"I think having somebody who is successful at what you're trying to do is definitely more powerful than a book. Maybe they have a book, and you can read that book. So that's a good start, right? But having them look at what you do and give you that specific feedback for a lot of the type of field that I'm in, there aren't books really about it. I've read one or two books that people have written about how to have a good cabaret show, or like, how to interact with an audience, but really, you just kind of have to do it and then get the feedback." ~Jason Lyle Black

Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 16


Interviewee: Jason Lyle Black

Interviewer: Jason Tonioli


Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong, and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast. 


 Jason Tonioli: Today’s guest is Jason Lyle Black. He’s a friend of mine. I think we’ve known each other for well over 15 years, but for those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he’s a recovering accountant that is a piano player full time now. Jason has been working on the cruise ships. That’s kind of his main gig since COVID. He’s got millions and millions of views of his YouTube videos. He’s been on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He’s the only guy that I know that plays almost as well upside down or backwards on the piano as he does forward. I’ve yet to be able to master that skill. An incredible performer, comedian. Again, just a great guy and he’s got a ton of sheet music as well on the piano. So, I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit about that. 


Jason, welcome to the show and want to just kind of hear a little bit about… I think people would love to hear your story. As we were just prepping for this interview, you were telling me about how you’ve kind of evolved. You’d never expected you’d be on the cruises full time. Give people a little bit of your background, where you came from, and origin story.

Jason Black: Yeah, I have played the piano for 27 years now. (27, 28, something like that. In high school, my passion was always writing. It was actually composing, that was actually my biggest thing that I loved. I put up my first album when I was 16 years old. What I really enjoyed was taking songs and kind of juxtaposing them together in an unexpected way. And so, creating medleys of different music – that was a big thing for me and just kind of reinterpreting stuff in different styles. 

So, as I got into my 20s, and started getting on stage more, I also practiced the upside down backwards thing as you’re talking about. I ended up connecting with Jon Schmidt back in I guess this was 2004 or 2005. 

Jason Tonioli: Pre-Piano Guys, right?

Jason Black: Yeah, pre–Piano Guys. Now, the Piano Guys – the world-famous group. He’s a longtime friend of yours as well. Jon kind of took me under his wing a little bit and I had a few opportunities to perform on stage with him as he kind of saw that I had that same sort of comedic flair and just sort of fun, audience connection that he had, but that really helped to kind of whip my appetite between the things, the excitement, with my friends of what I was doing as a creator. This is all pre-social media days – the stuff we would do in the band room at lunch. I would take these songs and put them together. Anyway, that kind of led to me getting into playing for more things in my 20s and just naturally ended up doing kind of a comedic stick-on stage of the piano and then sort of that led me into eventually doing benefit concerts, that sort of thing, like a lot of people do. And then I was doing corporate events – playing onstage for corporate parties, not background music, but doing like a 20-to-45-minute program, after awards dinners. That really helps hone my craft. Corporate audiences are tough. I think it was the toughest audience I ever played for because they’re not there for you and they’re kind of like to go to pianists to perform for us. That’s not what they would expect. That really helped me to hone what I do because you will always get better when you play for a tough audience. You don’t get better playing for an easy audience. That boosts your confidence, helps to feel good about yourself and helps you stay in the game. But it’s when you have the tough shows, (Buddy Jason Halen said) that’s where you learn. That’s where a great show was born.

So, all of that kind of led to me moving to Nashville eventually. I relocated from Utah to Nashville to try and really pursue touring more. I want to tour the country and I felt like I had a show that really should be on the road and seen by more audiences and sure enough, I moved to Nashville, was able to make those contacts and tied into my first National US tour in 2019 to 2020. Right before COVID, that was about 13 cities that I played in. Concerts from Washington State of Florida, up in California, Ohio, Indiana. Some were very small; some were as big as 700 people. They really depended on the kind of local promoter that represented what they had. 

And then around that same time, actually a little bit earlier to that, about early 2018 was when I started working at sea as a headliner. We were called guests entertainers, officially. I’ve worked with nearly a dozen cruise lines and worked with all major cruise companies in the world and at least one of their brands and the conglomerates that they have. I love that industry. I love getting to be at sea. It’s a very appreciative audience. They really love the shows on board. I get to work with musicians from all over the world. I have friends from dozens of countries. I’ve now been to dozens of countries. I think I counted number 27, and my last trip was to Vatican City. The count is number 27.

