As you know from my last post, after three years on cruise ships, I was ready to get my feet back on the ground and try to make music my full-time gig on land. I wasn’t sure where to go, but a friend suggested Denver with its four seasons, beautiful mountains and warmer winters (a definite plus for a North Dakota boy).
Knowing three people and not knowing what I was getting into, I committed to six months in Denver. Unfortunately, networking and finding gigs were not something I was taught in school, so I didn’t know where to get started. On one of my first nights, I headed to the Dazzle with a friend for a jam session. Dazzle is one of the biggest jazz clubs in Denver, and I met many musicians, some of whom had come from cruise ships like I had.
These connections proved fruitful, and I began to sub in a big band and play for an event here and there. However, I knew this wouldn’t be enough to sustain me in the long-term, so I started a search for steady work.
Every day, I scoured Craigslist, searching for keywords like “piano,” “keyboard,” and “band” This led me to a gig with a worship band. The guitar player in the group suggested I contact a few local agencies to see if they needed a keyboard player for their cover bands.
I didn’t know much about agencies before, but this would be a turning point in my journey. Soon after, I got my first cover band gig – a wedding at a beautiful mountain resort in Vail, Colorado. Just like on cruise ships, I enjoyed playing with other talented musicians and was interested in doing more, especially if they paid this well.
Even with the few gigs I was finding, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet. My savings were quickly becoming depleted, and I started interviewing for a few temporary office jobs to make ends meet.
Little did I know that I had a big break around the corner. Just as I was beginning to resign myself to the day job world, the same agency called me, asking if I would be interested in auditioning for their top cover band, promising over 50 well-paying gigs a year.
I can’t say I knew what I was doing, but I got the gig and was soon asked to be a permanent member. I didn’t realize that keyboardists were in such high demand. It turns out that keys players who were able to find all the right sounds and cover multiple parts were in short supply.
With the momentum of having some steady work, I turned my sights to a few other side jobs. I accompanied a couple fantastic choirs, as well as a big string studio. I started teaching in-home piano lessons where I learned how to be an effective and inspiring teacher. I also became a part-time music director in a small church to supplement my income. Through this, I learned to play the organ, direct a choir, select music for worship and even become more comfortable singing – skills that would prove valuable in my next move. But for the moment, I was sitting pretty with my combination of cover band gigs, piano lessons, church and even a few solo concerts.
As a graduating college senior, I wasn’t big into performing. I was actually a little conflicted about winning the concerto competition at my alma mater Concordia College because it meant having to play with the orchestra in front of an auditorium full of people, which did not excite me.
Originally, I had planned to get my doctorate in music and become a professor. I studied theory and composition and graduate school was the typical next step. But by the time graduation rolled around, I realized I was burned out on academia. So I needed another plan – and fast.
It was my parents who first suggested playing on cruise ships. They had heard that one of my friends from high school was playing trumpet on ships and thought it could work for me too.
Even though I didn’t enjoy performing at the time, I decided to give it a shot. I mean, how could I turn down having no expenses, making money and traveling the world!
My first contract was a 3-month Alaskan cruise with Holland America Line. I signed on as the keyboard player with the HalCats variety band. Pretty soon I was playing production shows, accompanying guest entertainers, and playing dance music, ballroom classics and tropical tunes by the pool. The world of pop music was pretty unfamiliar to me as a classically and jazz-trained musician, but after three months of playing 3-5 hours of a music a day, I actually discovered a love of performing, even if I lacked confidence.
I signed another contract and then another. I even developed confidence in my abilities and was promoted to band leader for my third year. Leading other musicians was a first for me, but I actually found that I enjoyed the role.
In total, I worked on ships for 3 years, traveling to over 60 countries and seven continents. So you’re probably wondering why I would leave ship life behind.
Although cruising the world was a ton of fun, I knew that I couldn’t live in such close quarters forever. It was also tough to have friends come and go as contracts expired. I also felt somewhat isolated from the rest of my friends and family on land (internet access was sketchy at best and we were often crossing time zones, which made things even more complicated).
So in an effort to have some stability, I made a decision to move to Denver and try to make it as a professional musician. Granted, I only knew three people there and had no idea how to find gigs, but we’ll get into that in the next post.
*If you have any questions about playing music on cruise ships, I would be happy to answer any questions you have, either in the comments below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Nate Hance is a professional pianist, entertainer and composer living in St. Paul, MN. He grew up in Minot, ND but has traveled around the world playing music. You can listen to the six albums that he has written as well as check out his goofy music videos on YouTube