Featured Interview:
The Piano Guys – From Youtube To World Tour

Interview by Esther Basha (MGBH)

It started six years ago with the four God-fearing men deciding to make music videos for YouTube audiences.  During these years, they developed deep friendships, travelled the world together, and created inspiring audio/visual masterpieces that captivated hundreds millions of viewers and listeners.  Today, the Piano Guys are ready for their next adventure – live performances throughout the world’s best concert halls and arenas.  Paul Andersen (MGBH), Jon Smith (MGBH),, Steven Sharp Nelson (MGBH), and Al van der Beek (MGBH), sit down with Piano Performer Magazine to tell their story.

Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): The story of how you all met sounds short of a miracle. At what point of your career was each of you before forming a group? Were you looking for a change?
Paul: I’d have to admit that I’m always looking for a change. I don’t like work to be repetitive.  I was continually trying new things to keep my job exciting.  I’ve always loved photography and videography.  So before The Piano Guys I spent time taking a lot of photos of pianos I’d sell to people that had beautiful homes and had a dream to eventually put pianos outside, showing off Southern Utah.  It was awesome how it eventually led to that, then putting pianos in crazy locations all over the world! 
Steven: Only Jon (MGBH) was in music full-time.  Paul (MGBH) owned a piano store. Al was doing some studio engineering projects and freelance graphic design work. I was in a venture capital group while moonlighting as a musician.  You’re absolutely right. Our meeting, our genesis, was nothing short of a miracle.  And we feel it was for a purpose. To find and fulfill our life “missions.”

Our meeting, our genesis, was nothing short of a miracle.  And we feel it was for a purpose. To find and fulfill our life “missions.”

PPM: What was your first video about, what challenges did you face, and how did you solve them?
Steven: It was an original tune called “Michael Meets Mozart.” We actually hired out most of the video work to a good friend and fellow YouTuber. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we just went after it with all we had.  It was, in essence, our best shot at an experiment in a new way to produce music
visually.  We prayed for help, then got to work, reminding ourselves to have fun and do our best. These
are the same rules I give my children in everything they do — be it sports, music or schooling.

We prayed for help, then got to work, reminding ourselves to have fun and do our best. These
are the same rules I give my children in everything they do — be it sports, music or schooling.

PPM: Jon, please, tell our readers about your career as a pianist before The Piano Guys. Who was your first piano teacher? What venues did you perform at?
Jon: I started learning piano at the age of 7.  My first piano teacher was a lady in the neighborhood.  I took lessons for a few months, and I remember not getting it at all.  At that age, reading music was just too much for me, and I just started using my ear and read the finger numbers.  So, the first year was kind of a disaster.  And I remember the piano teacher often in tears.  So, that I think gave me a real desire when I was a teacher to try to figure out how to help kids not to experience what I had experienced.  After that first teacher, I started taking piano lessons from my older sister – 11 years older than me – the best pianist in the family.  I admire her piano skills immensely.  She can sightread anything.  He was the accompanist for the Utah Symphony Choir, and she literally could sight any piece of classical music without missing a beat.   She started with Mabel Borg Jenkins (OBM), one of whose students was Grant Johannesen (OBM), who became a world renowned concert pianist.  So, I was classically trained by her from the age of 8 till the age of 19.  I am really lucky that I was able to have that background in my family.  She encouraged me to try out for a music scholarship when I was 16 years old, and I did it because she wanted me to.

