ST. GEORGE – The Piano Guys are pianist Jon Schmidt, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, videographer and editor Tel Stewart, producer and videographer Paul Anderson and recording and production specialist Al van der Beek, five Utah residents, family men and close friends. The story is one of worldwide success, a meteoric rise to fame propelled by creativity, determination, faith and a great deal of luck.
The Piano Guys idea was sparked in 2007, when Anderson, then-owner of The Piano Gallery of Southern Utah, severely injured his back and was confined to bed rest for six months. Anderson used the downtime to educate himself in social media promotion to help his business, and stumbled upon a video on YouTube by Schmidt and Sharp Nelson called “Love Story Meets Viva la Vida,” a mash-up of the Taylor Swift and Coldplay hits. He was awestruck by the collaboration and inspired to create something similar.
Anderson approached Schmidt, a frequent visitor to his store, with the idea. The pianist was reluctant to return to YouTube at first, having been forced to take down “Love Story Meets Viva la Vida” due to pressure from the original artists’ record labels. He eventually caved and they began production on their first few videos, which did not meet with much success.
The modern-classical combination “Michael Meets Mozart” received a modest amount of views from Schmidt’s existing fan base, enough to catch YouTube’s attention. The Piano Guys were entered in the “On the Rise” contest, winning “Most Up-and-Coming Channel” in June 2011. The win earned them nearly 25,000 new subscribers and jump-started their ascent to online fame. Over the next year, The Piano Guys kept producing videos every week or two, gaining thousands of fans from around the world with each new creation. They eventually all left their day jobs, devoting a majority of their time and effort to continuing their group’s rapidly growing success.
“When I started, I thought it was just going to be a fun side project and creative outlet,” Sharp Nelson said. “I never anticipated that music would be my career or that we would be as successful as we are.”
“We try to do things that have never been done before in our videos, like a cello lightsaber duel, playing piano in ways piano has never been played before or playing on top of a moving train,” Schmidt said. “People are experiencing something they’ve never seen before. It’s just amazing what we’ve been able to come up with.”
Salt Lake City native Schmidt has been playing music since he was old enough to sit at a piano, began composing his own songs at age 11 and teaching piano at 16. He enjoyed a successful solo career for two decades before joining The Piano Guys, releasing eight albums and seven music books in a variety of genres. His individual style may best be described as an eclectic blend of classical and New Age music with pop elements; he credits Beethoven, Billy Joel and Mannheim Steamroller as his main influences. He currently lives in Bountiful with his wife, Michelle Schmidt, with whom he has five children.
Steven Sharp Nelson
Also known as “The Cello Guy,” Sharp Nelson began studying cello at age 8, percussion at 12 and guitar at 17. He is a pioneer in “cello-percussion,” the unique blend of these three instruments that is a main facet of The Piano Guys’ unique compositions. With influences including Bobby McFerrin, U2, Sting and James Taylor, he has contributed as a session musician on over 100 different albums and released three of his own. Along with Schmidt, he is the main performer and public face of The Piano Guys; his quirky creativity and sense of humor can be seen in nearly all of their videos. He was born in and currently resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and their three children.
Leeds native and self-described “tech geek” Stewart studied communications with an emphasis in digital film production at then Dixie State College of Utah, during which time he worked as a piano mover for Anderson’s store. The rest was history after meeting The Piano Guys and Stewart now uses his immense talent to bring their visions to life on film. He is married with one child and lives in St. George.
Prior to founding The Piano Guys, Anderson, who was born in Blythe, Calif. and raised in St. George, worked as a salesman at a Yamaha piano dealership. He became the store’s owner in 2001 and changed its name to The Piano Gallery of Southern Utah, using his ingenuity and knack for marketing to make the business a success. Following a serious back injury in 2007 that left him bedridden for six months, he used the downtime to educate himself in YouTube and social media, which eventually sparked the idea to create uplifting, unique music videos. He funded and promoted The Piano Guys’ first releases on his own, determined to reach a worldwide audience. He still lives in St. George with his wife, Tracy Anderson, and their four children.
Al van der Beek
Born in New Zealand to Dutch and Samoan parents, van der Beek’s family moved to Utah when he was 6 years old. He gained an appreciation for music from an early age, playing and singing with his siblings. He opened his own recording studio in 2004, which he managed until becoming a full-time member of The Piano Guys, serving as producer, songwriter, sound engineer and choreographer. He lives in Sandy with his wife and family.
Since St. George News’s last report on The Piano Guys in April 2012, their success has continued to soar. They signed with Sony Records and released their major label debut album, “The Piano Guys,” in October 2012. The album, which features both the group’s unique interpretations of hits like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” as well as originals like “Code Name: Vivaldi” and “Cello Wars,” is currently the No. 1 classical album on Amazon.com.
The Piano Guys have performed on The Today Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and starred in their own PBS television special, which aired on over 600 channels across the country. To support the foreign release of their album in February, The Piano Guys have also made numerous appearances overseas, from London and Istanbul to Germany and the Netherlands.
As of March 22, 2013, their YouTube channel had 1,477,284 subscribers and 205,655,804 total video views, about twice as many subscribers as Christina Aguilera and twice as many views as Tyga. Their channel gains an average of 4,000 new subscribers every day, and each of their videos has received over 1 million views.
“Video is a big part of (what we do,)” Schmidt said. “It compliments the music and makes it more appealing. A successful YouTube channel is a pipeline to worldwide success.”
Every member of The Piano Guys will readily admit that, at first glance, they don’t fit the mold of internationally renowned musicians like the idols from their childhood they so admired; Sharp Nelson said a group of middle-aged Mormon dads aren’t exactly the “rock star type” and their success is more than they could have ever dreamt of.
“Miracle is the only explanation we can come up with,” he said. “It’s a miracle from God and we have our fan base that has been so loyal to us to thank.”
But The Piano Guys don’t just make music. They create sonic and visual masterpieces, works of art to be devoured by the ears, eyes, mind, heart and soul.
The group will launch their first United States tour in May, playing locations in over 20 states (Utah included). Schmidt said that they are planning on recording a Christmas album this year and have a second album in talks. An Asia and Australia tour are also being discussed.
“We just want to keep doing what we’re doing,” Sharp Nelson said. “I honestly believe our best song has yet to be written.”
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