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.

“With this many different dynamic personalities, we’ve just got to put egos down and just realize the bigger picture, which … is to lift people, to inspire people, have them feel something, have them feel what we know to be from God,” Van Der Beek said.

“We remind each other that we’re not creating this music,” Nelson said. “We feel inspired when we’re writing the music because it’s beyond what we could do.”

He added that they're truly dependent on God.

The men pray before every shoot.

“We prayed really hard before the helicopter picked up the piano,” Anderson said.

“That was a very sincere prayer,” Stewart interjected.

The men started laughing, referring to the filming of an African style cover of Coldplay’s “Paradise,” called “Peponi,” which they shot with singer Alex Boy on a cliff in Southern Utah.

The helicopter and piano endeavor has become wildly popular, having surpassed three million YouTube hits – and the piano did survive.

“There’s too many experiences where we’re just like, ‘Are you kidding me? That really happened that way?’” Schmidt said.

With perfect weather, perfect shots, the men recognize what they believe are many miracles in their creative process. They firmly believe God has a plan for what they’re doing but are mindful that not everyone believes as they do.

The videos have received many positive comments from self-proclaimed atheists.

"Our music is spiritual, not religious," Nelson said to put it simply.

Many people have lost hope in humanity thanks to what the media feed them, Schmidt said, "and it's just nice to be a counterweight to that. You can call it spiritual if you want, because I think it is.”

Spiritual, uplifting, happy or whatever their music becomes for people, it seems to be about hope. Hope in humanity, hope for the music industry and hope for aspiring musicians.

Van Der Beek and Nelson likened many current musical hits to Twinkies, providing a sugar rush kind of reaction, but no sustainable good feelings.

“We’re trying to put nutrition back into music a little bit,” Nelson said.

Anderson spoke excitedly about where they could be years from now – perhaps they’ll even start some knew kind of trend of impassioned instrumental music, he said.

Schmidt jumped in, turning to Nelson, and briefly changed the subject.

“The other funny thing about it is that you and I are just a couple of ugly dudes that are not trying to be cool," he said.

“That obviously can’t be,” Nelson interrupted.

The men erupted into laughter.

“There are way too many role models for hot guys out there,” he continued, between laughs. “We will be role models for the geeks out there and people that love classical music, and that’s OK.”

On a more serious role model note, Nelson said, his email inbox has been swarmed with messages from grateful parents, thanking him and Schmidt for motivating their children.

Rewards like that, Schmidt said, outshine any financial benefit they're sure is to come.

Financing is, however, necessary to keep the inspirational projects going. Most of the men have been able to quit their day jobs and focus on just The Piano Guys.

They started a “founder” program a couple of months ago, similar to the model of Kickstarter, to raise money for their endeavors. Thanks to contests, downloads and album and merchandise sales, things are going well so far, they said.

Some fans have answered with monetary support. Others have become involved by donating time and energy to filming. The costumes for "Cello Wars" were provided for free.

In essence, many have responded to the call for a good musical cause, and the response has come from around the world.

Multiple comments on the videos are in other languages and many greetings on The Piano Guys Facebook page are in broken English, hailing from a variety of countries.

“It’s so fun to ship (albums) out because we get to see where they’re going,” Anderson said. “And I mean it’s going to every single country, almost every single city in every country in the world. It’s blowing our minds.”

The support is certainly fulfilling, but so are their new jobs, Van Der Beek said.

“We know our place, we let each other do our things, we support each other. It’s just fun,” he said.

There’s writing, recording, filming and editing to worry about. Van Der Beek, Schmidt and Nelson all live in the Salt Lake Valley, Stewart and Anderson in St. George, limiting how often they can get together for a shoot, and it’s sometimes challenging, Van Der Beek said.

“But when you love it, it doesn’t matter.”

And once they get going on a project, they don't stop.

“Rather than draw it out across four days, we’d rather do it in 24 hours and get back to our families,” Nelson said.

“Michael Meets Mozart” was their first all-nighter, they explained, working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. “Cello Wars” took a full 24 hours.

The men bounced new ideas off of each other, talking about doing more collaborations with "big YouTubers" and other artists. They just worked with popular YouTube singer Tiffany Alvord, who released a vocal version of "Beethoven's 5 Secrets" on her YouTube channel to coincide with The Piano Guys release.

They believe they can really go places, perhaps turn their subscriber numbers from 326,564 (and counting) to a million within a year.

So far, Anderson said, they've found nothing that could entice them away from how they're already doing things.

They’ve turned down record label offers and plenty of pitches for concerts in places from China to Australia and Lithuania and India. They quipped about being “huge” in Sri Lanka.

Although excited over head turning offers, The Piano Guys have kept their heads straight on their shoulders.

“We know that our families are the most important thing,” Anderson said.

“That’s a good way to end the article,” Van Der Beek added.

“And that’s why we love YouTube, because we can tour the world without leaving our homes,” Nelson said.

“We love YouTube, but not as much as our families,” Stewart finished. With that, the men chuckled and teased about how cheesy they were.

But they’re serious about family, serious about their music, serious about their cause, not to mention having fun being along for the ride. Mostly, they’re a group of self-effacing, goofy family men who are grateful to have their talents and to do what they do.

“If we were thankful every minute of the day every day for what we get to do, it would not be enough," Nelson said. "We are so thankful that God lets us do this and has helped us to do it.”

And what they get to do is have an influence, Schmidt said.

“Everybody has a dream of being a positive influence on the world, and I feel like we have a chance to do that.”

To learn more about The Piano Guys or to become a founder, visit www.thepianoguys.com. To subscribe for free to the group's YouTube channel or view its videos, visit www.youtube.com/thepianoguys.

The Piano Guys' 'Beethoven's 5 Secrets'

One of The Piano Guys' recent videos, "Beethoven's 5 Secrets" with the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic youth orchestra. The song mixes One Republic's "Secrets" with elements of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

Email: hbowler@desnews.com

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