Entrepreneurs

How This Millennial Musician-Entrepreneur Built A Thriving Business (And Great Life) Playing Piano On Cruise Ships

Sarah Angel is a musical prodigy from a musical family in a lovely corner of Washington State. She has five siblings, all musicians (two of them professionals), plus a violin teacher mother and a mandolin-playing dad. “I knew from a young age that music was going to be at the center of my life, professionally as well as personally,” she tells me, yet as she entered adulthood, Angel found herself consigned, as so many other musical talents are, to eking out a noble but subsistence-level living based on teaching paired with odd non-musical jobs.  That situation, she tried to convince herself, was to be expected; a non-lucrative lifestyle was the price of pursuing the arts.

But unlike some creative types, Angel has a killer mercantile instinct, which soon coalesced into a philosophy. “I began to feel that the old saying, ‘money talks,’ is actually a valid way of seeing the world: If I’m good at music, I should be able to make good money at it. If I’m always broke, maybe I need to find another line of work.”   

More and more, this “money talks” philosophy guided her days. She got more resourceful and creative about where she looked for professional work, first by adding local piano bar gigs to the mix. “Playing in piano bars can pay quite well, believe it or not; they generally pay the performers a decent base, so when you add in tips, it can be a worthwhile venture.”  Angel also started to travel professionally,  picking up freelance piano jobs that involved travel to Alaska, Canada, and a few spots in the Midwest and the South. 

The more Angel flourished at these performing gigs, however, the more conflict arose with her teaching practice. “It became clear to me that I would need to give up teaching, in part to be fair to my students–I couldn’t always be cancelling lessons–and partly to  intentionally make a clear division with the past.”

Making that precipitous break lit a financial fire under Angel. as she found it wasn’t going to cut it to try to replace that lost, steady income exclusively with one-off appearances  Soon, she got it in her head that the answer was to perform for long stretches on cruise lines, and serendipitously connected with a fellow pianist who was already taking this route. “Going absolutely above and beyond, my friend Diane arranged an audition for me with her music manager from Holland America, convincing him to come to a piano bar in Seattle where he could hear me play a short set.”  

Although this proved to be a turning point, the turning involved happened in excruciating slow motion. It was half a year–and felt longer–before Angel heard back definitively from Holland America:

I followed up on my application, re-followed up, and re-re-followed up, and finally they said that first, life-changing, “yes.” And getting that first “yes” was what it took to get all the other “yeses” that followed. In part, this is because I’m a woman: these solo piano rooms are men’s rooms, booked by men, worked by men, so until I got that first booking and could give bookers a level of familiarity with the concept of a woman at the piano, this wasn’t going to move forward.  And believe me, they weren’t prepared for me at first. Here’s some actual dialogue I recall from those early days: “Our evenings have traditionally been billed as ‘featuring the Piano Man.’ Do you want to be billed as the Piano Man too?’” “—uh, no.”  “How about ‘the piano entertainer?’”  “Well, okay.”

Since then, Angel has worked more than two dozen ship engagements on various cruise lines. Along with cruise ship work, she’s also started taking month-long engagements in piano bars around the world, including Piano Bar Maxim in Amsterdam and the Red Piano at both its Santa Barbara and St. Maarten locations. And she’s gone on to take the step that provides the clearest delineation between artisan and entrepreneur: she’s created an events entertainment company, Posh Piano, through which she markets and books the services of other musicians for weddings, corporate events, and private parties. 

I wanted to learn some things from Angel, and I expect you do too. Like: Do you have the best life on the planet–or my eyes deceiving me somehow? What is a day like on ship? On shore? Is everyone cut out for this work?

How can someone (assuming they can play piano and sing) get to do what you do? Are there lessons you can share that are applicable for those of us in other entrepreneurial corners of the world? 

Here are some of the answers she gave me.

You appear to have thrived living the lifestyle of a traveling performer. But is it a good fit for anyone who’s musically inclined? Or does it take a certain type? 

A lot of people find out the hard way that they’re not a good fit for ship life. You’re under a microscope as a performer on a ship, Passengers and crew members are going to recognize you constantly; they’ll approach you in the middle of a meal you were trying to quietly have by yourself on board–and even when you’re off the ship getting a drink or shopping. If you’re a rude person or have limited social skills–or if you have a problem with alcohol–it will be evident to everyone.  