I did it with the Military piece of Chopin (OBM), and, to my surprise, I was awarded the scholarship!  And then I turned it down, because I didn’t really want to become a musician. That wasn’t on my radar at all.  At 19, I stopped training classically and was writing and doing things for fun.  I started writing music by ear as a teenager, and that kind of took over – my own creative pursuits took over my classical training.  I was always the school entertainer in high school.  Right around 21, I started to perform benefit concerts.  I started doing one for my high school that I attended to raise money for some event.  And then surrounding high schools contacted me to do fundraisers for their events.  And within a year it became a local phenomena.  It’s really strange how all these kids showed up to these piano concerts, but I did do some highly energetic things – I was still kind of a kid myself in my early twenties.  So, I think I kinda related that way.  And the music I was playing was written when I was a teenager influenced by a lot of the pop music that I was listening to.  My self-produced and self-promoted performance led to a career that grew all over my home state and, actually, surrounding states.  It became a regional act within 5-7 years.   And then I put my compositions into sheet music, and it became a bestseller in the home state of Utah, which, by the way, I have heard he more pianists per capita than any other state in the US.  So, that was a good state for me to live in, as I produced books of sheet music.  That’s how things grew.. And pretty soon I was recording more CDs.  The local radio was playing my music at Christmas time.

 She encouraged me to try out for a music scholarship when I was 16 years old, and I did it because she wanted me to.  I did it with the Military piece of Chopin (OBM), and, to my surprise, I was awarded the scholarship!  And then I turned it down, because I didn’t really want to become a musician.

PPM:  Steven, when did you start learning cello, and what was your cello career was like before forming a band?
Steven: I started cello when I was 7 years old. All my siblings played instruments. It was the Nelson way of life!  I grew up immersed in music. My first cello teacher was a very sweet woman named Kate Reaves (MGBH). She was the kind of teacher just right for a severely ADHD kid like myself who needed extra patience.  My first few years were slow, but they were meaningful.  When I switched to my next teacher who was a very prominent professional cellist, the first thing he did was rip off my fingerboard tape marks. I was mortified! But tough love was what I needed at that stage.  It was like Denzel Washington (MGBH) in “Remember the Titans,” but in a much more cello-ish sort of way. 🙂 My ADHD was my greatest weakness that turned out to be my greatest strength. Since I couldn’t apply myself to 6 hours of practicing a classical piece of music every day, I instead learned multiple instruments, learned how to improvise, joined bands, orchestras and string quartets, in which I was constantly being exposed to new music. I tried to play as much, if not more, than I practiced. If I was in front of people, I found my skills multiplied 10 fold over just playing to a wallpapered practice room. I played soccer for 8 years, and the same was true in this sport. I needed to scrimmage to apply the skills I was learning. We need to scrimmage more in music. The more informal, even spontaneous opportunities we have to play in front of people or in a group setting, or for a music video, the more likely we are to feel purpose in our progression which can catalyze it more than adding more hours to our practice sessions.

PPM: Steven, in your videos you play a traditional brown cello, a stunning white one, and even an acoustic one. Are they all yours or do you borrow them for the shoots? How many cellos do you own and what specific purpose does each one of them fulfill?
Steve: I now have 29 cellos! I know. Its ridiculous. But they each have a different sound and different personality. I name them all!  And I experiment with them all in different ways to create the layers of sound you hear in our music.

 I now have 29 cellos! I know. Its ridiculous. But they each have a different sound and different personality. I name them all!

PPM: Al, your bio mentions that you also play piano.  Besides being the producer and the fashion police of the band, do you also contribute to the music aspect of The Piano Guys?
Al: I grew up in a very musical home.  All 7 children learned to play instruments – mine was violin. We all sang together in four part harmony and performed as a family. I started songwriting when I was about 14 years old and play several instruments by ear (guitar, piano, drums).  My main role in the group is music producer and songwriter.  I also am featured vocally on many of our tracks.

PPM:You started out with a mission to create inspiring music videos. What made you think of starting performing live?
Al: Our manager thought it would be a good idea, and we agreed. 😉 Nothing can replace the thrill of being in front of a live audience. Part of who we are and our mission, is fulfilled by meeting our fans face-to-face and hearing their inspiring stories.

Nothing can replace the thrill of being in front of a live audience. Part of who we are and our mission, is fulfilled by meeting our fans face-to-face and hearing their inspiring stories.

PPM: In how many locations have you shot your performance videos so far and where were they?
Steven: If you go to YouTube and search the Piano Guys, click on our channel to find out!

