They are a breath of fresh air, an explosion of creativity, a feast of fun, a delightful diversion from mundane tasks. They are The Piano Guys, five fellows from a town in Utah who have become — if the cliché fits, why not wear it? — an internet music sensation. The top videos on their YouTube channel have clocked up up five, six and seven million hits apiece and countless raves from a growing number of fans, amongst whom I count myself. These guys are so cool.
If you have not yet met them in MercatorNet’s video spot, they are: Jon Schmidt, piano maestro; Steven Sharp Nelson, cellist extraordinaire; and behind the scenes, videographer Tel Stewart, sound engineer/musical arranger Al Van Der Beek, and entrepreneur Paul Anderson — all experts in their field. Somehow they all got together in their hometown of St George and began producing some of the nicest music videos you are likely to meet in cyberspace.
But it’s not all serendipity. The Piano Guys have a vision. They want to inspire, uplift, make a difference to the world. “Whatever we do, we put our heart and souls into every note and frame,” they say on their website, and they really do.
They have so many strengths: the familiarity of their musical themes; the exciting originality of their arrangements, or “covers”; amazing and beautiful locations; a relaxed mastery of their instruments; awesome technical skills behind them; and, above all, a joy in performance that puts a smile on the faces not only of Steve and Jon but of their audience too.
The desire to give people a lift is what drives them, says Jon in answer to an email. “It is our passion for what we do. We cannot take any credit for it.”
For a quick taste (most videos are around four minutes) of the guys in their trademark happy-go-lucky mood try their rest-home gig — a Charlie Brown Medley with Jon hamming it up at the piano, Steve drumming the rhythm on his cello (the things he does with that instrument!) and the old folks getting with it from their chairs, if not up and dancing. A blast. Or Steve having a day off with his best pal in Me and My Cello, a cover for The Turtles’ number, Happy Together. Or Rockebel’s Canon, with four Steves on four cellos producing a switched-on version of Pachelbel’s very famous number for a (staged) wedding.
Great fun. And yet, when there is so much in the world of art and entertainment that is dark and cynical, it comes almost as a surprise that a group would set out to make happiness their brand.
“Who doesn’t love being happy?” Steve replies to my question about the sources of their joy. “The best way I’ve found to be happy is to love others more than yourself, cherish relationships, pray often, and be grateful for what you have. It’s not always easy, but it’s lot easier for me when I fill my life with good music. The music we create is simply a ‘soundtrack’ of the joy we feel when we’re with our families, when we’re serving others, soaking in Earth’s beauty, or even just having a good laugh.”
The guys, you see, are religious and that explains a lot about the way they approach the music market. While their music itself is not religious, says Steve, it is very spiritual. It’s a question of “stitching” into their pieces the shapes and moods that accompany happy and uplifting experiences in life — whether it’s reading a good book or setting a world record — and good values. “We hope that when people watch our videos and listen to our music that it conjures up values that everyone generally understands contribute to a happy life, such as gratitude, self-sacrifice, clean humour and service.”
The wedding rings he and Jon wear, and that the cameras often feature, suggest a major focus of those values.
Jon is more explicit about his Mormon faith, which convinces him that music is a gift enabling him to “harness and spread God’s influence in the world” through cultivating peace, love, joy, goodness, consolation and other positive emotions. Inspired by other artists and achievers who use their gifts in “a thankful way, an unassuming way that desires to benefit the world”, he and his colleagues aspire to do the same. Their most rewarding moments as performers are when they sense this effect on themselves or listeners, and they get plenty of feedback from the latter confirming that this happens.
But, it’s true, there is nothing overtly pious about their work, and its appeal is broad — crossing both genre and generational boundaries.
Michael Meets Mozart, the mashup that really launched them in May last year, commemorated the then recently deceased Michael Jackson by combining themes from hip-hop and Mozart in an original tune. It is a technical tour de force: 100 of Steve’s cello tracks are layered with Jon’s piano playing to create a full orchestral experience.
Indeed, The Piano Guys spare no effort to wow their audience. The second most popular of all their videos, Cello Wars (Star Wars Parody) Lightsaber Duel, is an amazingly ambitious piece of work that took six months to produce. Videographer Tel Stewart had to edit every one of its 7000 frames in order to show Steve and his phantom alter ego sawing away at their cellos with light sabres. If that doesn’t get a few boys taking up the cello, goodness knows what would.
They have the same sky’s-the-limit approach to settings. In Bourne Vivaldi — based on the “grabby” Bourne Identity soundtrack riff and a Vivaldi cello concerto — the duo start at a mountain cement facility and end up on a goods train, grand piano and all. In Coldplay – Paradise (Peponi) African Style, the grand piano is lifted by helicopter to a mountain top where UK-based African singer Alex Boye performs against rugged red hills and a wide blue sky. The beauty of nature is showcased in many videos, whether through the dramatic mountains of Southern Utah, a beachfront in Hawaii or a wooded spot near a local dam. There seems to be no location too challenging for their trusty pianos and cellos (they have a few) given a hand from their friends and contacts.
The human element seems a more difficult challenge. Given the amount of dark matter emanating from the musical world, are the guys in danger of running out of good originals on which to exercise their genius?
It can be difficult, Steve admits, but they are firm about their criteria.”We have lots of families that watch our stuff and we love creating something on YouTube that parents and children can watch together. If we cover a tune then, arguably, we are endorsing it. We have seen evidence that people will investigate the original song and its YouTube video — when we first release a cover tune the top comments on the original song’s video reference our version.
“In any case we decided long ago that we would not cover songs that we were not comfortable sending people to. If we wouldn’t want our kids watching it or singing it then it is eliminated as a possibility. It doesn’t take a long glance at YouTube’s top 20 charts to see that it is nearly impossible [to use anything there]. This is one of the reasons why we also include original tunes, remixes of classical tunes and arrangements of movie themes.”
Jon is more optimistic. He feels there is so much good material that passes the fit-for-our-kids test that “we feel we will never run out” of originals to make over, while adding their own compositions.
What next for The Piano Guys? One clue is found in Beethoven’s 5 Secrets, based on LVB’s famous fifth symphony plus OneRepublic’s tune “Secrets” and performed by Steve with the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic youth orchestra. This great concoction combined two of the things the guys are working to accomplish — inviting people to classical music and inspiring young musicians. They would love to take their musical vision directly to young people “on a more global level” and are inviting their supporters to contribute financially to this mission.
The best of luck to them. Opening up the joy of music to younger generations must be amongst the top ten best ideas in the world. There ought to be prize for it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.