On the positive side, I’ve found this lifestyle is a great fit for someone like me, but I want to caveat that: it’s important to factor in how much I enjoy music and performing. It makes all of this seem fun and easy, almost like a game. But If you changed the thing I was doing [on board], I’d most likely be miserable.

What’s a typical schedule look like for you when you’re sailing?

Sea days have always been my favorite days; there’s no pressure to get off the ship or do anything.  I sleep in, maybe watch a movie on my TV, grab coffee and come back to my room and practice piano and write songs, work out in the afternoon, and then take a nap before getting ready for that night’s show. 

Around 7:40 [for an 8:00 show] I’ll head to the green room [the waiting room reserved for performers when they’re not onstage], grab some hot water, and start mentally preparing for the audience and the energy needed to make it a fun night. I tell myself “Energy! Enthusiasm!” over and over, with a smile on my face. I find this helps put me in the mindset needed to face the audience that’ll be out there, waiting to be entertained. 

How’s the routine different when you’re in port?

When I can, I’ll make a point of finding something interesting to do onshore. When I feel I can afford it (it’s not cheap), I’ll go scuba diving, which I love, or go bar-hopping with the crew to some of the famous crew bars that are in a lot of the ports we visit. 

However, it can’t be like this for me every day we’re in port.  The reality is that I have to treat at least some of my shore time as work time. It’s there that I have access to affordable wi-fi is super expensive onboard), so I’ll work on my websites, post Instagram pics, edit videos to put online, answer emails and even print out documents or contracts to be signed and sent back to my agents via a FedEx office. Port days can seem way too short if you have pressure to get things done! 

You must be quite the celebrity on board. Is that a blast? Is it exhausting? Is it both? 

Obviously if you’re not a people person (which I admit I am, and then some!) this job could be a drag. What does help is that as a guest entertainer, I have unique privileges that differentiate me from other people working on the ship. My favorite perk is that I’m not required to wear a name tag in guest areas. This, plus wearing civilian clothes, helps me blend in and avoid being noticed at least some of the time. 

Could you spill the beans about the different kinds of cruises you’ve worked?   

 The Olivia Charter with Holland America will forever stay in my memory as the most fun week ever, because of all the women that I met who were so fun and so enthusiastic, and who took the time to show that they appreciated me and my music. Also that week, Sara McLaughlin was their main performer. I had the chance to watch her show and meet her, which has become a fond memory. 

And then there were the professional Elvis impersonators on board for the Malt Shop Memories–nine of them, if you can believe that. Each night they took over our piano bar and sang Elvis songs to the guests. When their prerecorded backing tracks malfunctioned, I had the chance to save the show by offering to accompany them on piano. What a blast: “Sarah, can you play Blue Suede shoes in G?” “Sarah, take a solo!” “Sarah, give us some of those keys!” 

As you know, my expertise and work are as a customer service consultant.  I know you have some thoughts on how customer service pays a role in your work. 

Customer service plays a huge role in my work. I have to make several hundred people happy every night. Everyone who walks in is a customer, and the cruise line is also my customer. My philosophy is pretty simple, and I find it works reliably. I think of all of my “customers” as new friends. I have to be warm towards them at all times. When I joke I don’t do it in a crass or rude way (which isn’t to say we don’t include blue language and humor in our shows—we definitely do, especially as the night wears on). When people feel you’re being genuine with them, they let their guard down, and they start to enjoy the experience.

Any more tips that you want to share with other entrepreneurs, solo-preneurs, or creative types? 

When it comes to my agents, piano bar owners, or entertainment department-heads, I look for feedback and then I listento what they have to say.  So often, I find people are not truly listening, or they hear what they want to hear, or what their ego allows them to hear. But also, I believe that if we’re in tune with our instincts and intuition, and if our ego is in check, we should know about most problems before we’re ever told. When everything is coming as a surprise to someone all the time, perhaps they’re not living in the same reality as others are living. 

Another thing I want to share is my philosophy of giving back. Living this way is important to me. I was given my first shot, as I told you, thanks to a fellow musician who could, if she had a different mindset, have considered me a competitor. Now, I give other piano players a chance whenever they ask for advice, or help, rather than getting competitive about the situation.   I remind myself to look at the world through the lens of abundance, not shortage. There is no shortage of jobs for people who work hard and who are generous. Me giving someone a helping recommendation does not take away anything from me.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Forbes – Entrepreneurs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *