YouTube keys The Piano Guys into an audience of millions

L to R: Jon Schmidt, Tel Stewart, Al Van Der Beek, Paul Anderson, Steven Sharp Nelson | Photo Courtesy of The Piano Guys

ST. GEORGE – For many people bedridden for an extended period of time, the down time is lost time, passed perhaps begrudgingly before a TV or a book as the world goes on without them. Not so for Paul Anderson, founder of The Piano Guys.

“I was laid up in bed for like six months,” said Anderson, “I had injured my back pretty good, and I studied YouTube  – I basically got my doctorate degree in YouTube during that time.”

For fans logging over 69 million views and over 400,000 subscriptions to The Piano Guys YouTube channel, all in less than one year’s time, Anderson’s down time in bed served as a portal from which rich rhapsodies, classical remakes and evocative music would find a way out to touch lives worldwide.

The Piano Guys today are a group of five men from Utah, all married with children, who gravitated together through a series of encounters, published a particular YouTube video of original music with a mesmerizing visual, which found almost overnight success and launched them into the worldwide public eye.  That is the short story.

The roots of Anderson’s interest in YouTube and the spark that gave rise to The Piano Guys date back to 2004 when Anderson was exploring means to promote his piano sales store, The Piano Gallery in St. George. He wanted a marketing tool that was more local than the national chain’s, so he came up with the name, created his own website and started looking to showcase his Yamaha pianos.

June, 2011 | Photo courtesy of The Piano Guys

Yamahas have a good sound, Anderson said, and he wanted to capture that, to show the world’s best piano through an artist’s fingers.

His friend, Tel Stewart, a videographer and student in video classes at Dixie State College of Utah, joined in his experiments about a year ago. Anderson said, “Tel started messing around with me at the store,we wanted to do a video commercial.”

While pursuing his YouTube “education in bed,” Anderson came across a video by pianist Jon Schmidt and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, called Love Story Meets Viva la Vida.

“It was incredible, it was just awesome,” Anderson said. “And I said, ’that’s what we need to film to showcase the Yamaha pianos.’”

At the time, Anderson said, “Jon came down to St. George to do concerts at Tuacahn.  So he’d come in and practice at our piano store, I didn’t know him really well, hardly at all actually, and so this time when he came in to practice we asked if we could film him – and I offered to do it for free if he’d allow us to film him.”

Schmidt was not an easy sell for Anderson’s proposition:

“Jon was turned off by YouTube,” said Anderson; his Love Story Meets Viva la Vida had attracted the attention of powers-that-be for Coldplay and Taylor Swift and he had ultimately conceded, under pressure, to take it down.

But Anderson and Stewart were persistent, Schmidt relented, and their video production began. When their first tries met with unimpressive YouTube response, Anderson suggested Schmidt take a more popular tune and change it up. Schmidt decided to take inspiration from other artists and songs but compose his own original tunes. It was through this composition effort that Michael Meets Mozart was conceived, filmed and uploaded on May 17, 2011. The video got a bump start from fans Schmidt had previously amassed and, most importantly, caught the interest of YouTube itself.

“They put us in a contest against other YouTube channels,” Anderson said. “One was against the Harlem Globetrotters – and people had to vote, and we ended up winning. So because we got featured, we ended up getting like 25,000 subscribers just off that – that’s pretty much what launched us so we started getting noticed.”

Nelson, the cellist, who had accompanied Schmidt in Michael Meets Mozart, was pursuing his own productions at the time. So he gave The Piano Guys a shot at producing his sonorous Cello Song – the calling was self-evident, a duo had been divined; pianist and cellist, with three other guys facilitating the musicians’ staging, were up and running.

Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson | Photo courtesy of The Piano Guys

The fifth guy who had joined their team emerged in the person of Al Van Der Beek. Van Der Beek lives in a Sandy, Utah, neighborhood with his wife, three children and a recording studio. Nelson moved into his neighborhood, 5 houses down from Van Der Beek, and said, “Hey, Al, can I come to your studio and check you out?”

“We hit it off,” said Van Der Beek of his neighbor. “Our chemistry was good we started having jam sessions and writing songs together and then the whole thing with The Piano Guys came along … I cowrite the music – sometimes the vocals are me or (others) – but we cowrite, we’re a writing team, all the arrangements and stuff like that.”

The group was complete, over time each of the guys left their “real jobs” and The Piano Guys produced YouTube videos every week or two.

Their range is elastic: They may poke fun at the classics, Pachelbel, Bach, or recast an old with some new as in their own Rock meets Rachmaninoff. They offer an “everybody’s favorite” like Somewhere Over the Rainbow filmed out in a lush green meadow and it is not trite.  They upload a new title, Charlie Brown Medley (Linus and Lucy / Track Meet), and you expect it will cater to the knee-highs among us – “We decided to put on an entertainment for one of our favorite audiences,” says the blurb beneath that video – and you smile to find it filled with the “youth” of Stirling Court retirement home in St. George. The guys just as easily capture strains from today’s currents – Usher, Coldplay, Adele and even Harry Potter – all with keyboard and strings, percussion and personality.