Jason Tonioli:  You’ve maxed out that passport, right? 

Jason Black: Yes! Just got renewed with the double size passport now that was given to spies, airline pilots and diplomats and a few other heavy travelers like me. So, I’ve gotten 50 pages so I can travel for the next few years.

Jason Tonioli: Let’s rewind a little bit. So, you worked as an accountant for several years. What I’m hearing is you’ve been doing the music for almost 20 years now, really kind of trying to make a career out of that but was music always the case? or what people want to… It’s not an easy thing to get to.

Jason Black: We talked about this before the interview. Those ups and downs and there were a lot of downs. In a way, I felt like there was more, even after what were perceived to be the big breaks. I mean, the number of times that I nearly left the industry after already getting thousands of dollars on stage for a corporate gig or getting a record deal, I mean, all these different things that happen. There were still many times, and it was just like it just isn’t going to work because that’s the unfortunate reality. I mean any business it’s so difficult in some respects to make a living in music. I think especially when people are tunnel visioned on only one opportunity of, I have to be TikTok famous or I have to be, you know, this specific thing and it’s like, well, that may work but there may be other opportunities that you’d be a better fit for.

When I was in school, I studied accounting. I never fit the mold of the piano major. I was too much of a comedic stick guy.  I was always more passionate about the creative side of music than the technical side growing up. I was very good technically, but what I spent hours a day doing wasn’t practicing Chopin, even though I love Chopin’s. I spent hours a day writing. 

People used to ask me how much to practice a day and, in my head, I was like, I only practice the piano for 45 minutes a day in high school, like how did I end up where I am? And then one day I woke up and I was like, wait a minute, that was my practice for my lessons, but I spent hours a day, hours outside of that – – writing. That’s all I did. 

So, I get home from school, and I would spend hours on the piano, composing. And yeah, I do my 45 minutes of the Chopin and Rachmaninoff and stuff I was doing with my teacher. So, I really did hone that craft over years. I had mentors and role models in high school, even before I connected with Jon Schmidt, as I mentioned before, there were other people I’d worked with locally when I grew up in California. 

But anyway, to get back to your question, accounting so I majored in accounting. I had never intended to major in music, and I don’t know if I look back on it, it was like, should I have? Seeing where I am now? I mean, I don’t know I’m 35. So, it’s like, it’s easy to look back and it’s like, why would you have ended up at the same place if you took a different path? I don’t know. 

I worked for KPMG – one of the big four accounting firms and honestly, it helped me to see that corporate America was not for me long term. I mean, I enjoyed it. I was good at what I did at the firm. I was an auditor. I love the people I worked with. That was the best part. Amazing people to work with but the stress… It was a lot of hours, and at the end of the day, it was like… The important thing to share in this context. You work a lot of hours in the Big Four and you get home at nine o’clock at night or whatever and, and you’re doing your thing and what I wanted to do when I have free time was music. It wasn’t going out. Like people would say, oh, let’s go for a long lunch break and it’s like I want to get home so I can work on the piano. I don’t want to have a long lunch break and that was the thing that pushed me over the edge when I realized that we did all these late nights, and all these overtimes but I have a month off in the summer. And what was I doing with all my time off? I was just recording music. Maybe I’m doing that with all my vacation, my PTO, maybe this should be my job. Because if that’s what I’m always doing on the weekends, at night, I’m wanting to get home from work as fast as I can to work on this. 

So yeah, in 2015, I was to have my first promotion. I’ve done one busy season as a senior auditor and I just decided to make the jump and I remember my favorite actor, still of all time is Peter Falk, who played Columbo in the 70s and I read his biography, he quit his day job at 27 to be an actor and one of the most famous for iconic TV characters. And as Columbo, he was about 40 I think when he got that role, but that was kind of something.  It’s nice to have those stories of people that made that career shift. He was also I think, an accountant or something like that before he left but, I mean, there’s other acts you know.

Steve Carell, I mean, it was a long time before his career kind of really took off for him. At the office, I think it was like 40 or something when he got that right. So sometimes, it takes some time.

