Inside the Music with The Piano Guys

Interview with The Piano Guys

The Piano Guys are a musical group known for their innovative piano and cello arrangements of popular songs, blending classical, pop, and rock genres. We were lucky enough to catch up with pianist Jon Schmidt, and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson to discuss their music upbringings, how The Piano Guys formed, how they craft their unique arrangements, and more.

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Interview with The Piano Guys

Sheet Music Direct ("SMD"): Firstly, we'd love to know - what were your very first experiences with music when you were children?

Jon ("J"): I started when I was about six years old, and I was the youngest in a family of five kids. And I saw all my older brothers and sisters, you know, do music and take piano. And I just fell in line. It was just something that you did. And I had a German mom and I learned very early that you don't argue with German moms! They say you have to practice and you will like it. And so I practiced and I didn't like it. But after a couple of years, I started to love it. So thank goodness for my mom!

Steven ("S"): You know, there's a lot of similarities in Jon's and my family. We grew up with parents that understood the value of classical music and the nutritional value for the soul of classical music, but also for the work ethic - the value of learning an instrument and doing hard things and and putting yourself in a position where you were up against something that was not fun but had incredible rewards associated with it. And so our parents saw through the veil that we couldn't see through and mandated it to an extent. I always say that my dad believed in freedom of choice. He gave me two choices. He said I could play a classical instrument and eat, or not. Those were my two choices. And how grateful I am for a prescient father and mother that could see forward into a better future for me by insisting with incentives. I think they primarily used incentives. I called them threats at times, you know, but I think there was a benevolence to it, and there was a real urgent desire for them to see through that we would pursue something that would develop us in a way that would make our life better.

I had this wonderful blend of a mother, who was a lyrical soprano, and when she sang it, it would transport you. It was so transportive and I would look around at people when they listened to her sing, and I saw her take them to a better place every time she would perform. And I wanted that in my life. And then I had this father who understood the intellectual aspect of music. He was a violist, but I don't hold that against him! But he just truly appreciated classical music in and out. He knew why the second movement was the Largo, and why was it a Largo? And what the significance of that was in a symphony setting. He knew that the string quartet was the most compact ensemble a composer could utilize in order to complete a chord. And he would teach me this intellectual side. So I had the passion, I had the intellect coming from both sides of me. So I really had this wonderful culture of music appreciation in my home and I couldn't help but pick up on it.

So I started on the violin when I was six, and I am ADHD, and was diagnosed in middle school. We didn't truly understand what was going on, but I couldn't get comfortable with an instrument attacking my neck and I would get fidgety. And my brother was playing it and we were Irish twins. And so he's less than a year older than I am, and he was excelling at it. And I lived in his shadow, and there were so many different aspects of this that were wrong. And so, after a year I said, "I quit, dad, I can't do this anymore." He said, "Okay." And I said, "Oh, wow, that was easy." The next day he brings home a cello. And I said, "No, no, I told you, I quit." He said, "Yeah, you did. You quit the violin. Here's your next instrument." And I sat down with the cello, and there was this premortal spiritual connection with this instrument that I cannot deny.

    When a child connects with an instrument in a meaningful way, it's like turning up a master switch and their entire life is illuminated."

Even though I fought tooth and nail for so many years on not wanting to practice inside, my father would always call my bluff when I threatened to quit on the cello because he knew it would never happen. Because inside I knew this was my soul mate, my musical soul mate. And I remember as it rested against my heart, it resonated my entire soul, and I knew I would forever be changed as a result of making friends with this new instrument. And I've never looked back. The cello has always been such a big part of who I am, what I do, and what I want to become. And Jon and I are both huge music education advocates. We believe that if a parent wants to teach their child how to do hard things and wants to develop both sides of their brain in an incomparably beneficial way, I don't believe there is anything better out there than music education for the welfare of our children's mental wellness. Psychological flexibility, and for their learning across all aspects of their life. I call it a master switch. When a child connects with an instrument in a meaningful way, it's like turning up a master switch and their entire life is illuminated. As a result, every aspect of who they are, what they do, and what they want to accomplish is bettered and more illuminated as a result of their connection to music education.

SMD: That's beautiful, and it's so beautiful to hear of that connection you felt with the cello. Jon, I'm curious, did you have an initial connection with the piano, and did you try any other instruments outside of piano?

