to contact me and ask anything you like, no obligations.
When all your arrangements are in order, the band should look like this:
(My cruise ship band from 20 years ago ….and that’s me in the centre )
Pianist, arranger, composer