PPM: It looks like a big logistical complication to bring a grand piano to location. How do you work out these details?
Jon: Luckily, Utah is a very diverse state as far as scenery.  And the majority of our videos have been filmed in Utah.  Paul with his store has been a huge asset, because he had all the equipment for transporting pianos.  And it is amazing how you can just take legs off of piano, put it on its side, wrap it up, put it on an 8-wheel piano dolly, and it’s amazing where it can go.  With 6 or 8 guys, you can push it over rocks and uneven ground.  So, you get the trailer as close to the location as possible, and then you go the rest of the way with piano dollies. If you happen to be in the sand dunes like we were with one video, then we would put the piano dolly on a wooden plank and leapfrog a wooden plank in front of it and go on like that.  We did that with a piano for about a length of a football field from the trailer to the place where we wanted to film for a video called “Don’t You Worry, Child, ” which was filmed in the sand dunes in Utah, but it looked like we were in the middle of India.

And one time we went and bought cables at Home Depot, and Paul had a friend that had a helicopter.  We attached one end to the helicopter and tied the other end to the piano that was wrapped up and tied a big granny knot, crossed out fingers, said a prayer and said, “Well, if it falls, at least we’ll have a viral video,”  But it didn’t, and we lifted it up to a 1000 ft cliff.

When we are outside of Utah, luckily, we can just call somebody and let them worry about it.  In China, somebody arranged for us to have a crane to get it onto one part of the Great Wall of China.  And then they arranged to have 30 guys to literally carry it to the spot on the Great Wall of China where we wanted to film.  And again, they carried it for about a football field, up steps. That was quite amazing!

In Hawaii, Paul knew a piano store owner and was able to talk him into carrying a piano.  Ten guys carried a piano – from the road onto the beach.  Yeah, it’s real blue collar, but it’s been quite the adventure!

PPM: How many people are involved in production and post-production of your shoots?
Paul: I like to keep things simple, so we can get things done quickly.  We want to get back to our families as soon as possible.  So, most of our videos were filmed in under a day, sometime only in a few hours.  A typical video shoot would include Jon, Steven, Al, and myself.  Then Shaye Scott (MGBH) – a second cameraman, Kyle Fisher (MGBH) who films the Behind The Scenes, then Jeremy (MGBH) and Frank (MGBH) who move the piano and help with anything else.   After filming, editing usually takes 1 to 2 weeks depending on how complicated the shoot was.

PPM: What was the most challenging video shoot for you so far and why?
Paul: All the Wonders of the World have been extremely challenging, but the most difficult is tied between Fight Song in Scotland, Jungle Book in Mexico, and How Great Thou Art in Brazil. I could write a book on all the challenges we face in putting a piano in places they’ve never been before. That’s definitely one of our biggest challenges we face when filming.  It’s weird to me that some people just don’t want to move a piano to crazy locations, I don’t get it. 😉

PPM: When did you start touring, and where was your first live performance as the Piano Guys?
Steven: Our first live performance as an official group was in Utah (where we all live) in 2011.  Jon and I had been performing together for many years, so there it was more of a brand change and an infusion of new music into our set list.

PPM: Who books your performance tours and what is it like to have such an intensive
performance schedule?
Al: We have fabulous managers and booking agency. It’s very hard for us to be away from our families for more than 2-3 weeks at a time. We wish we could tour more, but being husbands and fathers is our priority.

We wish we could tour more, but being husbands and fathers is our priority.

PPM: Paul, everything started in your piano store. Do you still own it? 
Paul: I don’t own the store anymore.  I probably could’ve sold it for a lot of money, but didn’t have the time, because the videos started taking off, and we started doing a lot more shows.  I loved spending time with the other guys so much though that piano sales were declining.  Things were touch and go for awhile there, but once we launched our Founders program, where people were able to donate to us, that gave us all a boost to know that this was something we could invest more time in.

