Thursday, April 7, 2016

Interview with The Piano Guys: Practicing, Composing, and Great Friendships

There's a fun new group making something new by blending classical and pop music. They call themselves the Piano Guys, and if you haven't heard them before, today's the day you'll discover your new favorite YouTube channel! Read on to find out what the Piano Guys have to say about practicing, performing, and the importance of choosing good friends.

L to R: Al van der Beek (music producer/songwriter), Jon Schmidt (pianist/songwriter), Steven Sharp Nelson (cellist/songwriter), Paul Anderson (producer/videographer)
LPM: The Piano Guys gained popularity from the really fun piano and cello renditions of popular songs on your YouTube channel.  Do you think of your music as classical or pop music? Why did you decide to merge the two?

Al: Our music includes both genres. Classical music is the root of all music, so it fits perfectly with today’s pop music. We hope that by combining the two it will help introduce classical music to the younger generation in a way that is more accessible by combining it with songs they hear every day on the radio. 

We also hope that we can win over some classical purists by showing them that pop music can be pretty cool too. 

LPM: It must be working...
several of your YouTube videos have over 20 million views, which makes it clear that young people are definitely loving your music and videos! How do you think the study of classical music helps you as musicians and performers?

Al: There are many benefits to studying classical music, or any music for that matter. Music provides people with a means of self-expression and a great way to connect with others. It builds confidence and teaches discipline. 

Classical music has always been cool and you can hear it sprinkled in almost every genre. We always put the video link to the entire classical piece we used in our mashups so people can enjoy it in its true form.

LPM: Playing music isn’t always fun. Sometimes practice can be frustrating. Whether you can’t quite get the sound you want, or you can’t quite master the fingering on a certain passage.  Let’s Play Music students want to know: what do you do when practice time is frustrating? Or maybe you don't get frustrated now that you're an adult? 

Steve: I can totally relate to this. I have ADHD which has been a great blessing, but has always made practicing extra challenging for me. Some people can go hours and hours without taking a break. I can go 15 minutes before I need to take a break! So as you can guess, I take lots of breaks. :-) I’ll answer an email, do 20 pushups, say a prayer, make a phone call, run a lap — something that is short and productive, but restarts my stamina for practicing again. This works for me because my retention improves as I stop and start each time. But this wouldn’t work for everyone. The key is finding what works for you. Experiment.

Read up on what others do (hey, like you’re doing right now!) Don’t give up!! If stamina isn’t the issue but frustration is, change it up — switch from a passage that is troubling you to something else that is a little more enjoyable and then come back to it — for instance, I like to play something by ear, hone my speed pizzicato or percussion prowess, or sharpen my improv chops. 

Music shouldn’t be about perfection. It should be about progression. And joy. 

LPM: You guys "play around" with music. We like to ‘play’ in Let’s Play Music too! In your videos you're banging on different parts of the piano and everyone looks to be having a ton of fun. Is this what your jam sessions are like? What do musicians do when they hang out together? 

Paul: Yes, we definitely have fun with making music, but it's not all fun and games. There are many days where it's just really hard work, but we never give up! One thing that helps is our relationship with each other; even though we have different personalities, our goals are the same: to uplift and inspire others. 

We are different than most groups we hear about; we actually like hanging out with each other when we aren't with our families. Most venues are surprised that we will all use the same Green Room on tour instead of having our own separate rooms. We are constantly talking with each other sharing thoughts and ideas on how to become a better husband, father, and business partner. Who your friends are can really make a difference in your life, so pick good ones! 

Steve: Remember also to play as much, if not more, than you practice. Go find some friends to “jam” with, perform at a senior living center one day, in your church or school talent show, form a band, a string quartet, play weddings, play bar mitzvahs! Play at your brother’s friend’s cousin’s aunt’s birthday party! Then you are honing your performance skills along with your practice skills — and you’ll have fun because you’re sharing your talents and bringing others joy, the purest purpose of music! A shared talent grows much faster than a secluded talent. 

LPM: You guys love to travel and put pianos in crazy places! Which video was your favorite to film?

Yes, we get really excited about making videos in crazy locations and believe it keeps things fresh for us, especially in writing new music. So, some advice we can give is to look for things that create passion with your music. Change it up once in a while and try new things, stay out of your comfort zone as much as possible, and be willing to work really hard!

Each video has some really incredible memories attached to it, but the ones that stand out right now would be the most challenging ones. Most recently, filming Fight Song/Amazing Grace in Scotland! Of course, filming at the Wonders of the World was really exciting also, like The Great Wall of China, and Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.

From what we have seen, challenges are the greatest gift when it comes to filming and writing music!

LPM: Let’s Play Music trains students to hear music in their heads, like Beethoven did!  How does ‘hearing it in your head’ help you to be able to make the music you want? 

Jon: When you are hearing the music in your head, the hardest part is accomplished.  Once you hear something, then you just have to find the matching notes on the piano.  

