Alternative Ways to Make a Living Playing the Sax – Part 2: Cruise Ships and Socialized Music

This is part 2 of a 2-part series on alternative ways to make a living playing sax. Although this article stands on its own, it would be good to check out part 1 if you haven’t done so already. Click here to for part 1.

The Cruise Line Bands

Suppose you do not want to commit to a 3 to 4 year enlistment in a military band. Well the cruise line show bands are another option. There are many companies that recruit for the cruise lines however I feel that Pro Ship is the best. You can go to their website at to get all the details.

Here are some quick details. The salary is in the $2,000 to $3,000 a month range. A typical contract runs from 4 to 6 months. This is not a paid vacation. You will work 7 days a week and about 5 hours a day. The Show Band usually plays two shows a night plus a dance set. If you are a combo player you may get tagged to play up on the Poop Deck in the afternoon. If there is a guest artist you may have a rehearsal in the afternoon and then play that persons music as part of the show at night for the rest of the week. Also you may have to play to a click track or a recording of the music. They have you play to a recording to make the band sound bigger than what it actually is. Most Show Bands are 10 to 12 pieces. Pro Ships phone # is 1-888-477-6744, they are located in Montreal, Quebec in Canada. After you do several long contracts then you can be hired to do short fill-ins if someone gets sick, quits etc.

Audition Process

Click on audition, fill out the form and they will contact you. They left a fairly long message on my voice mail when I filled out the form. Also under all auditions you can see sample audition music for the different instruments. Download this and see how well you can sight read it at tempo. Just a clue, the sax sample is in the key of B for the saxophone. It doesn’t say whether it is a tenor or alto part, it just says sax. You can either audition by going to Montreal or another audition site. Sometimes they do auditions in NYC, Boston, L.A. etc. Or you can audition by phone. You will be asked to play the sax you want to play and clarinet and flute if you can play them. You will have to sight read, play a standard by memory and improvise if you can. At one point you had to film your audition. They would overnight you the music by either UPS or Fed-Ex. They actually wanted to film you opening the package so they knew you were not cheating. I do not know if they still do it that way. It does not say anything about that on their website.


It is required that you double on either flute, clarinet or both. However in my experience and in their own old sample charts, the flute parts were on the alto chair and the clarinet parts were on the tenor chair. Also they asked me about the flute and I told them I did not play it but that I played clarinet really well. (Those 1st clarinet parts on Fillmore and King marches aren’t easy you know). They said that they could work around the not playing the flute part. I told them I played shows like “Kiss Me Kate,” “Guys and Dolls”etc and that I always played the tenor book and it always had clarinet as the double. Plus I played a lot of tenor sax and clarinet in both the Navy and the Army Bands. So they were sold.

Other Factors

As in the military there is a structured environment aboard the ship. So again if you cannot deal with cruise line officers or lots of rules and structure then this is not the gig for you. This is why they told me that they like former military band members, we are used to structure.

You will be sharing a small cabin with another musician. You must maintain a clean cabin for health and safety reasons. Usually the crew has there own gym or they can use the guest gym during off hours. You eat in the crews galley but it is the same food the guest eat. You may have polite social interaction with the guest but you cannot form intimate relations with a guest. To be honest, usually the band, dancers and singers hang together. I had a friend in the Navy who met his wife while playing piano in the Show Band. She was a Brit and a dancer in the show. Also when the ship pulls into port you can leave the ship and go sight seeing, go to the beach etc. You just have to be back onboard an hour before the ship departs. As in the military, being late is not tolerated.

My Own Cruise Ship Experience

Here is my story. I did fill out the form, they did call me and offered me a job on the Queen Mary playing tenor sax/clarinet. However I was still in the Navy during the time they wanted me. The gig was from December 4th to February 4th. I was in the Navy up to January 31st of that year. The Navy is not going to let you have leave to go play on a cruise liner. So I declined that gig. Then they called me up again shortly thereafter and wanted to book me post-Navy Band. They told me they had a lot of gigs they could use me on. I told them I would have to call them back after I spoke to my wife. She was very much against me plying my trade on the seven seas via the cruise lines. She didn’t like the idea of me being gone for 4 to 6 months. My longest Navy Band deployment was 3 weeks. Needless to say I called them up and had to decline the job. However if you are single or not in a serious relationship then I would really consider playing on the cruise lines. You’ll do a lot of playing, save money, make new friends and maybe find the love of your life. I have known several guys who have done this gig, some single, some married. Because I love playing they have all encouraged me to call Pro Ship and take a gig. However I have to tell them that my wife already axed it once. Moving on to Germany.

The WDR Big Band and Socialized Music in Germany

It is a well known fact that Germany and Europe in general has a strong musical tradition dating back six hundred years or more. There is a strong appreciation for the arts in general. To learn about funding for music in Germany check out this article called “Public and Private Funding of Music” by Michael Sondermann.

I sent an e-mail to the WDR, NDR and HR Big Bands in Germany about auditions. Only the WDR Big Band responded. However the WDR Big Band said the health care, pay and retirement packages are the same for the various Public Radio Groups.

The WDR Big Band is in Cologne, Germany. It is a full time radio big band. Auditions work as follows: a person will get invited to work with the band for a project. They do not usually hold the typical auditions that you see in military bands or symphonies. They will hear a few people play and then a few are called back for a second project. Then by sections (tprt, sax etc) one person gets called back. This person is presented to the band for a yes or no vote when a vacancy occurs. Regarding the saxophone section, there is a lot of woodwind doubling. Each chair is different, you may have to only play sax and clarinet. Or your chair might be the heavy flute chair. You need to have your clarinet and flute chops together, no getting around this. Also, sight reading skills are very important.

Everyone gets health benefits through public or private care. Your monthly cost depends on your income bracket. There is a retirement plan too. One part comes from the State and one part comes from your employer. Some people add private insurance on top of this.

From having known US Army Band people who served in Germany I have gathered this information. I was told to transfer to Germany because most towns had a state-run radio orchestra, many had jazz bands. The people who informed me as such felt that once I left the Army that I could continue living in Germany and support myself playing in one of these groups. Apparently there have been other former Army Bandsmen who did just that, not necessarily in the WDR Big Band but in other smaller cities in Germany. I was offered a gig in the US Army Heidelburg Band, however I declined. I decided to get out of the Army at that time and go back to Baltimore.


Hopefully this article has provided any current or aspiring professional sax players with some new options for making a living doing what you love. Remember, the types of opportunities listed in this article are both a job and a lifestyle.

Please feel free to send me any additional questions to me via email – Good luck in your endeavors and don’t forget to keep your reeds slightly moist at all times!