PPM: Who chooses your repertoire, and what is your daily rehearsal schedule like?
Jon: This has been quite a journey in the last six years since we’ve started.  We’ve produced so much new music.   The Piano Guys put out new sixty videos at that time, which averages out ten a year.  That was even more intense at the beginning, and that does not include album releases that weren’t videos or concert music that we’ve learned.  So, it’s been six years of intense practicing.  It’s just like nothing I have ever experienced in my whole life.  My family is just amazed at how much I have been at the piano in the last six years.  It’s really incredible, especially when you have a video deadline when you have to look like you’ve played your song your whole life and just forget about everything for the video shoot.   And we have used sheet music only once with a couple of vocalists, but as far as the performance, we feel like it helps significantly the feeling of the performance not to be looking at sheet music.  I always start with the hardest parts, because I know it’s gonna take a month at least, two months sometimes, hundreds of hours to get those, and knowing that in all likelihood I will probably be performing these at some point live.  So, it’s another reason to invest a lot of time.  And when there is a deadline, I look back over the last six years, there is a lot of all day rehearsals from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed, and luckily, I can go hour after hour without a break and just keep going.  But after two or three years of this, I started getting some back muscle issues.  I do finger stretching and finger exercises to keep my fingers strong. Luckily, I haven’t developed any tendonitis. It’s just a huge miracle to be able to avoid injury with all the practicing I am doing.  I feel like it’s part of a mission of sorts.   I look at the comments that come in on the videos, and a lot of them say that the music has been inspiration or it has been a comfort, and that is the biggest motivation for all of us –  that we feel that it’s provided a real positive in people’s lives.   And we actually feel it – kind of a  spiritual calling with what we are doing as well.  Especially, as we read people’s comments – it’s unbelievable and gratifying.   And getting ready for concerts, for me maybe takes longer than most, but I feel a real obligation to people who pay significant ticket prices.  And I have to say on the side note that the prices that people pay for concerts is embarrassing to me, but promoters work with booking agencies, and for promoters to be interested, there has to be a certain price level that is kind of set, and it’s out of our control.  So, it’s a labor of love, it really is.  But some songs have required hundreds of hours – 300-400 of hours to perform as single songs.

PPM: You have over 6,000,000 subscribers and over 1,502,950,188 views on YouTube. Would you share a few marketing tips with someone who is just trying to get their channel out?
Paul: Be willing to take risks, work really hard, study what other Youtubers are doing. Then find what interests you personally, and put your own spin on it.  Study all you can about the major sharing platforms that most people are using at the time. They all have certain strategies that help get your content seen more and really study and learn about how their algorithms work.  What’s great is that all the information you could ever want is on Youtube!

PPM: How does one sponsor one of your videos and what is a minimum contribution?
Paul: We’ve been really picky with sponsorships in the past, just so we can keep control of what we put out there, but I think we are getting more open to them going forward.  Just email support@thepianoguys.com and we can go from there.  Every deal is different on pricing, but we’ve tried to cater to everyone.  We even have our own club where individuals can get their name at the end of a video. You can check it out on our website ThePianoGuys.com.  It’s called TPG Living Room, or Club VIPG. It’s really affordable!

We even have our own club where individuals can get their name at the end of a video. You can check it out on our website ThePianoGuys.com.  It’s called TPG Living Room, or Club VIPG. It’s really affordable!

 

PPM: Please, share a story or two that happened during one of your travels together.
Al: We are like brothers, so we love to prank one another.  One time we played a prank on Jon where Steven pretended he got severely cut by one of his cello strings.  When Jon came back stage, Steven was moaning in pain and clinching his hand that we had covered in ketchup.  We told him that Steven couldn’t continue the concert and that Jon would have to do the second half by himself.  After a few minutes into the prank we started to laugh, and Jon was relieved he didn’t have to perform alone.

