CMU alumnus shares experience of traveling the world, performing gospel music, working with Dolly Parton


Courtesy of Alex Zsolt.

At the age of 14, Alex Zsolt knew his calling was music. Now, he travels around the world performing music and creating albums.

“At 6 years old, I would hear the music at church and feel full of hope,” Zsolt said. “Faith was my calling musically.”  

Zsolt grew up in Grand Rapids and went to Central Michigan University where he studied music education, music composition and the saxophone. After graduating in 2003, Zsolt moved to Nashville, Tennessee to pursue his music career.    

Zsolt said understanding music has made him realize his calling for music. With 37 years of experience with the piano, he has performed all over the US and internationally.     

“It all started small…from Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant area to (performing) all over Michigan, then the Midwest, branched out to the entire country and then eventually beyond the US,” Zsolt said.  

Small beginnings, big dreams

Zsolt said he would try to figure out how to play a piano when he was home on a Wurlitzer organ someone gave to his family.  

“I started taking lessons on a piano that wasn’t much of a piano,” Zsolt said. “It was like a $300 piano that was in a fire … I can’t even tell you what brand because they repainted it.

“I feel at home playing the piano."

However, in middle and high schools, Zsolt played the saxophone.

“I wanted to do marching band and you couldn’t march with a piano so I played the saxophone,” he said.  

At Central, Zsolt said he worked on building his music ministry. He would do concerts in different churches around the Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant area.  

“It was all the little things that led to doing what I do now,” Zsolt said.  

Zsolt said his experience at CMU comes down to three professors. Professor of piano Alexandra Mascolo-David, professor of saxophone John Nichol and professor of composition, who is now retired, David Gillingham.  

“I just can’t say enough great things about them because we did the work of the typical repertoire, but I also wanted to do the things that were special to me like gospel music,” Zsolt said. “All three of them were open to working on those things which I thought was awesome.”  

Nichol is in his 45th year at CMU teaching saxophonist lessons in direct quartets, a saxophone show choir and ensemble. Nichol has worked with Zsolt for four years and had lessons every week.  

“Alex was multitalented, playing both the piano and saxophone,” Nichol said. “He had an intrapreneurial spirit.

“He’s making a difference in  this world providing a life of service and I applaud him for that."

Nichol said he recognized Zsolt's interest in ministry music and encouraged him in moving in that direction.  

“(Zsolt) would show me some projects that he was putting together for me to listen to,” Nichol said.  “I’ve followed his career with interest.  

“In our School of Music, we have a lot of personal connections with these students,” Nichol said. “We don’t just teach them in one class and never see them again … we see them weekly for four years making it easy to create a very rich interpersonal connection.” 

Now, Nichol said Zsolt would stop by occasionally to visit.  

“I’m always so grateful for that, to stay connected with him and watch how he grows musically developing his professional career.”  

Zsolt said the professors at CMU really helped with the growth of his career.    

“Here I am with 19 albums later and I have about 25 piano books published with different music publishers,” Zsolt said. “The music program at CMU helped in so many ways to add a great foundation to what I’m doing now.”  

He never envisioned the experiences that have happened and are happening.   

“I’m just a simple kid from Grand Rapids,” Zsolt said. “It’s just amazing what has happened from what really started from nothing.”  

The works of something new 

Zsolt is most recently working on a new album featuring Dolly Parton in singing "I Will Always Love You" set to be released in April of 2024, the 50th anniversary of the song being written by Dolly Parton.  

“She is exactly like what people see on TV and know about her in person,” he said. “She’s just this wonderful, sweet lady.”  

Sometimes in the music industry, Zsolt said it's important to take risks.    

“I really wanted her to be a part of this album … so we did everything ahead of time, not knowing if she would say yes or no,” Zsolt said. “Dolly likes having a demo of what her part would be like so we hired a studio singer who sang on other parts of the album and background vocals.”

Zsolt said there are a lot of notes to deal with when working with a piano feature, an orchestra and background vocals which was arranged by David Clydesdale.