Jason Tonioli: So, if you could go back, let’s just say, if you could rewind the clock back to 20 years, 25 years ago or so, you could go back and give yourself advice. Hey, this is what to do to end up with a music career and what to expect. What advice would you have for yourself?

Jason Black: There’s one very specific thing that I wish I had understood when I was younger, and that is the importance of feedback from people who are successful in what you’re trying to do. And that’s something I did not seek out in all the ways I wish I had, specifically in YouTube. So, I look back and I came of age at a time when there was a lot of opportunities on YouTube. I mean, there is still, technically but it’s much more saturated than it’s ever been. 

I was at Brigham Young at the same time that Lindsey Stirling was there and when she was also kind of becoming established as a star and of course you know, she’s on a kind of different order to notoriety but that was at that same time, like she had been on America’s Got Talent, within a year of when I was on the Ellen show. I wish that I had reached out whether it was to her or even… I think maybe one time I tried to email her agents and by that time she’s too big. I never heard back. I have mutual friends with her but other people and gotten kind of that, you know, maybe hired a coach and say, Hey, I’m trying to get you know, viral YouTube videos, because now I look back and I can see, like, if you look at the production quality of my videos now at YouTube, it’s dwarfs what I used to do as far as just my whole videos on I’m just doing a quick thing in the studio for YouTube. 

And all the technology I use was available 12 years ago to do what I do. It’s a simple fog machine. I’ve got a really cool Hollywood grade light. It looks like a lightsaber on the piano. Got a nice high-end with decent lighting and lens or filming the videos all this stuff. It’s like I could have been doing that in 2009 and all I would have taken was somebody to look at my videos and say hey look, you’re really talented at piano but your production quality of your videos is really lacking. And maybe you should figure out how to reach that market a little bit more directly. And that’s essentially what I did in my stage show. So that’s where Jason Halen, I’ve probably mentioned him again.

Jason was a huge impact on me personally as a coach with my show, and we would sit there and watch my videos together and he would laugh and say yeah, this is like now when I’m talking videos I mean my live shows, and he would have run into all the same challenges I ran into on stage, and this is what you need to do. This is how we’re going to tweak this bit. The way you introduced this. We’re going to change it. The way you walked on stage, the way you bow, the way you’re dressed. I mean all those things, the way you engage with the audience, your posture, I mean there’s so much that you can craft on stage to make yourself more appealing with anything. That’s obviously my primary thing as the stage performer now.

I wish I had been willing to go out and have people say, you know what, you could do this better. I would have accelerated a lot faster if I had been willing to do that. And I think I was maybe just a little too afraid, too sensitive. I didn’t want people to tell me, you know what this video isn’t really working. I could have probably…

I had my first viral videos in 2015. By that time, I did hire other people to help so when I had my frozen video that went really viral. I had Eric Thane who is a really seasoned viral video producer working with me on that and I had one of his videographers, Dan Christianson that shot it and I was working at Ben Arkell who was the father of the girl that I did a video with.  He was one of the people who can think a lot about marketing and audiences and entrepreneurship, and he understood how to do it.

Anyway, I wish I had done some of that earlier. The music, musical talents have been there all along. It was just understanding how you really target it? If I had not been afraid to be turned down. 

Jason Tonioli: You kind of dabbled in a lot of different areas. I mean, we talked about Jon Schmidt and kind of coming up thinking okay, I’ll be like the Jon Schmidt Show. As you look back on your career and the journey you’ve been on, what advice do you have for people that are thinking, I want to be just this. Do they need to be open minded? What advice do you have there for somebody that’s kind of thinking oh, I’m gonna be a classical pianist or I’m gonna be a rockstar. What advice do you have for those people?

Jason Black: I think the number one thing is people have to be flexible with where you’re going to end up. When I look at the people who I see that are really successful in a career in the arts, I feel like or in any or on stage or as a creative, to kind of broaden that. I think a lot of times people don’t end up doing what they started out doing. I don’t know if I can get a ton of examples of that stuff in my head. 

But I think about my friend Rob Landis, who is a huge, huge YouTuber. That guy’s got millions of followers on YouTube and is just enormous. He got a master’s degree in Classical Performance. That was his background. To be like a Symphony player and he does the opposite of that now. He makes videos of surprising people in chat rooms with kind of meme violin content. It’s so different from what he sort of expected to be doing but he’s been extraordinarily successful because he just went and was willing to kind of adapt to that. 