PPM:  What role does spirituality play in your life and how does having a relationship with God help you cope with challenges and dark moments? 
Jon: Spirituality plays a huge role in all our lives.  I remember reading a book of an artist named Minerva Teichert (OBM), and she said in that book that she never picked up a brush without saying a prayer asking for help from God and inspiration.  And whenever she ran into a problem in her painting, she would turn to prayer.  And I say to myself, “I am an artist like her. Maybe I don’t do a tool brush, but I use music. Why don’t I do it!”  And from that time forward, I started praying before I start to write.  And that has been a huge blessing!  It’s amazing how many times I can even get up off my knees, and a musical solution is playing in my head that is totally unanticipated after spending an hour or two sometimes of struggling to find a solution.  And Boom! There it is! And that has happened so many times! It’s a real testimony in my mind of a power of prayer.   And the solutions that we’ve had together, too… It’s really great to all share this faith-based approach in our writing.  Together we all do that, we all do the exact same thing.  We pray before shows, pray that people can feel inspired and comforted, and all of the things that music has the power to do.  We believe that music is one of the ways of God to reach out to his children, one of thousands of different ways, to comfort them, to inspire them, to give them faith. And we feel deeply honored to be involved in that.  We feel a sense of mission that I think is #1 on the list of motivations for why we are doing what we are doing.  I would have to say that the whole concept of comfort is a big priority in God’s mind.  And it’s an honor to be involved.

I remember reading a book of an artist named Minerva Teichert (OBM), and she said in that book that she never picked up a brush without saying a prayer asking for help from God and inspiration.  And whenever she ran into a problem in her painting, she would turn to prayer. And I say to myself, “I am an artist like her. Maybe I don’t do a tool brush, but I use music. Why don’t I do it!”

PPM: What is your collective artistic dream as a music band?
Steven: Oscar Hammerstein (OBM) once said, “It is a modern tragedy that despair has so many
spokesmen, while hope has so few.” Our dream is that our music can reach as many people as possible and be a “spokesman” for hope. That, as people listen and watch, they feel the worth of their own souls; and as Handel (OBM) once said, “they aren’t just entertained, but bettered.”  As they listen and watch, we hope they can feel gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for God’s love, for family, and for all that is good in this world.

Oscar Hammerstein (OBM) once said, “It is a modern tragedy that despair has so many
spokesmen, while hope has so few.” Our dream is that our music can reach as many people as possible and be a “spokesman” for hope.

PPM: Where do you go out to eat when you are travelling? What foods does each of you like?
Al: Most of us are very healthy eaters and eat clean foods that give lots of energy.  Paul loves Mc Donald’s or anything else fast food.  We make green smoothies after every show and love to eat at local favorites. Some of our favorites are sushi, Thai food, Indian, and Korean food.

PPM: In one of your videos you perform in an ice cave.  Please, tell our readers about that video shoot.
Paul: The set was built in Midway, Utah.  It actually wasn’t the coldest shoot we’ve been on, but we usually use a portable heater to keep Jon and Steven’s fingers warm, so they could play.  Other than that we’d just bundle up.  The instruments don’t stay in tune real well in the cold.  Luckily, we pre-record all the music in the studio, so things always sound great in the videos!  We just happened to have a white broken digital grand piano left over from my store, so it just seemed obvious to freeze it for that shoot.  The people that built the city of ice carved the cello for us the day before the shoot. They were awesome in helping us out, letting us have the run of the place. You can check out their work on their website here: http://www.icecastles.com

We filmed it in a day and a half. We had about twelve people on set as we filmed. We hired a drone operator for that shoot, because I hadn’t learned to fly them yet.  We also rented the RED cameras on this shoot to try them out.  We’ve gone back to filming on our little DSLR since then as it makes filming a lot more simple.

PPM: Do your families get together during weekends, holidays or birthdays?
Al: Occasionally we’ll do things outside of work, but because we spend so much time together as a group, we don’t get together outside of work very often. We feel like our “guy” time is when we’re on tour. When we’re home, we spend as much time with our families as possible.  We love it most when our wives/families can join us on tour.