These aren’t your everyman YouTube uploads, they are a feast for the eyes and heart.

The imagination and determination it takes to produce such variety in so many places with such frequency is hard to quantify. Nothing seems impossible to them, if a high bluff calls out to them for a piano scene, a helicopter is found to carry the grand Yamaha high into the sky and set it down on that red Southern Utah bluff, secluded forest glens and oceans edge are no match for these guys either. The Piano Guys go where beauty can be found, capture it, augment it with sound and offer it to the world.

By December, 2011, The Piano Guys released their first album with a dozen or so tracks, beginning fittingly with Michael Meets Mozart, which had launched them as a YouTube notable.

In a simple recast of a long explanation by Anderson, (remember, he has a bedtime doctorate in YouTube), it works like this: Google owns YouTube, Google has AdSense, Google/YouTube find advertisers you can put on your videos. Ad revenues go in part to Google/YouTube and in part to you. YouTube drives traffic to iTunes and other websites. iTunes and the like generate sales which generate more revenue part of which goes to you.

Evidently, making a living through YouTube is a viable occupation – if you’ve got the product. And The Piano Guys do.

“I literally stopped working at the piano store in May (2011) after we took off, I just left and started doing the videos full time,” said Anderson who is closing out his his piano sales business now.

For a guy who was nominated “most shy” in high school, in fact by his account he barely graduated high school, was a nerd, a geek and not very book smart, Anderson has been a dark horse in society’s race. But, as each of The Piano Guys do, Anderson has that undefinable something and it inspires:

“I’m a risk taker, I love to take risks, I’m  a dreamer, I love to dream big.”

It’s a common thread with these guys. Nelson who started his musical career with the cello at 8, said he never thought he’d have the ability to do music full time, living on a shoestring, married nine years and father of three. But it has always been his dream:

“When I was a kid I’d race home to make home movies, directors, actors, special effects of course the special effects were kind of laughable,” Nelson said. Laughable? The Piano Guys’ Cello Wars (Star Wars Parody) Lightsaber Duel, in which Nelson’s bows morph into light sabers as he vanquishes Darth Vader in battle, suggest that those games were seeds for more mature effects to come. The Star Wars parody ends with Nelson in full Jedi garb delivering his wisdom:

“You will like this video … you will share this video … you will not leave lame messages about Chuck Norris on this video … The Piano Guys now control your life … you • will • start • cello • lessons • now!”

Schmidt enjoyed over 20 years as a concert pianist, but is especially gratified by the impact The Piano Guys are making on people of all ages. He said he thinks there’s a lot of music made with no more intention than to make money, that if you compare some of the other music videos  with the comments left on The Piano Guys’ videos (a couple thousand, conservatively, post on a new release day, a thousand or more on a normal day), you can see how people are affected.

“The whole idea that you feel you can influence, you can have an impact on the world – as I’ve joined with these guys I feel like I can do that,” Schmidt said.

“It’s really diverse. I think we see the music being enjoyed by parents and children together, which we think is cool. We get a lot of feedback that kids are being inspired to get into music, which we think is a huge contribution.

Steven Sharp Nelson, September 2011 | Photo courtesy of The Piano Guys

“We’ve had everything from ‘I was thinking of committing suicide today and saw your video and realized life was worth living’ to ‘I was having a hard day then I saw your video.’”

The guys will have their chance to further their influence. In the forecast for them are a PBS special which may be filmed at summer’s end at Tuacahn Amphitheater in Ivins, guest appearances on many of the major talk shows, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Ellen and “all that,” said Anderson. “So this is gonna be a pretty big year for us, we’re excited.”

If a picture paints a thousand words, and music speaks to the soul, this story can only pique your interest in five guys, who found each other and offer a symphony best experienced in the viewing. We have embedded two of The Piano Guys’ now widely received videos, Peponi, one of their earlier ones, and Me and My Cello, their most recent filmed last week in St. George and published on March 30.

Enjoy, and visit the guys at any of these links:

The Piano Guys YouTube Channel.

Become a Piano Guys Founder and get their Limited Edition Piano Guys Album (YouTube Hits Vol. 1).


Follow The Piano Guys on facebook.

Follow The Piano Guys on Twitter.
St. George News:

email: [email protected]

twitter: @JoyceKuzmanic

Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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  • brian April 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Great story. Thanks Joyce.

  • Mark April 4, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Awesome story about an awesome (very talented) group. Thanks guys for sharing your amazing talents!

  • clavierkid May 6, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Nice, but WHAT HAPPENED TO THE FAZIOLI?! Jon Schmidt, on a Yamaha? Sure, they’re fine, but NOTHING beats a Fazioli… not even a steinway!

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