I really sort of set out as I’m going to be this Jon Schmidt kind of goofy, fun, family audience guy at the piano. And when I moved out of Utah, that just wasn’t really relevant, the same and even by the time I was coming up, it didn’t have the same relevance as when he did it. And that’s probably in part because he had kind of already become that guy. And so, then I would just sort of like, you know, another version of him and it didn’t really have the same draw to people when you’re kind of too much of an imitator, if you will. 

And now, it’s become my sort of shtick to not only do medleys that I do, and that’s one of my books with Hal Leonard and my viral videos were the medleys. Also, onstage, my new show that’s in development for 23 to 24 seasons or it’s basically the way it’s being branded is 100 Hits of Stage & Screen™ – that’s the new trademark that I’ve developed to describe the show because that’s what I do. I go through fast paced songs like, medley of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, all these different really iconic melodies that you don’t have to be a classical musician to recognize. They’re all in movies. They’re all really famous. I’ve moved through very, very quickly with these really cool arrangements I’ve done and the whole band on the cruise stage.

And when I go out solo, I have the tracks and the video screens and all this stuff. That’s now become my thing. So, I’ve actually moved away from the comedic shtick and the behind the back and upside-down stuff that I do. I actually don’t do that nearly as often anymore. I do like a tiny little bit of it. And I first show on a cruise ship just for fun for those audiences but that’s not at all now what my main thing is. The thing that people know me for is its high intensity, really unique show taking you through all these songs. 

I did these Broadway medleys, movie medleys and again, if you’ve got to the music store, you can buy my Christmas medleys, my Disney medleys, all this other stuff. Medleys it’s kind of my thing. I found some of my own stuff. I wear funny socks on stage now and the cruise audience loves that. I have a blue tuxedo, custom tux and then I’ve got all these funky socks and the 75-year-old grandmas in the audience, they just love it. They love that stuff. And it’s endearing. 

One of the main messages is staying true to yourself and kind of finding yourself. Learn from other people but develop your own voice. That for me was kind of how I found my way and then being flexible because again, my first cruise shows were much more focused on playing upside-down and that sort of thing and now I’m much more focused on, I’m going to recreate Beethoven for you in a really fun current way that you’ve never heard before, using rock musicians and going through all these different hits of Beethoven. That’s become what nobody else in the cruise industry is doing. I haven’t seen a single show that closes with this Beethoven like I do. And that’s a new thing. Actually, it’s been 2022 that I now close my show with this big Beethoven’s Symphony medley, and it’s awesome. And like I said, nobody’s doing that.

Jason Tonioli: I’m sure the band’s love playing something unique like that with you on the show. It’s so different from the Joel and Jon type. That’s awesome.

You’ve been able to crack the cruise lines. I know I’ve talked to a lot of artists over the years that’s definitely been a challenge and they struggle with that. How did that come about for you? Is the cruise industry something that musicians should have on their radar if they want to be performers? If you go back and just give yourself advice on the cruise line and hitting it in that world, what would you tell people?

Jason Black:  Yeah, in a way, I’m almost glad I didn’t really know it existed because I think I would have been so terrified of meeting to make it in that. I just would have been too nervous. Sometimes, you go into a meeting you don’t realize how big that client pitch or the person that’s going to hear your music. You don’t realize how influential it’s going to be or the first day that ends up being your spouse or something like you, you just don’t want to know because that would make you too nervous for it. 

When I started in the cruise industry, that was kind of like a side thing. I mean, I was really a corporate entertainer and I had clients across the country. I’ve gone to a Washington State Health Care Association, and I’ve spoken in rapport with them. I’ve gone to the Wisconsin Credit Union League as a National Credit Union group. I was doing work. I plan to travel across the country already. And I mean, I was having to work hard to find that work and to pitch myself and I was kind of my own agent, but the cruising was just kind of like more like icing on the cake. And I got connected with a management group in Nashville that pitched me to the cruise agency, and that fortunately, the agent was very interested. 