PPM: Please, tell our readers about your creative process.  Who is involved in writing and arranging music?
Jon: Steven, Al, and I do the music end of things.  Paul has a little bit of input as well, but mainly he is on the video side.  There is a lot of praying for ideas. I know when we get a good idea because it feels like something that we refer to as “chills up,” “chills up your spine.”  We try to just have it be exclusively that.  Stuff that we just feel that is inspired.

PPM: You have an interesting approach of taking on many classical pieces and mixing them with contemporary pop hits. Which of you came up with this idea?
Jon: I would have to say that before Piano Guys, that it something that really was intriguing to me when people used classical music as a spice in their writing.  I really loved it when I would notice Billy Joel (MGBH) infusing classical elements into what he did, which he did a lot, actually.  He was a real inspiration to me.  And I know his father was a concert pianist, so he has a great respect for classical music.  Another group that did this was very inspirational to me with their early albums of original music was a group called Mannheim Steamroller.  They are famous for their Christmas arrangements, but their original music is a total blend of classical elements with the modern ones. And when I heard it, I just was lit on fire.  I remember listening to it as a teenager, and Mannheim Steamroller’s early albums kind of took my high school by storm.  It was very interesting to see how popular it became with young people.  So, I wanted to write in that same style.  And I would have to say that my compositions were very inspired with that, and I would blatantly mix classical and rock-n-roll or classical and pop.  So, that kind of was something that I established in my eight albums before the Piano Guys.  And when we came together, Steven also loved that philosophy and was well-established in classical and his knowledge.  And Al brought the elements of modern that Steven and I weren’t so familiar with.  But Al also respects classical music.  It was just a cool meeting of the minds…. As we would arrange these popular tunes that our kids loved.  As we were trying to impress our kids by arranging the tunes by the artists we loved, we just couldn’t help but going to it.  If you think of us as three chefs cooking, one of our favorite spices was classical, and we couldn’t help but go to it. And in certain circumstances, it wasn’t stylistically, where we would just add a theme by one of the classical composers right into the arrangement.   And that was just so fun.  Or if we were arranging a classical piece, it would be fun to put a modern twist on it.   And some people are uncomfortable with this.  We’ve run against criticism, “You’ve ruined Beethoven. You’ve ruined Rachmaninoff.”  A thought I have had on that, however, is that Beethoven (OBM) and Brahms (OBM) and other composers often took themes that they didn’t write and did variations.  They put their own spin on themes by other composers.  And I have been very intrigued by that kind of thing. It’s so cool to hear Mozart’s (OBM) variations on a theme that sounds like “Twinkle, twinkle little star” or Beethoven’s variations…   There are several composers that did that and they are so fun to listen to.  I have actually wrote an original piece or tune called “All of me,” and it’s been fun to see several different versions that people have done.  One guy did a minor version of “All of me.”  He took a very major upbeat piece and did it all in minor and gave it a subtitle “None of Me,” a song of… anger… So, it was just very interesting to listen to that. And I wasn’t offended in the least. So, I hope that classical composers that we’ve put a modern twist on would have liked it.

PPM: What does your concert and recording schedule look like for the upcoming year? Are there any upcoming CD releases that you would like to tell our readers about?
Jon: At the moment, we are working on a new album, which is scheduled to come out in the fall.  We are working on filming note reading.  It’s sort of like a note reading bootcamp that I developed when I was a piano teacher and seeing young students struggle with note reading the way I struggled with it when I was young using the same old methods that I think have a lot of drawbacks, to tell you the truth.  And so, I developed something that I felt was a huge improvement and tested it out to students and showed it to teachers over several years.  And then turned it into an official note-reading program that I published in a book called “67 Fun Songs.” And I’ve gotten such great reviews and great response from teachers and students on this note-reading method.  Anyway, we’ve improved it and put lots of great tweaks and formatted it for video. So, it literally feels like I am your coach.  And so, we are in the middle of filming that right now, and we are very excited.

We’ve got an Australia tour coming up. We have sold two tours in the Sidney Opera House already. This is very exciting for us. We have a summer tour up in Canada, and I hear that there is talk about a tour to the Orient. So, a really amazing year ahead!