J: I didn't ever do anything besides piano. And the first two years were rough. I was reading the finger numbers. And after the first book, I realized that I couldn't read notes and had to start all over again. It was just a rough start. I fooled my teacher into thinking I was reading notes, and I think that that was one reason why, when I taught piano students, that I really focused on trying to make sure that they were reading the notes. But I remember one time I was playing the Bach Prelude in C (that famous piano prelude that everybody plays), and I was playing for my older sister, who was my teacher, 11 years older than me. I don't think she ever got paid for a lesson, but she was studying piano performance at BYU, and she was the best pianist in the family. And I remember for some reason, she was trying to be secretive about it, but I remember her commenting to somebody else that was in the room about how impressed she was with the emotion that I was putting into it. I must have been like nine years old or something, and she was busted. I caught her raving about the emotion that I was putting into it, and I could tell in her countenance that she was just moved by what was happening. And that made a huge impression on me.

I started to believe that I could create something that was beyond mechanics, beyond the notes, something that later on I realized goes into more of a spiritual or emotional realm, and that I don't know if there's anything better. I think that such an amazing opportunity for us to create art with music, and I think it's one of the best things a kid can experience. It's such a high to teach kids and see them access this extra level. Sort of like when you hit star power on a video game or whatever. All of a sudden it just jumps. And when you see how that affects and the joy that that brings to a kid that you're teaching, it's just awesome. It's such a boost to somebody's confidence.

SMD: That's incredible. You both obviously come from extremely musical families, so it sounds like they're huge inspirations. But just outside of your families, were there any other musical inspirations throughout your journey?

S: I will never forget seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform for the first time. My father would drag me to the symphony, and again, being ADHD, it was purgatory for me to an extent. Even though I loved the music, it was so hard for me to sit still. I heard that music, and I'm not a dancer, but I wanted to just do something with that music. You know, run around to it, act it out, transcribe it, or play along with it. And I remember watching the symphony players and I didn't really understand gravitas at that time in my life. You know, sobriety in the appropriate setting. They just looked like they were all in a bad mood. They looked like they were not having fun at all. And I just didn't understand that. But when I saw Yo-Yo Ma perform, he emoted in such a sincere, sublime way that it struck me as a young boy. I pointed right at him, and I said, "I want that. I want to do that." And it changed me, because he would smile when he performed and he would interact with the other musicians. I remember in the third movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, which is one of the finest pieces of music ever written, there's this transcendent cello/violin duet, where the concertmaster would play this incredible solo that just climbs the height and has these wonderful shifts that just would elevate you. And I remember he would look over at that concertmaster and he would smile. He would almost dance as he would sit in the chair back and forth. And I thought, "this conversation is something that I want to be a part of." It was no longer a monologue. It was this dialogue that was so alive and so electric, and it was captivating. It was contagious. It was something that drew you in. It was a catalyst for me and my desire to incorporate more music socially in my life, which is a saving grace with music.

    So if I could truly do what I wanted to do, it was to blend Yo-Yo Ma's passion and wonder about music with Victor Borge's self-deprecating funniness. And that's exactly what I've tried to do with the Piano Guys."

The easiest way to kill off your desire to make music part of your life is to isolate yourself. To play at a wall and to only practice and never perform, or only play alone and never with other musicians. As if you would take a log from a fire and put it out by itself in the wind, it just doesn't last long. The fire cannot last. It is when I saw Victor Borge in concert that I finally put the pieces together because I noticed something. Even as a perceptive, I was a precocious, perceptive child. Yes, there was hyperactivity and inattentiveness that would cover that up sometimes, and there was some precociousness there, too. But I looked around and I noticed out of perception that the same people would come back to these symphony concerts. It was the same sort of person that would be in the audience every time, except when Victor Borge showed up. I noticed the audience change. And he was able to invite people into the symphony hall that I had never been there before. And immediately I said, "how is he doing this?" And by the end of the concert, I knew instantaneously how he did it. He used humor and an accessible personality that was self-deprecating. And that would make fun of things that were so inaccessible and so serious that it would break the fourth wall. And I said, "I want to be able to invite people into a symphony hall that normally would not step foot in there. I want to use humor in concert with music to create a setting in which people feel so at ease that they could bring their heaviness and walk away lighter." So if I could truly do what I wanted to do, it was to blend Yo-Yo Ma's passion and wonder about music with Victor Borge's self-deprecating funniness. And that's exactly what I've tried to do with the Piano Guys. And at times I've succeeded. Maybe at times I've failed. But it's certainly my intent with what we've been trying to accomplish.

SMD: That's fantastic. Steve, hearing that experience and you bringing that into your performances. And I think that perfectly segues into the question of how the Piano Guys first came about?