When I started it was kind of just like a casual thing. And then I just fell in love with it. And that was the thing. I remember talking to other artists and it’s like, there is a pretty big difference with a cruise gig as a headliner. You get on board, and you do your show. And then you wait. You’re there for like seven days. Oh, that’s the case. Many cruises on. That’s just the way the industry works because it has something to do with just the ability of how to get people in and out of ports.

It has to do with the entertainment programming onboard that they may say, hey, we want you to do both your shows on bored because you have 2 shows that you offer, but we want them four days apart so that the guests get to see you one day and then we have a comedian and we have a certain thing, we bring you back. So, it’s just the way the industry works. But what that means is that unlike other gigs where you might fly in as a corporate speaker or as a band, he would drive and you play your show, you come home. With a cruise, you come to play your show, and then you’re there for another five days and you maybe play again and come home, or you go to another ship. It’s a very unique life and not everybody is willing to do that or not everybody wants to do that or would enjoy that. Whereas for me, I loved it. 

And one of the things in those off days is you’re just sort of there as an ambassador to the guests. And so, it’s very common, especially on the smaller ships where a lot of people, maybe on some of the big ships, there’s so much being offered at any one time and not everybody sees you. Whereas I’ve been on the real small, like high luxury ships as well and 70% of the ship watched your show. So, when you’re walking around, you’re out at the pool or you’re out jogging around the track or you’re in the gym, people are gonna start talking to you. Oh my gosh, you are the piano player. I loved your show. See you are kind of a celebrity that whole week. And I love that, and I would go play trivia with the guests. I would host dinner even when I wasn’t asked to. I would go above and beyond what the cruise lines expected to go in and just really wanted to be part of the guest experience because I love that. I discovered that I love the hospitality industry. 

So, all of that is to say, I think for me cruising was uniquely like that perfect fit because it was like, I just love being here, whereas maybe some entertainers like oh, I want to go home or wherever it’s like this is just so much fun. I get to engage with all my fans after the show. And I mean many times, I’ll be practicing this just a couple months ago and somebody comes up to me while I’m practicing and goes on talking for an hour and a half. I don’t even get any more practicing done. You got to run and grab your breakfast and go meet the cruise director or whatever. But there’s a certain type of people that work at sea and you need to have that graciousness. You need to be fine with being on all the time when you step out of your cabin as somebody’s representative of the brand. And these are the highest end, hospitality brands at sea, in the world. I mean, really level was any of the fanciest hotels in Dubai. I mean some of these luxury lines that I’ve been on. It’s like I had one room, it was 400 square feet. The luxury suite, which is enormous. But as a headliner, I mean, obviously I’ve done all those in the 400-surface week, but there’s a bigger one. Anyway, I’m digressing. 

But yeah, I mean, if you know somebody who’s interested in the cruise industry, the thing that’s really cool about it, it’s one of the few things I know of in the world where, strictly off of the excellence of your show. You can have a career for life on stage or the excellence of your craft. There are certain rules, obviously as a headliner, you have to have some sort of notoriety to get booked as a headliner. They’re not going to take you just because you’re interesting on stage, and in my case, that was the YouTube, the virality, the millions of views. It was the national corporate career that I was already doing, the touring that I have. So, all of that fed into the background for me to get booked as a headliner. 

A lot of magicians were Vegas resident magicians somewhere. A lot of people did Broadway touring shows, and everybody comes from somewhere. But, even if you don’t have that kind of notoriety background or not yet, there are other roles on the ship that don’t require that. The lounge musician is an audition role. You can audition with an agency and say, hey, I can play 250 songs and sing all these Beatles hits and you can land a gig on a cruise ship doing that and or as a bar entertainer or in a cruise van or something. So, there’s a lot of opportunities or a cast member for singers out in New York and singer’s dancers can become cast members and they can often feed into headliners – people that used to be in production cast on a ship or sometimes used to headline like a lounge band can end up becoming a headliner on the main stage.

So, where else do you get to go and play the kinds of venues? I’ve played like celebrities’ flagship but beyond, I was just there in July. They had 160 light fixtures in the venue that were rotating, we’re talking I mean, I don’t know. Because the 20-dollar light fixture is something, I have never seen a theater on land with that kind of staging, never. 160 and not 160 lights, 160 of the spinning programmable lights, millions of dollars in light fixtures just in a theater. And it’s like you got to be Simon Cowell to have that as your office. We’re here in America’s Got Talent stage. 

