What it’s really like to work on a cruise ship

Parties, food, seeing the world. There are many reasons why life on a cruise ship is fun. On the surface, no pun intended, the cruise life might sound like the perfect job. Being paid to see hundreds of new destinations, meeting people from all around the world and enjoying the magnificent oceans and sights our world has to offer sounds like a dream. In reality, however, there is a lot more underneath the surface.

I was lucky to be able to work my ship contracts with two incredible people, Beatrice Forler, with whom I am performing in Hamburg next month, and Jennifer Kohl, whose wedding I am attending this weekend. Yes, working on the cruise allowed me to collaborate with two wonderful musicians who have become lifelong friends. It’s also true that I got to explore many places that I wouldn’t have had the chance to see otherwise. Since I am a water lover, it was also amazing to spend so much time around the ocean. Unfortunately though, that’s where the list of positives end for me.

Struggles of a Sailing Singer

Me rocking the yellow Crew Cap and life jacket

I personally found life on the ship a very isolated experience. Thankfully I had my musical partners, but I seldom socialised with anyone else. Although I was officially a crew member, I wasn’t really accepted with the crew since I had a guest cabin, and I wasn’t a passenger either. It left me in a kind of No Man’s Land. Despite what I had heard of ship life with all night parties and fast friendships, I wasn’t able to experience it.

If you think office politics are bad, it’s nothing compared to the ship. Because you are literally living with your colleagues and there are only so many places to go, there is no escaping them. It’s like being in a small, floating village. And just like in small villages, people talk. Although there’s the attitude of “what happens on the ship, stays on the ship,” there was definitely no keeping secrets. Everybody knew everybody’s business. Given that I usually try to avoid gossip and drama, I found it a difficult environment to adapt to, with no escape when I was feeling overwhelmed.

The 1%

One of the most striking things on the cruise was the unbelievable difference between the passengers and the crew. On the ship, money plays no part. The passengers pay a small fortune to do round the world journeys, and they expect perfection. I often heard people complaining that their 5-Star restaurant food didn’t look exactly like the plate that the next table had received, and the way people would speak to the waiters and other staff was sometimes horrendous.

There is also a disgusting amount of waste on the ship. I once overheard a senior member of staff say that on average, they receive one tonne of food every time they restock, and more than half of it is simply thrown away. So I was left with the reality that this luxury ship with lavish food was travelling to some of the poorest countries in the world where people are starving, and instead of thinking about how we can help them, people were complaining that their food wasn’t good enough. It was the most jarring and eye opening experience I have ever had. For the first time, I got to truly understand how the ‘other half’ lived.

Where in the World is the WiFi?

Being on the ship also cut me off with my loved ones back home. The terrible and extortionate satellite internet could barely send a WhatsApp message at times, let alone allow for phone/video calls. I scavenged for free WiFi anytime I was on land so I could complain how much I was missing home. I probably spent half of my time trying to connect to the internet rather than exploring.

But in a lot of ways, I don’t feel like I missed much. After the first few destinations, everything started to blur together. Despite being in a different country with a new currency, language and culture, everything felt very familiar. All shops tended to be the same and it got old quite quickly. In fact, I developed the habit of walking around for an hour, then settling down in a coffee shop to steal some WiFi before going back on the ship. There were only a few places that really excited me that I made a plan for, like San Francisco in the USA and Yokohama in Japan.

The true Wonders of the World

Woman feeding fish to a family of stray cats in Morocco

Don’t misunderstand me though, the places I visited were amazing and I saw some incredible things. But the biggest impact on me was the world’s natural beauty and witnessing the love and kindness of people. Seeing a baby whale swimming with its mother in Mexico for example, and when I saw a school of dolphins swimming alongside the ship in the middle of the Atlantic. One of my personal favourite human stories was seeing an older lady in Morocco take a bag of fish to feed a group of stay cats on the street, something she does every day. Those acts of kindness encouraged me that there is still a lot of good in the world. And the solitude I experienced actually taught me several valuable lessons.

Whale watching in Mexico

Firstly, I learned that I can cope in a variety of situations. I relied heavily on the support of Jenny and Beatrice, though, so without them, it could have been a different story. But most importantly, I learned that love is the only thing that matters in this world. Whether that’s the love of a partner, parent or friend, being with your loved ones makes everything ok.

There are, of course, positives of working on a cruise ship, but it comes at a cost. For me, personally, I find it difficult and it isn’t my way of life. But for others, it is a great career. I met people who would work on the ship 10 or 11 months a year, take a month off and then start a new contract again! But one thing that I can definitely never deny: it was an experience I’ll never forget.