This is something you can have fun with.  Have someone play happy birthday on the piano.  Ask them to play a wrong note intentionally.  If you can hear the wrong note, then your ear is good enough to be able to play notes you hear in your head or anywhere for that matter.  And your ear will get better and better as you practice finding notes.  Start with single notes.  High, medium and low.  Then try finding 2 notes at a time.  Then the lowest note in a chord,  the highest, a note between highest and lowest.  Then tackle a phrase in a song.  Find the melody part, then the bass part, then as many notes between the melody and the bass as you can pick out (don't worry if you can't find all of the "in-between" notes at first). 

You will get better at this with every phrase you learn.  You will get to the point where you can hear several phrases and be able to play it back on the first try.  This is how I learned to play by ear.  If I heard something cool I tried to learn it by ear: melody, then bass, then some notes in between.  You don't need to have perfect pitch for this (I don't).  You just need to be determined, and have a "can do" attitude.

LPM: Let’s Play Music students focus a lot on chords, chord theory, improvisation, and ear training.  How does your knowledge of theory help you compose and improvise?

Steve: I LOVE theory. Is that totally weird? Or geeky? I’m cool with that. :-) There’s just something so energizing about learning the fundamental language of music. Yes, you can be an extremely talented and successful by-ear musician knowing no theory. Many have proved this. But there are tremendous advantages of “music literacy.” I use it EVERY day. 

It’s like cooking — theory gives you so many ingredients to work with at the onset of a culinary creation. And more than that, it teaches you the “recipes” that many “cooks” have used in the past to make something sound delicious. After a while of cooking others’ recipes you learn what elements go well together and you begin creating your own dishes. And you can go even further by experimenting with new combinations — new spices and garnishes to season your composition. 

Theory has helped me many times to wok my way out of writer’s block. When we were potato-mashing up Disney’s “Let It Go” with Vivaldi’s “Winter,” I wanted to write a bridge that utilized a sequence to travel from one key to another. I used my theory knowledge — specifically tonicization — to figure out what key to start on and how many cycles it would take to arrive back to my home key. 

TOTALLY GEEKY, right? But way cool. And fun. 

Theory often pushes people away because at first it can seem lame. It’s like when you’re studying grammar. The study of the mechanical aspects of sentence structure is not top on my list of things to do on the weekend, but writing suspenseful short stories, lyrical poems, imaginative fiction, or motivational speeches all can soar on the time-testing principles of grammar. You just have to wade through the beginning parts of theory and grasp it as best you can, remembering that the granite building blocks comprise the     opportunities to create majestic castles!

LPM: Your 'Cello Wars' is a fantastic mix of five Star Wars songs, rearranged to tell your story, and 'Moonlight' is a piece that Steven composed, based on Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and 7th Symphony.  For all the new composers out here:  how do you compose based on an inspiring song you like?  Right now, over 1500 LPM students in the US are in their final year, and working on writing their very first piano compositions!  What advice do you have for students about writing and creating music? Is there a secret recipe for you?

Steve: Thank you so much! Starting with an inspiring song or a song you really like is such a great baseline for composing. Arranging becomes composing when you authentically infuse your personality, ingenuity, and creativity into a song. We love experimenting with a melody and a chord pattern to turn them both on their heads. 

During Cello wars, the Jedi plays the theme in its original major key, but the Sith echoes in the minor key. 

We love experimenting with rhythm too. In Moonlight we used accents and a driving four-on-the-floor feel to reinvent Beethoven’s masterpiece. When we did our version of “Mission Impossible” with Lindsey Stirling, we rewrote Mozart’s legendary Piano Sonata in C so that it was minor and in 5/4 timing to match the vibe of the MI theme. 

We also love using cultural aspects of music to approach a tune from a completely different direction — like our African spin on Coldplay’s Paradise, Indian spin on “Don’t You Worry Child,” or our Scottish influenced rendition of “Fight Song.” 

We love using Classical themes and chord structures to infuse more material into our arrangements — like when we added material from a Chopin prelude to our  “Kung Fu Piano” tune we filmed on the Great Wall of China. One of my favorite experiments was when we “recomposed” a One Direction tune (“Story of My Life”) based upon the feel of Saint Saens “Aquarium” from his “Carnival of the Animals” Suite. It became this ethereal, storybook-sounding film score that told an entirely new tale. 

Composing rocks. Don’t force it. Let it lead out. Don’t try to be someone else. Learn from others then discover your style, your groove, and your flow. Pray that your music can be of benefit to others and work at it with others in mind. Pour everything you have, everything you are, into it. Don’t get discouraged when it isn’t working. Sleep on it and try again the next day. It will come. Most of all, enjoy the process rather than falling victim to the feeling that you can’t wait till its done. Break a leg! Or, as we say in the cello world, “Break a bow hair!” :-)

A big thanks to The Piano Guys for taking the time to tell us about their creative process and their music. If you haven't watched the videos yet, check them out here. And good luck with YOUR composing!


  1. Great interview! I love the Piano Guys (and in fact, was listening to my Piano Guys playlist right before I read this) and I love LPM.

  2. Thanks for sharing! This was awesome!