The Piano Guys might just be one of the 21st century’s most notable social media success stories. Now a successful musical group known for their lush videos of classical and contemporary compositions set in exotic locales, their success originated with a social media campaign intended to help Paul Anderson attract more customers to his Utah piano store. The idea was to bring Pianist Jon Schmidt and Cellist Steven Sharp Nelson together with Music Producer Al van der Beek and Anderson himself as videographer, to post performances to the store’s social media sites.
By 2012, two years and thirty videos into this endeavor, the store had not registered a single piano sale, but The Piano Guys, as they were by then known, had a steadily rising following on YouTube and were signed by Sony Masterworks. They closed the store.
Their compositions for piano and cello are based on both classical and contemporary songs, often putting a classic spin on contemporary music or a modern slant to the classics. A Bach and Bruno Mars mashup? Why not! The result is an unmistakably unique sound that is accompanied on stage by entertaining antics and online by lush, visually stunning videos.
Indeed, videos filmed in exotic, picturesque outdoor locations, are the hallmark of their success. To date, The Piano Guys have produced live music at many of the seven wonders of the world: The Great Wall of China, the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil, Chichen Itza in Mexico and the ancient stone city of Petra in the Kingdom of Jordan.
In addition, they have performed at some of the world’s premier venues – including Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert Hall. In 2017, they now have six records that each reached number one on Billboard’s classical or new age album charts and over five-million subscribers and over a billion views on their YouTube channel.
I had some questions for Al van der Beek of The Piano Guys in advance of their December 13th through 16th performances at DC’s National Theatre. Here are some excerpts from Al’s answers.
Nicole Hertvik: How do you decide what songs to record? What goes into the decision? How do you decide what songs would work well together as a mashup?
Al van der Beek: We believe that the songs actually choose us most of the time. We have sixteen children between the four of us, so we get A LOT of ideas and inspiration from them. We always make sure the songs we cover are family friendly — If we don’t feel comfortable with the message of the song lyrics, or wouldn’t want our kids to watch the original video, then we won’t consider covering it…no matter how hot the tune is.
Who deserves credit for conceptualizing your gorgeous videos and bringing them to life? How long does it take you to make a video like that? How much fun is it? Have you ever had a near miss with a grand piano falling off a cliff?!
We all throw in our ideas for videos. However, Paul Anderson and Shaye Scott are the ones who breathe life into them through their amazing cinematography. They have the ability to create videos that complement the music without distracting from it. Typically we only take one to two days to shoot a video and then it takes about two weeks to edit. Some of our multi-location videos take more time — about a week to film. We never allocate enough time to film, but it somehow always works out in the end.
The only time we were worried about one of our pianos is when we strapped it to a helicopter with a huge granny knot and some shrink wrap for our video “Peponi.” We had no clue what we were doing and we thought that if it did crash to the ground we’d still have a viral video!
What is the most amazing or memorable performance space you have performed in? The most amazing location you have shot a video in?
One of our favorite places to perform in the US is definitely Red Rocks in Denver, Colorado. It’s such a unique place that’s surrounded by so much natural beauty. The acoustics are amazing and the energy from the crowd just rolls right down onto the stage. It’s truly electrifying. One of our favorite venues to play outside of the US is the Royal Albert Hall in London. It’s the Carnegie Hall of the UK and it was just mind-blowing to be on the stage where so many musical icons have performed.
We loved filming on The Great Wall of China. We still can’t believe we actually did it! Not only did we get to film on the wall, but they closed down an entire 1,500-mile section just for us. It was surreal!
You all had independent careers before The Piano Guys. What is it like to gain celebrity status later in life? How does it change you? What does it teach you?
We are so grateful that this all happened later in our lives — After we were married and had children to remind us how NOT cool we are. We feel like we’ve had time to gain perspective and to figure out what is most important in life. And that will always be our families and our faith in God. We feel like so many miracles brought us together and we continue to see those miracles during the songwriting process and during videos. We feel so humbled and blessed to be able to do something that we feel fulfills our purpose on Earth right now.
Will it just be the four of you onstage in DC?
Primarily, Steve and Jon are the only two on stage 80% of the time. Al will be performing a couple vocal tunes and then he and Paul will join at some point so we can all jam on the piano together. We also have a couple other surprises, but if we told you then they wouldn’t be surprises would they?!
You just released your second Christmas album (Christmas Together). What would you like readers to know about it?
We’re very proud of this album. We hope that when people listen to it they will feel love, hope, peace, and joy. Each song on the album encapsulates what we believe Christmas means to us.
You really work to create a fun show. What kinds of unusual things do you do onstage to keep things light, fun and entertaining?
Most people come to our show based merely on what they see on YouTube. We hope they leave with a totally different experience. We try to include something for everyone. Jon and Steve have a brotherly banter on stage and so most people are surprised at the element of humor (or lack thereof!) – We hope people that come will laugh, cry some happy tears and leave feeling uplifted.