The staging that they have, these massive led walls that you can bring the staging elements to and so it is just me wanting to be creative with the stage. It’s just unreal. I mean, I get to play with the best musicians in South America and from Ukraine and all across Europe and my bands. I mean, yeah, I love it.

Jason Tonioli: That was amazing! And so, for somebody who’s wanting to get into that industry, I mean, the key is you’ve got to be an expert, you’ve got hustled and made it at least to some level and then is the doorway to the cruise lines. It’s getting an agent and getting an agent, so excited about whenever your act is, correct?

Jason Black: And there’s timing because sometimes you might have like, say you got a female singer that just finished a Broadway tour in Europe or whatever and wants to come in and start working shifts. You may reach out to one of the agents and they may say you’re fabulous, but we have so many female vocalists right now that we don’t have space to book anymore because for example, you know, a book or celebrity or Holland America or something, I’m not going to put two at the same thing on one cruise, I’m not going to bring on a female vocalist and another female vocalist a different night. That’s the same type of entertainment and they really want a diverse offering. They want magic, they want the comedian, they want the male vocal, the female vocal, the ensembles of the piano, whatever. 

So, some of it is the timing and finding the right agent. But yeah, I mean every job except for the headliners has a formal audition process so you can audition to be part of all kinds of all these companies that produce the shows and see they have casting calls in New York, Miami or Berlin. I mean all around the world sometimes. And then with the headliner, as a lot of it is yeah, I mean you send in your stuff to one of the agencies and maybe you hear back or maybe you don’t. As a headline, obviously you can talk to them, but like me, I will say, it’s one of those things I can tell somebody. 

If I watch somebody’s video, I can tell you if it’s gonna work at sea because I’ve been at sea for hundreds of nights now. I don’t know how many, but I think 300 nights or something on board a ship. Like I said, across almost I think it does about dozen different companies I’ve worked for. So, I know what they booked, and I know how the guests react to different things and so I can tell you right away by looking at somebody’s video. That’s me even just being four years into the industry having a good sense for it. 

It’s one of those things where it’s good to have coaching because if you want to get into that you want to be a cruise headliner, you don’t just say, well, I think I should be a cruise headliner, here’s my stuff, and I gotta get the right agent. Now, it’s like, well, you got to find out if you’re ready. Is what you’re doing on stage, that kind of thing that’s gonna work at sea?  Because sometimes people think, oh, I’m gonna go do this. It’s like they don’t book that. Or they booked that, but people don’t really like that. So, you may not get good ratings, you may not get rebooked. And that is one thing I will say about the cruise industry.

My agent made this very clear to me when I started. You get one shot. That’s it. It’s one of the only things in the music industry where you get only one shot because if you go out, this isn’t a criticism, it’s just the actual, actual way it works. If you go out and they put you up and your ratings, come back low, they’re not going to rebook you. They have 2,000 acts they can book. I mean, there are 1000s of us that work at sea as headliners and so they just won’t bring you back. 

If you have good reviews, you can work for years. So, there’s nothing really like that because in touring, if you have a bad show, you just don’t play that venue again, but there’s a thousand other venues.

There are three main cruise companies in the world. Norwegian Carnival and Royal Caribbean group. They have a couple of different bookers at each one. But it’s basically three companies and about a dozen or so brands out that cater to Americans and few that cater to Australians and European stuff.

Jason Tonioli: It’s an interesting industry for sure. 

Jason Black: Yeah. You got to not mess up. You are always gonna be in your game. So, I know with a lot of the guests that I’ve talked to on the show, education and learning really comes up as an important thing that people have done courses. And it seems like everybody’s selling some course. And I told you earlier, I don’t sell any courses at all at the moment. But if you look back and think man, Okay, there were some things that I learned, a book I read or of course I went through, what would you say are the two or three most helpful things you kind of learned or would suggest somebody that have helped you over the years?

Jason Black:  I would still say the best thing was having mentors. lt can’t be overstated. Jason Hewlett, without him I probably wouldn’t be a ship headliner. I mean, he took my craft and elevated it and Jason back in the day, he did ship.