“She sounds so incredible when it comes to her part,” Zsolt said. “It’s an incredible job and with typical Dolly, she gives it 100,000 percent.”  

Zsolt said as an instrumentalist, it's important to set up a storyline and with the song being between two people, Dolly wants to have a male vocalist sing part of it.  

“We got a great singer, Charles Billingsley to sing the second verse,” he said. “It’s quite the arrangement and is a big production number."  

Hope, encouragement and faith

Zsolt said from day one, there was a guiding force towards ministry concerts.  

“When I do my ministry concerts, there's a possibility of creating hope, encouragement and life change for people,” he said. “That's the biggest thing, especially now with how the world is, people need encouragement and faith offers that.” 

Alex Zsolt Ministries has also partnered with Food for the Hungry as part of their mission segment.  

“Through my piano concerts, we’ve been able to save the lives of over 900 kids in 100 different countries,” Zsolt said. “That's the power of music.”     

Zsolt said he wants to spread the message of hope through his music. He has been to about 2500 churches around the world.  

“I really believe God created music so that we all could have something that we could be uplifted and encouraged by,” he said. “That's my driving force when I wake up in the morning, that there's a deeper meaning…to be able to make an impact in people's lives.”  

Creating experiences and connections

Zsolt said he's learned the importance of communication and building rapport with the audience. 

“You have to know the difference between playing at people and playing to people,” Zsolt said. “For me, it’s being interactive at the piano, making that connection to the audience that's out there."  

People go to concerts because they want to experience moments, he said.   

“People want to experience something different…something they can't get from just listening to Spotify or putting in a CD,” Zsolt said. “There’s a higher purpose.”  

He brings that connection to all different sides of his career, Zsolt said, whether he is performing in church, in a theater or for Disney. For example, he talked about an event he performed at as a tribute to Richard Sherman for the Walt Disney Company at Disney’s El Capitan theater.  

Sherman is a songwriter best known for his work, in collaboration with his brother Robert Sherman, in writing "It’s a Small World (After All)."

“It was the house theater organist Rob Richards, me at the piano and Richard Sherman’s musical director, Richard Allen,” Zsolt said. “At the end, there was just a cool moment where we had Mickey Mouse come down and bring Richard Sherman where he sat and played ‘It’s a Small World (After All)’.” 

Zsolt said it is moments like that make people remember the experience of why they go to certain concerts. 

He said through music, he has built lifelong friendships and relationships which are important, especially in the music industry.  

“If I can give advice about having a music career, it would be to take care of your relationships because it really is all about those relationships,” Zsolt said. “You can be the greatest player out there but if you don’t take care of your relationships, there's gonna be a disconnect, and people can feel that.”    

The business side of things

Zsolt said there are many challenges involved in the music industry such as scheduling bookings and juggling different aspects of music .  

“If I could think of one word to sum it up, it's rejection,” Zsolt said. 

Zsolt said a lot of people think you have to have an agent that takes care of getting concerts booked.  During his time at CMU, he called Ambassador Agency in Nashville and spoke to Dana Ashley who booked big artists and speakers.

“I told her, ‘I don’t want you to book me because I’m an unknown but right now, if you're willing, is to teach me how to book’ so she told me the program they use for doing bookings,” Zsolt said. “At this time, it was just me so I went from making 10-15 calls a day to being able to make 30-60 calls because of how organized this program makes everything.

“One to three percent will respond, one percent will schedule, so I learned that for that time, 27 calls was the magic number to get a booking,” he said. “It’s great to practice your music, but it’s the getting your music out of the practice and onto the stage.”  

Additionally, as a musician, you have to wear many different hats, Zsolt said.

“You can’t just focus on one area of music,” he said. “There’s so many opportunities in music so you have to diversify which direction you’re going in with things and you have many different options.”

Zsolt offers different types of music education opportunities within his ministry.  

From working with universities through seminars to one on one Skype calls, Zsolt offers master classes, music consulting and private lessons.  

“We have to encourage younger generations and pass down our knowledge, otherwise, this whole thing will die out,” Zsolt said.

For more information on Alex Zsolt Ministries, music academy or purchasing albums, click here.