How I approach learning a new song

One of the best things about being a musician is the vast wealth of music that is available. There are songs for every single mood, in a range of languages and from styles dating back hundreds of years right up to today. It is obviously impossible to “just know” all of these songs, especially new compositions, so it’s important to develop a technique to efficiently learn music, in order to be able to take a completely unfamiliar song, examine it and master it for a performance. Personally, I like to break the process down into the following four stages:

Stage 1: Learning the text

When I pick up a new song, the first thing I like to do is simply read through the text. For me, this is actually the most fundamental part of the process. You need to fully understand the text and uncover the meaning behind each word to be able to really bring the song to life.

No matter which language the song is in, I go through analysing and translating each line, first word by word and then as a whole. This helps me understand the character and emotion of lyrics. After all, the poet spent countless hours agonising over the perfect words to use, so we need to do the process in reverse and understand the choices behind the lyrics.

I generally combine this work on the text with phonetics and pronunciation work. Although my languages are now generally quite good, it is still useful to mark any important or difficult sounds using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Stage 2: Learning the music

I then move on to studying the piano/accompaniment part. I am fortunate that I can play piano, so I make it a point to learn the piano part for every song I sing, even if I will never play it to anyone else. I believe it is another essential part of not just music, but any career; you need to know each role in order to be able to perform your part to its full potential. When collaborating with other musicians, this means you can pick up your cues from their parts and you can really work together effectively.

By this point, I know the text, pronunciation and all accompanying parts, so I already feel I know the music before I start working on the voice part. Thanks to my choral background, I am a confident sight-reader, so I am generally able to work on phrases as a whole, although for very complicated or contemporary music, I still revert to the good old note bashing on the piano until I can hear the melody and I have it stored in my muscle memory.

Stage 3: Improving

When I can sing and play the song entirely, I class it as the start of stage 2. This is the transition period between being able to sing the notes and having the song at performance level.

Now, I focus my attention on phrases that are technically more challenging. I use a range of techniques and vocal exercises to help improve both my confidence and the sound quality and precision. By this point, I already have a clear vision of my interpretation of the piece and exactly how I would like to portray it.

In my opinion, technique is simply the tools to be able to express this interpretation. For me, emotion is always the most important thing in music, and I would take an emotionally moving performance over a technically perfect but plain performance any day! The goal however, is to try to get both of them together, and for this reason, I always think there is more we can improve. In reality, this stage never truly ends.

Stage 4: Performing

I don’t believe I completely know a song until I have had the chance to perform it with a live audience, even if that is just a few of my friends. It’s during performances that you discover even more to the music, and my goal is to find a new hidden meaning every single time I perform the same song. This is what gives a performance it’s authenticity. Don’t just stand there and repeat what you did before, but instead create something new just for the people who are sharing the experience with you. I love nothing more than being able to share my interpretations with audiences and it is an incredible payoff for a lot of hard work.

Why I wanted to quit music

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. The truth is, I’ve been struggling a lot with music. No matter what, it’s still my biggest passion in life and I could never live without it, but making a career in music is hard! 

It really demands everything from you; all of your time, dedication and energy. I love learning new music and rehearsing for concerts and performances, but it’s the sability (or lack of) that is almost impossible to deal with sometimes. You have to give it all your energy to find work, and almost all work that you do get are short contracts. So even when you are in a good job at the moment, you are still spending hours hunched over the computer searching for the next jobs.

And that’s not even to mention the rejection. You have to have skin of steel to be able to cope with the overwhelming amount of “Nos” you hear in a music career. Every time you are rejected at an audition, it knocks your self confidence and motivation down a little bit more.

So it has been a constant battle and question I, and many other musicians, have had to face, “Can I cope with the instability of music?” Inevitably, sometimes the demon shouting no can win, and, in fact, this is what has happened over the last few months. To tell the truth, I have had very little motivation to practice or learn new music, and it came down to a point where I have had to seriosuly consider if I carry on with music or simply call it a day.

I started to consider my life without music. Ironically, it was by doing this that I started to regain my motivation and passion to continue. Sure, I have some other hobbies and interests, but nothing at all that can make me feel like I do when I’m performing. I’m sure I could find another career doing something else, but I would always regret leaving behind my true passion.

Ultimately, I realised that I can’t give up on music until I’ve given it absoutely everything I’ve got. I know there is so much more that I can and will try, because in reality, I’m just getting started!

