The Piano Guys strive for a positive influence

Published: Sunday, Feb. 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson in "Michael Meets Mozart."

The Piano Guys

“We don’t get together as often as we’d like to.”

“Yeah, like once a week.”

“It could be a long interview.”

Sitting down with The Piano Guys is like sitting in on a mini-reunion of lifelong friends.

The group, comprised of pianist Jon Schmidt, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, general manager Paul Anderson, studio engineer co-writer Al Van Der Beek and videographer Tel Stewart, gathered in the front room of Van Der Beek’s home in Sandy, Utah, to discuss its explosive YouTube success. They sat cross-legged on the couch or propping feet up on the coffee table, offering up plenty of animated jokes, teasing, and laughter during the discussion.

They're pretty laid back for a group of guys with much they could boast about. The artists seem to have developed the perfect formula to strike a chord – literally – with people all over the world.

“We like to put a new spin on classic stuff and a classic spin on new stuff,” reads the brief description on the home page of its YouTube channel. The Piano Guys have gained fast attention for classical/popular mash-ups, including the recently released “Beethoven’s 5 Secrets” with the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic youth orchestra, plus a mix of covers, original songs and arrangements and entertaining renditions of movie scores, all artistically filmed in scenic settings.

Nelson explained that they do covers to glean some of the popularity and previous recognition, “not to mooch or leech off of it,” he quickly added, but to establish a fresh connection with audiences already connected to some favorite tunes. Covers, originals, or whatever the music they capture, The Piano Guys try to keep things innovative and, above all, inspirational.

The Piano Guys started at a small Yamaha piano dealership in St. George, Utah. Paul Anderson hurt his back a couple of summers ago and, thanks to a lot of downtime and Web browsing, stumbled across Schmidt and Nelson’s popular mash-up, Love Story meets Viva La Vida.”

He decided then that, given the opportunity, he’d love to work with them. Schmidt came into the store one day while Anderson was working and asked to practice on a piano, thus starting a friendship and collaboration. Nelson, Van Der Beek, and Stewart came on board through a series of serendipitous events and connections. The group’s vision really came to fruition in May, taking off with “Michael Meets Mozart.”

Thanks to “Mozart” and “The Cello Song,” The Piano Guys won a YouTube contest for rising YouTube stars. Upon the release of “Cello Wars,” a goofy “Star Wars”-centered piece, The Piano Guys YouTube channel was the fourth-fastest growing channel on YouTube. Singer Rihanna was the only musician ahead of them at the time. They had surpassed Coldplay and Justin Bieber.

On any given day, The Piano Guys channel gains 1,000-3,000 subscribers, meaning YouTube and Google account holders wanting to follow their work (the subscribership is free). They hover around the top 40 or 50 fastest growing out of about 800 million YouTube channels.

“It’s sort of like being in radio when radio was young is really how it feels to me,” Schmidt said. The group detailed how quickly it's gone from being excited over a few thousand video views to practically expecting them to reach a couple million.

“I think sometimes we take for granted how fast we’re growing, maybe,” Nelson said.

The group's members detailed how they keep each others’ egos in check, attributing part of that ability to a good enough rapport for blunt comments and teasing, reminding themselves they’re still pretty small in overall YouTube terms, and especially drawing on a humility rooted in faith.

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