S: So, Jon always lets me tell this story, because I'm the cellist of a group called the Piano Guys. That doesn't make any sense! It's because we started as a little piano store in a tiny town called Saint George in southern Utah, and our intent was to do a favor for this piano store owner, Paul, who was a friend of ours, to sell some pianos by doing some music videos. Putting cellos and pianos in crazy places, including the Seven Wonders, to open people's eyes anew to these instruments that have been around for hundreds of years. It's the Victor Borge model - let's do something different and let's invite more people into this. And the intent was to sell pianos, but in reality, that sort of fell by the wayside. And what ended up happening is this resonated with so many people and struck a chord, so to speak, that we focused all our efforts on creating more music videos, and we combined classical and pop music because we learned that it was sort of the green smoothie approach.

It's difficult sometimes to get people to eat a vegetable they don't think they like. To have someone sit down at a spinach salad is kind of ambitious, especially when there's not a lot of dressing and not a lot of toppings. However, you put that spinach into a fruit smoothie and anybody would drink that. And I feel like that's what we've done. We haven't tried to adulterate classical music. We haven't tried to water it down or make it less than it is, because it's so grand. We've just made it in a way where we've picked the highlights and made it more palatable, so that people could ingest that nutrition and draw them into classical music. One of my favorite comments on some of our YouTube videos is, where we’ve used a snippet of a piece, and someone says "I've never heard this piece, but I went and listened to the full version and I'm captivated by it." And so I hope that people, when they look at us, can recognize that even the elites of classical music that don't like when people meddle with it, can recognize that we've invited more people in and invited them into more nutrition in their playlist. Because only listening to pop music in your life is like only eating donuts in your life. It's really enjoyable until the crash hits, until you realize that your body is dying off. But listening to only classical music, you might miss out on some of the fun sugar that's out there. And so we really believed in a balanced, holistic approach where you're drawing from so many different genres that your mind expands instead of contracts, and your body is more healthy and nutritionalized, rather than instead insisting on focusing on only one thing.

SMD: Love that. Speaking of the green smoothie, I think it's a perfect segue into your arrangements, which are all so unique and amazing. We'd love to hear more about how you approach selecting the songs and how you approach crafting the arrangements.

J: I think our kids are a big factor. The best is when you put something out and your kids are like, "I love this." Or their friends. That's like the mother lode right there. And we've got, what? Nine kids between us, Steve? I would say it's really a collaborative effort. I know in the Schmidt house, it's my wife and my kids. We're all in this. And that's how we pick what we pick.

SMD: I'm sure it's not a short list from all the family members! How do you take that list and select what you're going to do?

J: You kind of resonate with certain songs. You try all the suggestions out, and the magic hits. You know when it hits, and you know when it's not there. You take the ones that have the magic and you go have fun with it. One of my favorite things to feel is, when you're led by that inspiration, we call it "chills up" when you get those chills up your spine. The good chills. Not the scary chills down your spine. And that's what we look for. And when I'm arranging, I love to try lots of options. I'll try the verse and I'll come up with ten different options and then pick my favorite. That's something that's super enjoyable to me.

SMD: So, when you're riffing through these ten versions, Jon, is it just you, or are you and Steven together just kind of riffing?

J: Sometimes we write together, sometimes we write separately. But one thing that I loved was in fifth grade - I had a teacher who whipped out Mozart's 12 variations of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" - she was trying to do a demonstration on creativity. And after she had played this, she looked at me and she's like, "I'll bet you could play this song." And I'm like, "Mozart, are you kidding? No way." And she went out and she bought the sheet music. Just the coolest elementary school teacher. And just the fact that she believed in me. My practice went from a half hour to, like, an hour or more or maybe two hours. And I worked on this because she had faith in me, and I got probably twice as good at the piano in a matter of months because of all the time that I was putting in learning all variations of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." And when I played it for the class and the class went crazy, I was hooked. You know, this whole idea of being able to play the piano for people and have them get excited, that was so cool. What a cool, life-changing experience. But one residual from that was that I am really enamored by this whole idea of variations. Whether I'm writing an original tune or arranging, I love to try on the repeat to do a little variation and make it a little different. And sometimes it's nice to do it exactly the same. You try and sense when it's one of those times somebody wants it exactly like they heard it the time before. Trying to get a feel for that over the years has been a real fun thing for me.

SMD: That's awesome. You guys have been performing for quite some time now. Are there any favorite moments you can recall from all of your performances or highlights that just stand out from all of your shows?