I think having somebody who is successful at what you’re trying to do is definitely more powerful than a book. Maybe they have a book, and you can read that book. So that’s a good start, right? But having them look at what you do and give you that specific feedback for a lot of the type of field that I’m in, there aren’t books really about it. I’ve read one or two books that people have written about how to have a good cabaret show, or like, how to interact with an audience, but really, you just kind of have to do it and then get the feedback. 

The second thing I was gonna say was just doing it. So, the best thing that I learned is that I used to film and it’s funny, I forget about this because now I’m at a place where I don’t do this anymore. But for the first quite a few years that I was on stage, I filmed every single show and after every show, I would record for like a half hour as I was driving home and I would be critiquing, well, this would seem to work but this didn’t work. I would go out sometimes to get an Airbnb for a weekend and I would just like, locked myself inside of the house and just think about the show and I would write down index cards and the different bits I was doing on stage and like what’s working and build off what is working here, what’s not and when I toured early on, as people were leaving the theater, I would ask them, what did you like? What was your favorite part? I would ask everybody that and I actually have people that notice I have my little phones recording what they would say so that they would know, and I could go back and review all their comments after and if something was never brought up by anybody leaving my show, it got cut. Oh, that was the thing.

The same mindset had these companies like Goldman Sachs or something that’s like, if you don’t reach this level, you know performance, we’re just going to trim. That was the same mindset I have at the show so if something never got brought up as I love that bit it was out, and then I would take the things that they were working really well and I would add a new thing like that and I would try it and so it gradually got to the point where now if I asked you to like question they can’t ever think of anything, which is which is good because the thing is the whole show is that level to where nothing sort of stands out above everything else because everything now was standout. It has really taken years to get there, and it’s taken tons of work and feedback, and I’m now working on new shows and building so I’ll be repeating that process with some of the new programming I’m writing.

I think getting that mentoring and then going and watching people like I would remember going to Kurt Bestor, definitely a phenomenal performer and creator. And I remember going to his show. And I sat in the back of that call center and I had a notepad and these people sitting next to me were like, what are you doing like at intermission? I took like 10 pages of notes, handwritten notes, scribbled the entire show, every single thing he did. How did he walk on stage? How often did he get up or sit down at the piano? What did he say? What got the audience to laugh? What did I like? Was there an idea I had that he didn’t do?

I did the same with Donny and Marie Osmond when they were standing at the theater. I went to watch them. I did the same with Ben Folds when I saw him at the Ryman here in Nashville. I would do that. I went to Jon, and I did the same thing. I made notes on Jon at Bridgestone Arena. When you’re seeing somebody who people will pay $100,000 in ticket sales or a million dollars in ticket sales tonight or even just you know, 10 or $15,000. You see that and you’re studying what they are doing on stage. 

Not to sound super vain, but when I went to see Donny and Marie and I watched the way that Donny interacts with the audience, it was like, that is what I do on stage. I was like there’s nothing Danny’s doing that I don’t do. And that was one of the reasons I’ve got to get in with these agencies and I’ve moved to Nashville. I know I have that connection with the audience sure enough. I went to Nashville and an agent saw that and that kind of opened those doors.

Jason Tonioli: A lot of times people think or even when you think about college or getting a music degree, or whatever the degree is and you think oh, I know everything now and people just stop oftentimes with their education and they’re like, okay, now I’m looking at my gentleman work but what I’m hearing from you is like,  you we’re continuing, you elevated your education, you were trying to learn, and I really think as I talked to multiple people who have achieved some level of success in whatever their career is, they’ve continued to be a student, they’ve continued to invest. When you’re talking about investing in mentors and coaches. You’re geeking out at a concert on the edge. It’s like an education like, oh, I’m gonna go do this. 

My wife gives me a hard time as I listen to music books. I listen to audiobooks, podcasts. I’m always trying to learn and just think, okay, what’s the thing that I can do to get a little bit better? It’s almost like a video game you want to level up to. You’re not happy with level 50. You want to get to level 1050. Nobody in the right mind is going to go to that level. 

I know we’re about out of time here but I’m going to give you some props. So, you’re one of the few piano artists that I have a little bit of jealousy because my wife loves your piano hymn book. She will play out of that over my books. And I have this little jealousy, like oh, my gosh she says, it’s his book, I’m gonna listen to that song again. 

Jason Black: That’s so funny.