Strike a pose

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into being a singer. Quite often we just look at the finished project as we get swept away by the stunning music and powerful stories, but the final show we see is probably only five percent of what we have to do to be able to perform it. An average singer will have to:

  • Have regular coaching and singing lessons
  • Memorise new roles and songs with phonetic pronunciations and translations
  • Do vocal warm ups and physical exercise to keep the voice healthy and improve stamina
  • Audition, rehearse and practice
  • Arrange travel and accommodation for auditions and performances
  • Manage their own taxes and finances
  • Network with other musicians, directors and agents
  • Maintain a website
  • Have regular headshot and photo shootings

That might seem like a long list, but it’s also far from extensive. The truth is being a singer is not just turning up on the night of a show, being a diva and collecting roses that the audience throw on stage. No, being a singer is a calling and you need to be 100% committed to all of the behind-the-scenes work just as much as the singing and performing.

The last two items from my list have had my particular attention over the last few weeks as I was setting up my new website. Even just website maintenance has a whole amount of hidden work that I hadn’t considered, but fortunately I’m also a technology geek so I quite enjoyed building it.

To finish off the look of the website however, I needed a fresh photoshoot and some new headshots. Since I’m currently based in my native North East England area, I went to an excellent photographer, Darren Irwin.

Christopher's headshot session with Darren Irwin
Headshot session with Darren Irwin

Darren is a professional photographer based in Newcastle City Centre and he also used to work as a professional musician so it gave us plenty to talk about. Having a connection with a photographer during a shoot is very important. Headshots play a crucial part in the life of a singer. We use them for concert programmes, websites, social media and showing people who we are. But probably the most important use is for auditions. Headshots are the first thing a casting director will see when we apply for a role so it’s vital to be relaxed, confident and natural.

It had been a while since my last photoshoot so I was more than a little apprehensive but I had absolutely no problem relaxing after we started. Darren was funny and made me feel at home straight away. Despite the fact that there was a camera and lighting boxes directly in my face, I was quickly able to –almost- forget about them. We chatted for the whole time while listening to some background music and the 2 hour shoot flew by.  The result was that I came away with new photos that I feel represent me well and I’m very happy to be sending off to casting directors.

Photoshoots are just one of the hundreds of things we have to do as singers. For some it comes easily but for others, like me, it’s a bit more challenging. It’s far too easy to feel awkward and self-conscious when a camera is in your face, but, like anything else, it’s just a matter of practice. I was able to focus my mind during this shoot and I tried to treat it just like another performance, allowing myself to forget about my surroundings and just be me.

How it all began

Hello everybody and welcome to my blog on my brand new website! My name is Christopher Griksaitis and I’m a 27 year old opera singer from the North East of England. This blog is a way for me to discuss my music. I’d like to talk about my experiences, my new projects as well as the world of opera and auditions.

I can’t begin my blog or my story without a huge thank you to my piano teachers Jackie Brough and Christopher Thompson, who sadly passed away last year, my violin and viola teacher Louise MucKien and, of course, my singing teachers until now, John Forsyth and Gwion Thomas. I have been so lucky to have such wonderful and supportive teachers, who always encouraged me to find my own way to express myself and who really made me so passionate about all forms of music.

Christopher playing aged 11
Me playing piano aged 11

I started piano when I was 5 and I still play it every single day. I’ve always loved to sing as I play but how I started singing professionally was a little bit by chance really. When I was 13, I began playing viola with the Tees Valley Youth Orchestra. We used to go on tour with the Tees Valley Youth Choir but we were always split into 2 separate busses. Fate, however, seemed to have a different plan and on our tour to Spain when I was 16, there was an administrative error and I was accidentally assigned to the choir bus.

I honestly cannot thank that “error” enough. As choirs usually do, they sang every now and again during the journey and I would sing along with them. John Forsyth, the choirmaster who would later become my first singing teacher, came to me to convince me to join the choir. I’d always loved singing and so when we returned from Spain, I joined the Tees Valley Youth Choir.

My first concert as a singer had me learning and performing the incredible Mozart’s Requiem in less than 2 weeks. It felt a bit like being thrown into the deep end but I loved every single second of it and from that moment on, I knew nothing could ever give me the excitement, emotion and exhilaration that singing can. From the first note of the concert right through to the last, I felt I had been transported to another world and it’s a feeling that I still have when I sing on stage.

The rest, as they say, is history. I started singing lessons just a few weeks after joining the choir and my passion and dedication to singing never wavered. I honestly can’t imagine my life without music, being able to pour out all of my emotions through singing and playing.

Of course I have many more stories and experiences to tell and I’d really love to hear your opinions on what I share. I’m always open to and grateful for suggestions and advice but I thought as the first post of the blog, this initial foray into the magical world of singing was the perfect story to tell.