Like many modern musical acts, The Piano Guys hit it big because of YouTube. The group — consisting of four self-described “geeky dads” from St. George, Utah — began posting videos in 2010 of themselves performing unique pop and classical mash-ups on piano and cello at exotic, breathtaking locations such as the Great Wall of China or Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue.
Today, the Piano Guys have created more than 50 videos, which together have scored more than 500 million hits on their YouTube page. Yes, that’s half a billion. Add to that more than a million Facebook “likes” and four studio albums, the most recent of which, Wonders, hit No. 12 on The Billboard 200 in October, and you’ve got a refreshingly unlikely success story.
The image of middle-aged men adding a classical touch to today’s Top 40 might inspire expectations of watered-down, New Age fluff or, worse, Muzak. But this is no elevator music: The Piano Guys’ works combine riveting and inventive arrangements, near-perfect virtuosity, and, perhaps most important, a deep understanding and passion for their history.
“We believe that all the music that we listen to today is really a descendent of classical music — it’s the great ancestor,” says Steven Sharp Nelson, aka The Cello Guy, who along with Jon Schmidt on piano makes up the majority of the live show (third and fourth members Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek are the band’s video director and music producer/songwriter, respectively). “So when we put the two together, it’s this sort of fun family reunion. It’s amazing how well the two genres do blend when they’re woven into each other.”
You can judge for yourself on Tuesday night, when The Piano Guys take the stage at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami. You’ll hear a mix of Mozart, Michael Jackson, Coldplay, One Direction, Adele, Bach, Beethoven, David Guetta, Phillip Phillips and many more, plus original songs and several other playful possibilities, including Let It Go from the Frozen soundtrack and a Charlie Brown medley.
In between selections, Nelson and Schmidt will do their best to keep things interesting, telling the stories behind the songs, videos and travel adventures, and throwing in a bit of slapstick comedy.
“Usually, when you see ‘piano/cello,’ you go, ‘Uh, oh — this is gonna be a two-hour sleeper,’ ” Nelson says. “I went to plenty of classical concerts as a kid, and I loved them, but for somebody with an attention-span problem like I have, it could be a little difficult. So we like to change our show up quite a bit. We use multi-media to our advantage — it’s kind of who we are — so we’ll have a video component to the show, and we’re not afraid to break down the Fourth Wall and simply interact with the audience.”
The age demographic for The Piano Guys’ audiences is as varied as the music, with everyone from young children to grandparents coming to see them, which is a great source of pride for Nelson.
“It’s a family-oriented show,” he says, “with nothing you’d ever have to cover your children’s eyes or ears, which is hard to find these days, speaking from a parent’s standpoint.”
That sense of moral responsibility heavily influences how The Guys choose which songs to take on.
“We have incredibly diverse tastes in music, and between the four of us, we put potential songs through two tests,” says Nelson. “One is what we call the Disney test, and that is, would we be comfortable with our children watching the original video of the cover [song], and singing the lyrics? And these days, there’s not a lot of songs that do. And then when we start working on a song, [we’re looking for] what we call a “chills-up” experience — not a kind of experience where you have chills down your spine, like something that would be chilling in a frightening way, but chills up, where it’s a lifting experience.”
Video director Anderson’s idea of shooting in exotic locales was originally meant to put pianos in places where nobody would expect to see them, in order to create a buzz and reinvent the instrument in people’s eyes. But Nelson says it quickly became much more.
“What ended up happening is, it’s this beautiful parallelism, a beautiful juxtaposition, and even kind of a visual metaphor for what we do with classical music,” he says. “We highlight and take classical melodies from their original context and put them into pop music. Or we’ll take a pop-music vibe and reinvent a piece of classical music. So not only are we taking the cello and piano out of their usual concert environment, but we’re doing that to music, too.”
“My father is a staunch classical musician, for which I’m very grateful,” he continues. “But he would never listen to Adele, Coldplay or OneRepublic, and yet now he enjoys them because they’re written in a classical context. Conversely, there are a lot of people who would never, ever touch Beethoven, Bach and Mozart with a 10-foot pole, but when you throw one of their melodies into a pop tune, all of a sudden they’re interested. So it’s kind of fun to see that happen.”