Jason Tonioli: Yes. One of these days I will be as cool as you are at writing piano sheet music.

Jason Black: That is too funny, man. Well, I hope I figured out how to sell sheet music like you did. My Disney book sells like that but obviously that’s Disney we talked about. It’s been great. I mean, it’s put me on the map and it’s so cool to have a product on Amazon that’s a hundred of 5-star reviews that’s my name 

I like what you said though. Always be a student and I think sometimes I probably don’t realize how unique it is to really make it if you want to use that phrasing at sea because it is true that people sometimes go work at sea and then it’s not everybody that has been working full time or having maybe that volume as a headliner.

One of the things that I remember about my first two years was all I ever thought about onboard the ship was my show and that was OCD – 100% obsessive compulsive, but that’s all I could ever think about. And so, after every show, I mean the next couple of days, I was just sitting there and again, I’d have the video, or I have the recording. And I’d be talking about the other headliners who are generally quite a bit older than I was and have a lot more experience and so what did I do? Well, what should I change? I mean, my show went through so many iterations at sea already because I was just never content unless it was constantly and sometimes it was hard because you know, I’d show up on the ship and they’re like, hey, do you have your setlist and I was like, your cue sheet for us. And I was like, I don’t know, because I just changed it. The first three years, I never did the same show – to not like two shots in a row. Because every time I played it was like changing up. We tweaked that I think that would work a little bit better this way. We just cut that bit or added this one little bit or intro. I would constantly be trying stuff. And that’s how you do it. 

Jason Tonioli: …to get better.

Jason Black: You didn’t even start your first day and have a funnel. 

Jason Tonioli: We’ve failed so many times and done some AB tests. It makes your head spin. Jason, I know we’re about on time here. But if people want to go learn more about your work, you have some phenomenal sheet music, so you don’t necessarily have to go on a cruise to hear Jason. He’s got awesome videos, sheet music.  Where would they go to find out more about you?

Jason Black: I have a lot of my sheet music with Hal Leonard that’s in music stores. You can get on Amazon my Christmas book, my Disney book, my first book.  Also now, I got a lot of stuff with music notes. So, if you go to musicnotes.com, you can actually download all my Disney stuff there too – my video game music I do now. My YouTube channel eventually has a lot of my current kind of my passion projects and stuff I do on YouTube for fun now. I still do till tour I won’t be doing a US tour again until later ’23 I think but I am in talks with another agency about doing that. 

And so, there is always the occasional chance to see me there. And then of course I mean I do other corporate events in between when I’m flying to Istanbul or Argentina or wherever I go around the world. I do still play, you know, some of these conferences and things like that. But yeah, it’s been a treat to be on.

Jason Tonioli: Awesome. If you ever get out to Utah again, I’ve got a recording studio out back and we can definitely love to have him come to a little house concert here. 

Jason Black: I would love to. I still want to learn more about that – the world you have crafted, how you’ve mastered that. I think that’s amazing.

Jason Tonioli: Awesome. Well Jason, thanks so much for your time. You’ve dropped a huge value bomb to help some people. Thanks so much. 

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 Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.


How to Connect with the Featured Guest:

Jason Lyle Black is an award-winning piano entertainer, published arranger and composer for the piano, having authored three bestselling piano books with the world’s largest music publisher, Hal Leonard.  His most popular book, Disney Medleys for Piano Solo, is an Amazon bestseller, with over 10,000+ copies sold nationwide.


Jason performed on the Ellen Degeneres show in Hollywood, where Ellen called him “Unbelievable!”

What You’ll Learn

Jason Lyle Black shares with us how he started in the cruise industry and some first-hand tips on how to have a career for life on stage. He also emphasized that a good rating is very important so you will always get rebooked by agencies.

In this episode, he also shares some performers whom he loves to watch and considered phenomenal performers.


Things We Discussed


Jon Schmidt – an American pianist, composer, piano teacher, and author. a member of The Piano Guys musical group, performing on their YouTube videos, albums, and in concert.


Peter Falk – an American film and television actor. He is best known for his role as Lieutenant Columbo in the long-running television series Columbo

Connect with Jason Lyle Black







Youtube Music


Apple Music



Amazon Music

Connect with Jason Tonioli







Amazon Music


Apple Music


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