SALT LAKE CITY — Some musical instruments have a "cool" factor that had carried them through generation after generation of popular music.
But a mainstay of classical music — the cello — is a hot item right now.
Sure, The Beatles' 1966 Grammy-winning "Eleanor Rigby" featured a double string quartet, including two cellos; and I'm not overlooking more than two dozen Top-40 hits from the Electric Light Orchestra. But today's popularity has the cello in more featured roles.
Take the lengthy introduction in Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" for example, or OneRepublic's "Secrets," which was the big production number on Disney's recent release of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
Ask the average Joe on the street what famous cellist he knows, and it's likely Yo Yo Ma, one of the featured musicians at President Obama's inauguration, who has mastered the classics and also jams with artists like U2's Bono.
So why is the cello having its time to shine?
"This might be the decade of the cello," believes Utah cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, whose work as part of The Piano Guys with pianist Jon Schmidt has attracted 40 million views on YouTube. Nelson believes the cello has been cool for hundreds of years but that it's just now being discovered.
Perhaps people relate to the cello because of its similarity to the human vocal range, Nelson suggests. Some of its popularity is credited to musicians, like Yo Yo Ma, who have helped the instrument break out of its traditional role as bass-line support for the violin.
For Nelson, it was sitting down with a cello for the first time, when he was 8, and drawing out the first two haunting notes from the "Jaws" movie theme. "I thought, 'This is a cool instrument.'"
Nelson considers classical music the "ultimate" and his first love, but he also believes the unchanging performance style in the classical world has pushed some would-be classical music audiences away and dissuaded some younger players from studying "classical" instruments, like the cello.
"There's so much pressure for perfection," he said. "We have to be careful about this esoteric elitism that classical music has, where we push people out. We should be inviting them into the classical music, and that's what I've been trying to do."
For Nelson and the others writing and arranging music today, that effort to draw the cello into popular music is working.
Nelson's "The Cello Song" arrangement of the Prelude from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, which has had 2.6 million YouTube views, is a prime example where the presentation is anything but classical: the solo piece is split into eight parts with clever video and editing that replicates Nelson into an ensemble of players portrayed through inventive camera angles and techniques.
What would Bach think of the video? "I think he would have smiled," Nelson believes. "He himself was a great innovator. Some of his music was extremely innovative, dare I say radical, back in his time."
Another of Nelson's big YouTube hits — approaching 4 million views — is his Star Wars parody "Cello Wars," where cello bows become light sabres, a Wookiee jams and Darth Vader is humiliated through music. Nelson and The Piano Guys are also thinking of other classical-popular music and video pairings to keep their audience coming back. Think "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings."
Nelson, who said his schedule does not allow him time to teach, has three bits of advice for young players wanting to know how to bridge the gap between the often frustrating early years of music lessons and actually playing music that is "cool": Stick with it, be social with the instrument by playing often with other people instead of just practicing alone, and play the music you love.
"Teachers may dislike me for this, but I say practice a little less and play a little more. Find opportunities to perform."
What's next for the cello on the musical popularity scale?
"I'm just waiting for 'Cello Hero' to come out. Now THAT's gonna be cool."
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