S: Well, walking out onto the stage of Royal Albert Hall to a sold out crowd was something I'll never forget. Same with Red Rocks. It's just these venues that were inspired when they were built. Queen Victoria spared no expense to dedicate the Royal Albert Hall to her late husband, in such a beautiful way. And then Red Rocks, like, who came up with that in the early 1900s to think, "let's make this an amphitheater." Sydney Opera House, Paris L'Olympia. These places have been the stage to far better musicians than Jon and I will ever be, and have also had audiences that have been emotionally captivated. I think there's a residual spirit that really lives in places like that. We’ve been lucky enough to play in places where I think there's been a tremendously positive spirit associated with the performer and audience being connected and edified together through that dialogue that I mentioned before. There's been music video moments when I'm on the edge of a cliff in the sun, with the spray of the ocean wave hitting, and it's just one of those moments where I'm like "man, I'm so glad my mom and dad made me practice." And my message to parents out there is that your child will have a moment when they will say that they feel like they're flying as they're playing their instrument. Or they'll have that moment that Jon had where an audience just reacts in such a wonderful way to their performance. And they'll think to themselves, "I'm glad, my mom and dad made me practice." I would hope that everybody has that moment, has had that moment, or will have that moment in the future. And for teachers too, I think it's hard for them to see that they make a difference in the lives of their students, because that difference might be small and imperceptible, but it leads to great and grand things. Both Jon and I can credit and thank the teachers that have made a difference for us. And so, though it may be imperceptible, I just want to tell teachers out there that we love you, we're grateful for you, and you're making far more of a difference than you could ever perceive or even imagine.

    Though it may be imperceptible, I just want to tell teachers out there that we love you, we're grateful for you, and you're making far more of a difference than you could ever perceive or even imagine."

SMD: Really appreciate that. Quickly, just going to your popularity that's spun up on YouTube, do you guys have any advice for aspiring musicians about how to get themselves noticed?

S: What comes to my mind initially is that we make the mistake of seeking attention through art, and it's a dead end. And Jon and I felt that dead end. And we want to really stress that if you're seeking being popular or getting attention, it will not last and you will find yourself depressed, despondent, and discouraged. If you're chasing after the algorithm, it will change tomorrow, and you will find yourself depressed and discouraged. If you get a viral hit and try to chase that feeling for the rest of your life, you will feel empty. It is more about your core desire and reason for creating in the first place. Is it to connect with your divine creator within you? Is it a devotion like Beethoven's? Bach I think said it best where he said, "the two greatest purposes of music are the enlivening of the soul and the glorification of God." And for Jon and I, this is where we draw into the spiritual realm, and we hope it would never exclude or make anybody feel uncomfortable. But there has to be a spiritual purpose behind your music if you really want it to last. And that doesn't mean you have to belong to a specific religion or believe God is a certain way, but we believe that if you turn yourself over to that divine, like Beethoven says, "don't just practice your art, force your way into its secrets, because the minute you do that, you will be raised to the divine."

   If you get a viral hit and try to chase that feeling for the rest of your life, you will feel empty. It is more about your core desire and reason for creating in the first place."

I could give you mechanical advice all day long on where to upload and how often, but the mechanics fall by the wayside underneath the auspices of this one piece of advice I will give you, and that is to meditate and be prayerful about turning your life over to God, and find that he can do so much more with you and your art than you ever could. Say to yourself, "how can I make the world a better place with the art that I'm creating?" And don't be so fixated on a direct proportionality between your art and its fame, and the impact that you have. Impact is not directly proportional to fame. You do not have to be famous to make a difference. Don't be fixated on that and the attention that you're garnering. Be fixated instead on the devotional process that you're creating through art. And even if it affects one person, it's worth it. Focus on trying to inspire creation in others; trying to inspire positive feelings; trying to inspire spirituality in others; trying to inspire pushing limits and taking things out of context and finding happiness in spreading positivity and hope through your art. I think if you focus on that, it never gets old. For me and Jon, when we know somebody’s come to our concert, brought their heaviness, and left lighter, that never gets old. The touring gets old, the fame gets old, the fortune gets old. It all gets old. It all just feels so empty in the end. Do not be one of those musicians that gets to the end of their lives and has no one to share it with, and has nothing to show for it from a positive impact standpoint. It doesn't matter how much money you've made and how many followers you have if you have not made a positive difference with your art and you haven't connected with the divine through your art. And every composer that I know of that's significant enough I believe would agree with me in this sentiment.

SMD: Beautifully said, Steve. It's always so great to hear the musical journeys we've all been through. I think we can all relate to pushing through the hard part to get to the great.

J: Absolutely. I also wanted to say how excited I am about the new Piano Guys folio that Phillip Keveren arranged for easy piano. That guy is such a genius. I play through these things, and I cannot believe how intuitive he is. He is just unreal. I would have loved to have had these arrangements as a piano teacher. I'm so excited for it.

SMD: That's great to hear, and thank you so much both for your time today.

S: What a wonderful conversation it's been with you. Thanks for taking time with us today.

J: Thanks so much.

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