Ever dreamed of gigging on the open sea? Doug Tann spent 23 years as the Musical Director and drummer with Princess Cruises. Currently the Music Coordinator Shoreside, he’s now directly responsible for the daily recruitment, booking and payroll for over 300 musicians worldwide.
How’d he first get his foot in the door? Did he ever get seasick? Doug took the time to share the ins and outs of his longstanding travel gig.
I did my first ship in 1983, fresh out of college. A cabaret singer named Bob Francis took me under his wing and basically arranged the whole thing. My Princess adventure began in 1993. I had exhausted the career opportunities of the city I was in, and quickly realized that if I wanted to progress, I had to get into a bigger talent stream.
I was doing a jazz gig, and a piano player I knew came to sit in. We got to talking and he told me he had just finished a contract with Princess, had a good time and made some great connections, and gave me the company details and a contact name.
I contacted a gentleman in Entertainment at Princess and had an initial phone interview. I must have dropped the right names, because he asked me to send in a demo. I was doing a ton of studio work at the time, so after a session I asked the engineer to roll some tape and I just blew through some chopsy stuff, but I tried to cover what I thought was relevant. I sent the tape in to the office, and a month later I was getting on a ship in Los Angeles.
There is usually a same day band call several hours prior to showtime. We have an onboard professional production staff who are tasked with stage plots and setup, so there is no need to move equipment. Princess also supplies all of the equipment. All of our drum sets are professional, quality instruments complete with Zildjian “A” Customs and DW 9000 pedals. I have personally picked this equipment as it’s the same that I use.
The band call is normally 90 minutes. The band runs through everything, does a top and tail for trouble spots, and makes sure everything is clear. All House Band Musicians are on Aviom individual in-ear monitor stations and are in control of their own in-ear mix.
Band call is 15 minutes before downbeat. The show is cued by the Production Manager, there is a voice over, and the musicians are off to the races. There are always two shows every evening, and you are normally done for the night before 11:00 pm.
All Princess musicians are contracted to play a maximum of 5 hours per day, 7 days a week. There are no guaranteed days off; however, we encourage our onboard managers to give everybody a day off when the schedule permits.
A house band drummer is expected to play in any of our performance venues at any time during the day. Jazz sets, Big Band sets, and other smaller venue cabarets happen in other venues around the ship.
I have personally gotten rid of the old model where a musician was expected to commit to 4-6 months at a time. My model is predicated on flight costs and itineraries, and drummers can do as little as three weeks, provided there are no costs involved for the company. Basically, if you are a top performer, I will work with you to make sure it’s mutually beneficial.
When I first started, the ships were much smaller and you certainly felt the motion of the ocean. These days, the itineraries are thought out well in advance, and the ships are so large and powerful the Captain can usually avoid anything really ugly or life threatening.
Every crew member gets their sea legs eventually, and then anything really rough is just annoying. 9 days out of 10, you don’t know that you’re on a ship unless you go outside.
In 1994, sailing across the Gulf of Alaska towards Russia, we got into something that was truly frightening. 50-60 foot seas and very dangerous conditions. However, those experiences were so few, and the number of perfect days and nights far exceeded anything nasty.
When I first started, it was all about the travel. I have been around the world four times and have set foot on every continent. My favorite destinations are Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Venice. I spent a week in Africa, which was unbelievable. I’ve had lessons with Master Congeros in Puerto Rico. I’ve been as far up the Amazon as you can go, I’ve stood on the Great Wall of China, I’ve jammed with local musicians in Vladivostok, Russia, I’ve had too much to drink in Japan, and I’ve seen an eclipse in totality from the absolute perfect epicenter.
As my career progressed, it was more about the connections. Most of my major tours have come from people I have met on ships, and my current gig as MD for Ryan Ahern (pianist) is a direct result of having played his show on a ship. I have married two women only because I met them on ships. The first marriage didn’t work out, but it did take me to London, England for five years and I’ll never regret a second of that experience. The woman I’m married to now is a keeper, once again only facilitated by me being on a ship.
I’ve taken my wife to Tahiti, Mexico, Alaska and Canada, for free, and I have photo albums full of more memories than 10 men normally would enjoy. Wouldn’t trade a minute of it.
The biggest challenge is being away from home, and the interpersonal relationships both onboard and at home. Despite my best attempts, not everybody onboard a ship is going to get along. I will also admit, with complete honesty, that there is a price to pay for being away. I was in Istanbul in 1998 when my father passed away. I did make the funeral, but I’ve missed plenty of others as well as weddings and other family occasions.
There is some sacrifice. You will fall in love, get your heart broken, and find out a great deal about who you really are as a musician and, ultimately, as a human being. The support system on board amongst musicians has never been matched anywhere else, in my experience.
Any Orchestra or House Band drummer must bring several tools to the table. Sight reading is paramount and tends to be the deal breaker. In our world, this means you can decipher at first sight anything that is presented, take the written notes, read between the lines, and produce music with minimal preparation.
In conjunction with this, you need to be able to cover myriad styles with authority and with idiomatic correctness. Everything from Big Band to Ballroom to Las Vegas to Broadway, sometimes in the same night. As a House Band drummer for Princess, you will be playing new material every night with minimal repetition, so you need a broad understanding of vernacular and musical nomenclature.
All of our shows are done to a click, which is eye-opening to a new hire as the click floats. All ralls, rits, fermatas, tempo changes and accels are mapped out on the click, which takes some time to get used to.
Doug Tann is the Music Coordinator Shoreside for Princess Cruises. Before that, he was their longstanding Musical Director. He is currently the Musical Director and drummer for concert pianist Ryan Ahern. Doug has published six drum instruction books and has played with Stanley Clarke, Regina Carter, Ashford and Simpson, Dean Martin, Della Reese, and Lorna Luft. He endorses Remo, Sleishman, E-pad, Future Sonics and Sledgepad.