By Mary L. Holden
Whatever inspired Aristotle to say, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” may have been ancient Greece’s equivalent to the music made by The Piano Guys.
Music is math-based, so let’s write an equation: Jon Schmidt + Steven Sharp Nelson = The Piano Guys. One plus one is two, right? Well, in the case of this group, the math doesn’t match the lyrics of the story! While there is only one literal “piano guy,” there are actually five “Piano Guys” in all. The two musicians in the group (Schmidt—the pianist, and Nelson, a cellist) include three more on their team: Paul Anderson (producer/videographer), Tel Stewart (videographer/editor) and Al van der Beek (music studio technician).
The Piano Guys have a take on music that is a bit different. The two musicians match different songs or compositions together in very creative ways. Think of Vivaldi’s music marrying the soundtrack from “The Bourne Identity.” Think Coldplay’s “Paradise” under the influence of Africa. Think cellos on “Star Wars.” These musicians have taken the concept of addition to an entirely new level—perhaps an entirely new playing field!
Since we’re all about math, let’s explore the power of one. Jon Schmidt got started with music when he was in junior high school. “I was very inspired by Billy Joel,” he said. Joel had just put out his first album at the time. “I tried to learn some of his songs, and it helped me realize how to play by ear and how to compose. And that was probably one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life—to have something positive to consume [my] time … and then actually turn it into a professional career. I started writing songs, putting out CDs … and people started buying them and before I knew it, I had a thousand people showing up to hear me play the piano. I was selling tickets and making some good money in college.”
Here are more numbers that The Piano Guys like: 1,917,979 and 20,720. Their version of “Bring Him Home” (from “Les Misérables”) had 1,917,979 views and 20,720 likes on YouTube at press time.
Schmidt answered some questions about The Piano Guys for MyLIFE magazine.
MyLIFE: You met Steven Sharp Nelson when he was 15 years old. Tell us about your 20-year friendship.
Schmidt: He was 15 years old when I first heard of him. I’m actually 10 years older. He was playing backup cello for a local artist at a benefit concert we were doing, and I was impressed. I asked him to play a tune on my set. Pretty soon, we were doing all my shows together. He does something that nobody else does—the way he plays his cello. He’ll hit it like a percussion instrument. He’ll pull out a tape drum and be playing along that way. And then he has electric cellos … with extra strings on them. It’s amazing—he’s a one-man symphony at the end of the day. Pianists and guys that do what I do are a dime a dozen, but when I had the chance to join together with Steven and we became a team [with Anderson, Stewart and van der Beek], all of a sudden we had something that was one of a kind—and it’s been a real cool ride.
MyLIFE: Congratulations on your debut album, released in October. Your sound is a blend of classical music and pop. Did that happen by accident or is that how you planned it?
Schmidt: My parents are German immigrants and I was raised on classical music—but then being introduced to Billy Joel, who is a rock pianist—I was able to bring those two elements into my life, to have them in the music that I wrote and I arranged. It’s the same for Steve—he’s very classically oriented and he also grew up listening to the music on the radio. Then Al van der Beek—he produced his own albums—his genre was more hip/hop. So we have all these things coming together as we write.
MyLIFE: What kind of feedback do you get on your music?
Schmidt: Every time we release a song, we get thousands of comments. One of my favorite ones is from people who tell us that their kids introduced them to our music. That’s something that’s really cool to hear.
MyLIFE: What things outside of music are important to you? To the group?
Schmidt: We are all family guys—and that is number one for us. We’re all a little bit older. In fact, when we signed with Sony, we told them that we don’t want a record deal unless we can put our families first. We feel that is the greatest source of our inspiration. If we can keep the important things in play, then we write our best music—then we give our best performance. We feel like we’ve experienced a lot of miracles—and you know, we really rely heavily upon our faith.
MyLIFE: You mentioned something special about one of your listeners. What is that story?
Schmidt: We did a music arrangement for “Bring Him Home” and we dedicated it to families of troops and people that have families serving overseas. We got a YouTube comment that came in from a guy serving in Afghanistan that said something like, ‘when I listen to this, it just really strengthens me—and I listen to it often—and it’s something that I share with my family—and they listen to it.’ Just to hear him say that brought him strength is amazing.
Return now to Aristotle and his observation about sums and parts and the concept of the whole. Now check out the music of The Piano Guys and the team’s cinematography that matches the mood in this rendition of “Code Name Vivaldi” at youtube.com/watch?v=09RUuTAM2H0. Think urban landscape, espionage, speeding trains: in sound! There, now. It could make you wonder if the great philosopher might wish he were alive today, so he could listen too.